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How Cleveland Helped Make David Bowie a Star in the U.S.

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Hulton Archive, Getty Images

It’s well-known that it took David Bowie‘s career needed a few attempts to get started, particularly in America. But by the early ’70s, he found an enthusiastic backer at Cleveland’s WMMS, one of the most influential FM rock radio stations in the country at the time, which helped expose Bowie to U.S. audiences.

1971’s Hunky Dory was the first Bowie record to gain the station’s attention. “I knew ‘Space Oddity,’ but we didn’t know he had anything other than that one song,” former program director Billy Bass told Cleveland.com. “I said, ‘Oh, my God! This is it! This is what I’ve been looking for! It’s arty, it’s alternative, it’s different! Then he released Ziggy Stardust. Once we played that, it was all over. People fell in love with David Bowie in Cleveland.”

Even before Bass and WMMS were on the ball, a Cleveland-based musician named Brian Sands was already tuned into Bowie, long before anyone else in town. He formed the first official Bowie Fan Club outside of the U.K., and would go on to help introduce Bowie to America.

“I formed the International David Bowie Society in 1969 when I was 18,” Sands said in an interview with 5 Years. “I first became aware of David’s music when I found his ‘Space Oddity’ single in a cut-out bin at a local department store. Being a musician myself, I found the composition quite unique and challenging for the time. Not long after that I discovered his first album on Deram Records.”

Sands’ interest continued to grow as he uncovered more and more about Bowie. “I was a big admirer of his incredibly diverse work,” he continued. “I was in between playing in bands myself and had some free time to develop the Society. I figured that it was a great way to meet other admirers of his, trade collectibles and perhaps even a means to meeting him one day. I was a huge fan of The Man Who Sold the World LP — it’s still my favorite.”

At this point Bowie was in transition both musically as well as in a business sense, signing with Tony DeFries’ Mainman Management and to a new record label.

“I became aware that David was in talks with RCA Records,” Sands said, “and so I called their New York office to tell them about my fan club. I was graciously greeted with much enthusiasm — they were so thrilled that there was an American who seemed to know so much about their ‘new project’ and I supplied details about David and his music that I think helped them feel encouraged about their signing with David.”

David was informed by RCA secretary Barbara Fulk that he already had an Official Fan Club in America, which was Sands’. With all systems go for Bowie to take on America, the man himself reached out to Sands.

“He showed his appreciation by phoning me. One afternoon at my house in Cleveland, I received a phone call that I honestly at first thought was a prank. But it took only a moment, after hearing David’s voice for me to know that it was actually him. It was a brief phone call, but he informed me that a new album was being released by RCA [Ziggy Stardust] and that he hoped to play the States to promote it. After the release, a U.S. tour was set up and it was decided that Cleveland, Ohio would be the first date for David and the Spiders from Mars.”

That first U.S. date was Sept. 22, 1972 at the Cleveland Music Hall. The show was a such a huge success that Bowie and the Spiders returned two months later for a two-night stand at the larger Public Hall. Cleveland’s love affair with Bowie had only just begun.

Sands met up with Bowie after the Cleveland show, and again in Pittsburgh later in the tour, where he surprised Bowie with some trivia. “I blew David away when I told him that I knew where he got the ‘Ziggy Stardust’ name from,” Sands recalled. “He sat in a bit of wonderment as I told him that the ‘Ziggy’ was a variation of Iggy [Pop], and that the ‘Stardust’ was swiped from an obscure recording artist — the Legendary Stardust Cowboy [who had shared the Mercury record label with David around the time of ‘Space Oddity’]. David had to call over some of the band to tell them that he was ‘found out!’ He really did nearly fall out of his chair.”

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