David Bowie ( born David Robert Jones, 8 January 1947) is an English singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, arranger, painter, and actor. Bowie has been an influential figure in popular music for over four decades, and is renowned as an innovator, particularly for his work in the 1970s. He is known for his distinctive baritone voice as well as the eclecticism and intellectual ambition of his work. His androgynous appearance was an iconic element of his image, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s.
Bowie first came to the attention of the public in July 1969 when his song “Space Oddity” reached the top five of the UK Singles Chart. After a three-year period of experimentation he re-emerged in 1972 during the glam rock era with the flamboyant, androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust, spearheaded by the hit single “Starman” and the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie’s impact at that time, as described by biographer David Buckley, “challenged the core belief of the rock music of its day” and “created perhaps the biggest cult in popular culture.” The relatively short-lived Ziggy persona proved merely one facet of a career marked by continual reinvention, musical innovation and striking visual presentation.
In 1975, Bowie achieved his first major American crossover success with the number-one single “Fame” and the hit album Young Americans, which the singer characterised as “plastic soul”. The sound constituted a radical shift in style that initially alienated many of his UK devotees. He then confounded the expectations of both his record label and his American audiences by recording the electronic-inflected album Low (1977)—the first of three collaborations with Brian Eno over the next two years. Low, “Heroes”, and Lodger, the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” albums, all reached the UK top five and received lasting critical praise. After uneven commercial success in the late 1970s, Bowie had UK number ones with the 1980 single “Ashes to Ashes”, its parent album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), and “Under Pressure”, a 1981 collaboration with Queen. He then reached a new commercial peak in 1983 with Let’s Dance, which yielded several hit singles. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Bowie continued to experiment with musical styles, including blue-eyed soul, industrial, adult contemporary, and jungle. He has not toured since the 2003–04 Reality Tour and has not performed live since 2006. Bowie’s latest studio album The Next Day was released in March 2013.
David Buckley says of Bowie: “His influence has been unique in popular culture—he has permeated and altered more lives than any comparable figure.” In the BBC’s 2002 poll of the 100 Greatest Britons, Bowie was placed at number 29. Throughout his career, he has sold an estimated 100 million records worldwide. In the UK, he has been awarded nine Platinum album certifications, eleven Gold and eight Silver, and in the US, five Platinum and seven Gold certifications. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked him 39th on their list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”, and 23rd on their list of the best singers of all time.
David Bowie was born David Robert Jones on 8 January 1947, in Brixton, London. His mother, Margaret Mary “Peggy” (née Burns), from Kent, worked as a waitress, while his father, Haywood Stenton “John” Jones, from Yorkshire, was a promotions officer for Barnardo’s. The family lived at 40 Stansfield Road, located near the border of the south London areas of Brixton and Stockwell. Bowie attended Stockwell Infants School until he was six years old, acquiring a reputation as a gifted and single-minded child—and a defiant brawler.
In 1953 the family moved to the suburb of Bromley, where, two years later, Bowie progressed to Burnt Ash Junior School. His voice was considered “adequate” by the school choir, and his recorder playing judged to demonstrate above-average musical ability. At the age of nine, his dancing during the newly introduced music and movement classes was strikingly imaginative: teachers called his interpretations “vividly artistic” and his poise “astonishing” for a child. The same year, his interest in music was further stimulated when his father brought home a collection of American 45s by artists including Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Platters, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Upon listening to “Tutti Frutti”, Bowie would later say, “I had heard God”. Presley’s impact on him was likewise emphatic: “I saw a cousin of mine dance to … ‘Hound Dog’ and I had never seen her get up and be moved so much by anything. It really impressed me, the power of the music. I started getting records immediately after that.” By the end of the following year he had taken up the ukulele and tea-chest bass and begun to participate in skiffle sessions with friends, and had started to play the piano; meanwhile his stage presentation of numbers by both Presley and Chuck Berry—complete with gyrations in tribute to the original artists—to his local Wolf Cub group was described as “mesmerizing … like someone from another planet.” Failing his eleven plus exam at the conclusion of his Burnt Ash Junior education, Bowie joined Bromley Technical High School.
It was an unusual technical school, as biographer Christopher Sandford writes:
Despite its status it was, by the time David arrived in 1958, as rich in arcane ritual as any public school. There were houses, named after eighteenth-century statesmen like Pitt and Wilberforce. There was a uniform, and an elaborate system of rewards and punishments. There was also an accent on languages, science and particularly design, where a collegiate atmosphere flourished under the tutorship of Owen Frampton. In David’s account, Frampton led through force of personality, not intellect; his colleagues at Bromley Tech were famous for neither, and yielded the school’s most gifted pupils to the arts, a regime so liberal that Frampton actively encouraged his own son, Peter, to pursue a musical career with David, a partnership briefly intact thirty years later.
Bowie studied art, music and design, including layout and typesetting. After Terry Burns, his half-brother, introduced him to modern jazz, his enthusiasm for players like Charles Mingus and John Coltrane led his mother to give him a plastic alto saxophone in 1961; he was soon receiving lessons from a local musician. Bowie received a serious injury at school in 1962 when his friend George Underwood punched him in the left eye during a fight over a girl. Doctors feared he would become blind in that eye. After a series of operations during a four-month hospitalisation, his doctors determined that the damage could not be fully repaired and Bowie was left with faulty depth perception and a permanently dilated pupil. Despite their altercation, Underwood and Bowie remained good friends, and Underwood went on to create the artwork for Bowie’s early albums.
Bowie married Mary Angela Barnett (also known as Angie Bowie) on 19 March 1970 at Bromley Register Office on Beckenham Lane, Bromley, London. They had a son together, Zowie Bowie (now known as Duncan Jones, film director), and divorced on 8 February 1980 in Switzerland.
On 24 April 1992, David Bowie married Somali-American model Iman in a private ceremony in Lausanne. The wedding was later solemnized on 6 June in Florence. They have one daughter, Alexandria “Lexi” Zahra Jones, born in August 2000. The couple resides primarily in New York City and London.
Regarding his religion, in 2005 he said, “Questioning my spiritual life has always been germane to what I was writing. Always.” He added that he is bothered by being “not quite an atheist”. In the Esquire interview “What I’ve Learned”, he stated, “I’m in awe of the universe, but I don’t necessarily believe there’s an intelligence or agent behind it. I do have a passion for the visual in religious rituals, though, even though they may be completely empty and bereft of substance. The incense is powerful and provocative, whether Buddhist or Catholic.”
Bowie has shown an interest in Buddhism since 1967. He frequently studied in London under the Tibetan Lama Chime Rinpoche before becoming a solo artist. During a 2001 interview, Bowie claimed that “after a few months of study, he told me, ‘You don’t want to be Buddhist … You should follow music.'”
Bowie later wrote the song “Silly Boy Blue” in tribute to Rinpoche on his 1967 album David Bowie. Bowie also became a student of the Crazy wisdom Tulku Chögyam Trungpa.