A pimp's got a Caddy
And a lady got a Chrysler
Blacks got respect
And whites got his Soul Train
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(Thanks, Gary McCabe)
Founded in the 17th Century, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is a city known for its historical monuments, major museums including the Franklin Institute, and the United States' first zoo. Located in the Delaware Valley, the City of Brotherly Love (a nickname taken from the literal Greek translation of the name) is the largest city in the state and home to over four million people. Philadelphia has a rich cultural history, playing a significant role during the American Revolution as the meeting place for the Founding Fathers. Since then, Philadelphia has become a key center for economic and cultural development in the country. According to a census in 2010, Philadelphia's demographics remain predominantly African-American, a fact that has had significant influence on the culture of the city, particularly on the music scene.
In the 1970s English-born glam rocker David Bowie became obsessed with soul music. His obsession brought him across the Atlantic to Philadelphia, specifically to the Sigma Sound Studios, founded by Joseph Tarsia and often considered the home of soul during the 1970s. Here Bowie reveled in his soul obsession, turning to the likes of Luther Vandross for support and inspiration while recording the album that would become Young Americans
A seeming misnomer, considering Bowie was English, Young Americans
was his ninth studio album. Released in 1975, the album saw a departure from Bowie's signature glam rock sensibilities and the end of Bowie's glam alter egos – Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane – ending an era of theatrical stage performances as seen on his Diamond Dogs
tour. Bowie's ninth album included the “lush strings, sliding hi-hat whispers, and swanky R&B rhythms of Philadelphia Soul” as heard in local dance halls. Bowie is quoted to having described this album as “the squashed remains of ethnic music as it survives in the age of Muzak rock, written and sung by a white limey.” Bowie also described his album using a term coined by an unknown black musician in the 1960s: 'plastic soul.' As plastic or squashed as his attempt at soul music might have been, Bowie's album entered the American pop charts at No. 9 and the UK charts at No. 2.
The first single from the album is the eponymous “Young Americans.” This song is a summation of life in America, with social commentary on McCarthyism and black repression with the line, “Sit on your hands on a bus of survivors, Blushing at all the afro-sheilas,” referencing Rosa Parks. Bowie also refers to President Nixon and borrows lyrics from John Lennon, who provided background vocals on the album. The falsetto line in which Bowie asks “Ain't there one damn song that can make me break down and cry?” was arranged by Luther Vandross, who had yet to come into his own as a solo artist.
“Young Americans” was a huge success in the States and across the waters in Bowie's native England. The song reached No. 28 on the Billboard
charts and has since been ranked one of Rolling Stone
Magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. By July 1975, the album had officially reached gold status with over one million records sold. Although Bowie remains better known for his glam days of androgyny and glitter for songs like “Spaceman” and “Space Oddity,” his album Young Americans
pays homage to the soulful heyday of Philadelphia, bearing testament to the city's cultural significance, then and now.
~ Suzanne van Rooyen
Suzanne is a tattooed storyteller from South Africa. She currently lives in Finland and finds the cold, dark forests nothing if not inspiring. Although she has a Master’s degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters. Her published novels include
Dragon's Teeth, Obscura Burning, and
The Other Me. When not writing, she teaches dance and music to middle schoolers and eats far too much peanut-butter.
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