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On This Day In Music… April 9, 1983: 'Let's Dance' Becomes David Bowie's First Song to Hit No. 1 on Both Sides of the Atlantic

The production genius of Nile Rodgers would help create a genre-fluid pop masterpiece – and make Bowie a mass appeal pop giant.

david bowie lets dance
Source: mega / EMI

'Let's Dance' would become Bowie's biggest selling single

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The first time David Bowie played “Let’s Dance” to producer Nile Rodgers, the Chic hitmaker was not overly impressed. Bowie had approached Rodgers in late 1982 with the idea of having him produce his next album – and with the instruction: “I want you to make hits”.

Bowie duly played him a new song he thought might work for a single, strumming on a 12-string acoustic guitar and singing along at mid-tempo. “What followed was a folksy stretch of a composition with a solid melody,” Rodgers later wrote in his autobiography, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story Of Family, Disco And Destiny. “The only problem was it sounded to me like ‘Donovan meets Anthony Newley’… I’d been mandated to make hits, and could only hear what was missing.”

When Bowie told him the title, he was even more incredulous. “I was like, ‘that’s not happening, man’,” he recalled. “It totally threw me. It was not a song you could dance to.”

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david bowie serious moonlight
Source: mega

The original version of 'Let's Dance' was a folksy composition that, to Nile Rodgers' ears, did not sound like a song you could dance to.

But if there was one man who knew a thing about crafting songs you could dance to, it was the writer of “Le Freak”, “Good Times”, “We Are Family”, and “He’s the Greatest Dancer” – and the pair duly got to work.

The finished result was a slick, superbly catchy, seven-minute fusion of funk, rock, disco and new wave that became the biggest selling single of Bowie’s entire career – and on April 9, 1983, the first of his songs to top both the U.K. singles charts and the U.S. Billboard Hot 100. It would be the song that ushered in a new era for Bowie – from respected innovator, cult hero and avant-garde visionary, to mass-appeal pop giant. And it was very much a song you could dance to.

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david bowie serious moonlight tour
Source: mega

'Let's Dance' ushered in a new era of crossover mass appeal for Bowie.

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The first thing Rodgers did with Bowie’s “folksy composition” was transpose it to an obscure jazz key (which he described as “B-flat minor 13-chord – which I defy you to find in any pop song”), bring in a solid, grounding bassline, ditch the 12-string, and add a trademark funky, scratchy guitar hook, before demoing the new version in Bowie’s Switzerland studio.

Bowie loved it; but Rodgers wasn’t satisfied.

“The musicians were jazz cats and they did a pretty solid version of the charts I’d written,” he wrote in Le Freak, telling Bowie: “If you really like that, then you’ll love it when we get back to New York and you hear my guys play it.”

In the Big Apple’s Power Plant studios, Rodgers assembled a band made up of Chic musicians and jazz session players, pinning the entire melody around a stomping bass and drum line, adding a horn section and encouraging improvisation. For perhaps the first time in his career, Bowie himself was not exercising full creative control; and between them he and Rodgers threw in influences as diverse as “Twist and Shout”, “Good Times” and the theme to TV show Peter Gunn.

In Le Freak Rodgers remembered: “I knew we were in new territory and could play by different rules – rules that applied only to white rockers and maybe Miles [Davis], Prince or Michael Jackson. Now I had the freedom to venture beyond pop into jazz territory. I was free to allow cats to improvise – on a pop single! It was heaven…”

nile rodgers
Source: Phil Lewis/WENN / mega

Nile Rodgers thew jazz, disco and funk influences into 'Let's Dance'.

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The evolution of “Let’s Dance” from folk song to genre-mashing disco stomper was not all Rodgers’ doing, however. One of the song’s most compelling elements was a guitar solo that cut through the Chic man’s trademark funky sound with a defiantly blues-rock squeal.

That came courtesy of then-relatively unknown guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. Bowie had become aware of the young protégé the previous summer and invited him along to the studios to see what he could bring to the sessions.

“Stevie strolled into the Power Station and proceeded to rip-up everything one thought about dance records,” Bowie wrote in the sleeve notes for a collection of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Montreux Jazz Festival performances. “In a ridiculously short time he had become midwife to the sound that I had running in my ears all year. A dance form that had its melody rooted in a European sensibility that owed its impact to the blues.”

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The end product was spectacular – and if it was cut to a little over four minutes for the single version, the full seven minute 38 seconds album version, with improvisations, jazzy solos and off-the-cuff vocal flights of fancy from Bowie, was every bit as groundbreaking and genre-pushing as anything in the Starman’s career to date.

Released on March 14, 1983, “Let’s Dance” was an immediate critical and commercial success. A Billboard review noted: “Rodgers' predictable arrangement sets up the rules, while Bowie's melodic structure and delivery methodically break them.” And in the NME, Charles Shaar Murray wrote: “’Let’s Dance’ is easily this year's biggest single; every time it comes up it creates an instant impression of sheer scale. The sounds are huge, the emotions it contains gigantic.”

The song climbed to the top of the charts in 15 countries worldwide, including Britain and the U.S. A month later, it was followed by the album of the same name: that too would top the U.K. charts and reach No. 4 in the Billboard 200… and seal Bowie’s ascension into pop megastardom.


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