Bernard Fowler is singing with the Rolling Stones on the No Filter tour and has a new album of Stones material. PhotoCredit: Cristina Arrigoni
Bernard Fowler played his first gig as a backup singer for the Rolling Stones three decades ago, on opening night of the Steels Wheels tour, at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
"We were right in the middle of 'Shattered,' and the power went out," Fowler recalls. "I think we must have kept playing a minute or two before we realized that the power wasn't going to kick back on. And so we stopped. If I remember correctly, we left the stage, and then the power came back on. And we went back on stage, but we didn't continue that song. We never played that song again on that tour. It was bad juju. They didn't want to take the chance."
While the 59-year-old Fowler has toured with the Stones for the past thirty years and will join them at Broncos Stadium on August 10, he's been a fan of the band since he was a kid, after his father gave him his first record, the Stones' 1964 album 12 X 5.
"I don't know why he bought that record," Fowler says. "But I played that record, and I played that record, and I played that record. That seeped into my DNA. So ending up singing with the Stones is just kind of mind-blowing all these years later. My first record given to me, and I end up singing with them - it's amazing."
By the time Fowler joined the Stones in 1989, he'd already worked with a number of artists like Herbie Hancock, the Peech Boys, Tackhead and Material, the group formed by producer and bassist Bill Laswell, who recruited Fowler to sing on Mick Jagger's 1985 solo debut, She's the Boss.
Given Fowler's extensive history with the Stones, it's not surprising that his third solo album, Inside Out, released in April, is full of fresh interpretations of Stones songs. Fowler's initial concept for Inside Out was for it to be spoken word with percussion, in the vein of the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron.
"I wasn't sure if people's attention span would allow them to just listen to voice and percussion for a whole record," Fowler says. "So I decided to do some songs with a rhythm section."
Enter bassist Darryl Jones, who's been touring with Stones nearly as long as Fowler has, and Steve Jordan, an in-demand drummer and producer who's worked with Keith Richards and many other acts. Among the many guests on the album are guitarist Ray Parker Jr., the man behind the Ghostbusters theme, and percussionists Walfredo Reyes Jr. and Lenny Castro and pianist Mike Garson, who headed up the Bowie Celebration tour, which Fowler was also involved in.
When looking for material in the Stones catalogue to record on Inside Out, Fowler didn't necessarily want to do the hits. While the percussion-heavy spoken-word take on "Sympathy for the Devil" on the album is a Stones staple, a good portion of the other songs are deeper cuts, including four from the 1983 album Undercover.
"I was just thinking about the content of the lyrics," Fowler says. "That was the most important thing. Once I opened the songbook and I started reading, the lyrics just made sense. It made sense to do it in this style."
Coming at the songs through a Last Poets lens of sorts, Fowler says the songs took on a different meaning for him.
"For me, a lot of the meaning was stronger," he says. "I think a lot of the meaning in the original recordings, you know, I think people get lost in the groove of it. Some people probably don't even know the lyrics to a lot of the songs."
Once deciding on songs for the album, like "Tie You Up," "Dancing With Mr. D.," "Time Waits for No One" and "Sister Morphine," Fowler didn't want to ask Jagger or Richards where they were coming from in the songs.
"I didn't want any influence," Fowler says. "I didn't want to be influenced by any of them. I read the lyric. It was about the lyric. I didn't care what they thought about it, because when people hear it, you know, records don't come with an explanation. So I wanted everybody that heard it to take it the way that they wanted to, as they did when they heard it the first time."
Fowler says he was looking for strong lyrical content that mirrored the way we live now.
"They're all relevant today," Fowler says. "Those lyrics could have been written yesterday."
In the liner notes to Inside Out, Fowler dedicated it to "the black and Hispanic brothers that I grew up with. Together we listened to the music, ate food and kissed the girls, and to this very day, I still feed off of those experiences."
Fowler grew up in New York City, listening to funk, R&B and salsa, and says it's all there in his version of "Must Be Hell."
"The drums fade in," he says. "I did that intentionally, because it reminded me of when I was growing up. I could hear the drums in the park a few blocks away. Cats would be in the park playing conga all night until the next day. So I woke up hearing conga. I went to sleep hearing conga. Anybody that knows me that grew up with me, if they hear the record, that will remind them of us growing up in Queensbridge."
Now on tour with Stones again as part of the No Filter Tour, which stops at Broncos Stadium at Mile High on Saturday, August 10, Fowler says the band is at the top of its game, sounding better than ever.
"They're even more comfortable with what they do now," Fowler says. And it also helps that Mick and Keith aren't fighting so much."
When Fowler first joined the Stones in the '89, the two were feuding.
"I was in that," Fowler says. "I was right in the middle of it. It was intense. People taking sides. People in one camp or the other camp. I was like, 'Fuck that. I'm not in nobody's camp, man.' I'm here to support the Rolling Stones. I'm not in anybody's camp. I'm not in Mick's camp. I'm not in Keith's camp. I'm in the Rolling Stones camp. I'm not in anybody's camp. I'm here to help the Rolling Stones be the fucking Rolling Stones. Be the best. That's always been my attitude - never on someone's team."
These days, Fowler says that Jagger and Richards don't fight like they did then, and that they've accepted each other as they are. Jagger, who turned 76 last month and had heart valve replacement surgery last April, and the rest of the original Stones are in their seventies; there's been speculation about how much longer they plan to tour.
"I heard Keith say he intends to die on stage," Fowler says. "I've also heard him say that when Charlie Watts decides that he doesn't want to do it anymore, it's done. Don't know if anybody's trying to stop. Why should they? What are they going to do if they do stop?
"It just kills me when I hear people, 'Oh, I can't believe it. Why don't they just stop?' It's like, 'Fuck you - stop and do what? They've done that all their lives. If they can do it, let them do it. If people are still coming to see them, let the people come and see them.' They shouldn't stop because they reach a certain age. Music is ageless. And good music is timeless. And they've made some good music."