Mike Garson on Being David Bowie's Piano Man

Mike Garson heads up A Bowie Celebration, which stops at the Paramount Theatre on Tuesday, February 19.EXPAND
Mike Garson heads up A Bowie Celebration, which stops at the Paramount Theatre on Tuesday, February 19.
Steve Rose
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During the last show on the Ziggy Stardust tour at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973, David Bowie threw pianist Mike Garson a curveball. At the last minute, Bowie told Garson to play an overture of a few of his songs, like “Life on Mars,” “Changes,” "John I’m Only Dancing” and “Ziggy Stardust,” on piano before the singer came out with the rest of the band. Garson says Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Barbra Streisand were in the audience of the highly anticipated London show.

“It was nerve-racking,” Garson says. “He told me he was more nervous for me for that than he was for himself, because we were in our twenties. I had never been in such a situation. I was a jazz musician, playing small local clubs, and here I am playing for these people and opening the show, and nobody knows who the hell I am.”

Garson, who’d studied classical piano at Juilliard and honed his jazz chops with Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Lennie Tristano, first met Bowie in 1971, and would go on to be his longest and most frequent bandmember, appearing on ’70s albums like Aladdin Sane, Pin Ups, Diamond Dogs and Young Americans and later working with him through the ’90s and early 2000s. Bowie passed away in 2016.

Now, Garson is heading up A Bowie Celebration, a tour with Bowie alumni that includes guitarist Earl Slick and bassist Carmine Rojas. Singers Bernard Fowler, a longtime Rolling Stones backup vocalist; Living Colour frontman Corey Glover; and Charlie Sexton, who occasionally opened for Bowie and performed with him on the Glass Spider tour, are also on the road and will play the Paramount Theatre on Tuesday, February 19.

Garson says he has about 100 Bowie songs ready to go at any given moment, but they can only play around 22 of them during the two-hour-plus show.

“I’m changing continuously based on how it feels that day, when we hit a city, what the climate feels like to me musically," Garson explains. "So it prevents the band from getting too much in a comfort zone. I’m following David’s lead that way, because he was always keeping you on your toes.”

Bowie headlined Glastonbury in 2000. It was the star's first time there in three decades. Just before the concert — which was documented and released as a CD/DVD boxed set — Garson says Bowie looked out into the 250,000-some-person crowd and got a little nervous.

Garson remembers Bowie saying, "'Go out and warm up the audience playing “Greensleeves” on the piano.' Does that say it all?”

So he injected a bit of jazz phrasing into the song, as he often does. Garson’s knowledge of jazz, classical, avant-garde, gospel, blues and rock made the pianist a valuable asset to Bowie.

“And in the first two years, between 1972 and ’74, he fired five different bands, and I was the only one he kept, because I could change styles with him,” Garson says. “And it’s remained that way. I did his first American concert and his last one in 2006 with Alicia Keys. And he had a faith and trust that I could always be there. We did many shows alone, just piano and voice, and it always sounded very full.”

Garson, who’d accompanied dozens of singers like Mel Tormé, Nancy Wilson and Martha Reeves before first meeting Bowie, says he had a magnificent way of phrasing when he sang, almost like he came from the Frank Sinatra school of singing. 

“A guy like David, to play for him, it was like a pleasure,” Garson says. “My fingers just found the right notes. To this day, I've never found anyone that comfortable to play for. It’s telepathic. It’s a kinetic thing. You feel the guy when you’re playing, and your fingers go a certain way in relationship to how it’s going. It’s a spiritual experience, actually.”

When playing songs on A Bowie Celebration, whether it’s hits like "Rebel Rebel" or "Ziggy Stardust" or a deep cut like the ten-minute-long "Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (Reprise)," Garson says he tries to make them seem like he’s never played them before, something he learned early in his five-decade-long career.

“I approach the piece — not even if the day before we had ten standing ovations, doesn’t matter — like I’ve never played this piece before,” Garson says. “That is very difficult to do, and I swear I don’t pull it off every time. If you know the music, and the feeling of having played it is in you — I don’t want to dismiss that, but no one cares that you were good the night before or thirty years ago or fifty years ago or ten minutes ago. They’re paying money, and it’s your job, as best you can, to go right into the essence of their songs. If you’re given the gift to be on that stage, you've got to take it seriously.”

 A Bowie Celebration: The David Bowie Alumni Tour, 8 p.m. Tuesday, February 19, Paramount Theatre, $39.50-$65.50.

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