David Bowie’s song inspired by Charles Mingus

It is, of course, almost impossible to identify David Bowie with anything; genre, mode, impact, even a particular moment or space (such is the scope of Bowie). Likewise, it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint which of Bowie’s countless records is his best and which of his decades-spanning career moments can be singled out and considered his finest.

From the rock opera of Ziggy Stardustthrough his Berlin-era records, to his final artistic statement and farewell album, Black Star, David Bowie moved through characters and styles with grace and effortless grace never before found in any other artist. Quite simply, there is no one like David Bowie, and there never will be.

So with Bowie, rather than looking at any record, live performance, or public appearance as his finest sound, we’re entitled to take each one on its own merit, as if in each of those events, a Bowie different from the last waits behind the curtain, eager to shock and amaze us.

Bowie’s most famous album is arguably 1972. The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars, which transformed Bowie from a well-known rock singer to an international and eternal superstar (which Bowie had dreamed of in his youth). The album surrounds Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, an androgynous alien, sent to Earth to warn its inhabitants of a coming apocalypse and thus save them from their fate.

The first single from Ziggy was ‘Starman’, released on April 28, 1972. Its B-side, ‘Suffragette City’, also proved to be one of Bowie’s finest and most instantly recognizable tracks, with an unlikely inspirational story. “Suffragette City” was first offered to the band Mott the Hoople, who turned it down and decided to record Bowie’s “All the Young Dudes” instead.

“Suffragette” included several slang phrases and common phrases, including repeated Americanism, “hey man”, and some of Bowie’s own neologisms (“she’s a total blam-blam”). It also included references to Nadsat, the fictional language spoken by the wayward youths of Anthony Burgess‘ 1962 novel A clockwork orange (“say droogie doesn’t crash here”). Bowie would again refer to the dialect of the novel on black stars “The girl loves me”.

Yet arguably the song’s most famous lyrics come immediately after the song’s inventive and unexpected faux ending. “Ohhhh, wham-bam, thank you, ma’am,” Bowie shouts before the band takes over the main songwriting to its conclusion. The inclusion of this phrase was borrowed from an album by American jazz pianist Charles Mingus. The story goes that Bowie used to frequent the London department store Medhurst, which had an unlikely fantasy record department run by a married couple, Jimmy and Charles. Bowie explains, “Jimmy, the young partner, recommended this Mingus album one day around 1961. I lost my original copy of Medhurst, but kept repurchasing the print over the years as it was reprinted over and over again. There’s the rather revealing track “Wham Bam Thank You, Ma’am” on it.

Such was Bowie’s introduction to the now infamous phrase that fans love to shout whenever the track plays. Another origin story comes from Bowie’s school friend George Underwood, who recalls “being at Haddon Hall when he first played ‘Suffragette City.’ And at the end of the performance – he just played it on a twelve string – I shouted: ‘Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am!’ which was a song from a Charlie Mingus album, Oh yes. And that obviously ended up on record.

Whatever the true origin of the phrase, its inclusion no doubt contributed to its seemingly eternal place as a classic Bowie masterpiece. The genius of the false ending before the chorus has led to a track that always wants to give you that bit more, something you could also say of Bowie himself. “Suffragette City” turns fifty this year and will long be remembered as one of Bowie’s finest tunes among fans old and new.

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