BowieBowie’s Piano Man, The Life of Mike Garson by Clifford Slapper (Fantom Publishing) 

Available now

Great biography of Bowie’s genius pianist, Mike Garson.

Clifford Slapper has produced an irresistible account of the life of the man who has recorded with Bowie since Aladdin Sane in 1973 through to Reality in 2003. This has been a labour of love for the writer as he freely admits to being hugely influenced by the work of Garson. Clifford Slapper is himself one of the most prominent pianists in the UK with a hugely impressive list of artists he has worked with including Suggs, Marc Almond, Boy George, Stereo MC’s and Lisa Stansfield. He has also worked with David Bowie himself, having played the piano part when Bowie appeared in the Ricky Gervais comedy, Extras. It was this appearance that apparently intrigued and amused Garson so that when Clifford flew to LA to visit him for piano lessons the two had much in common and the lessons expanded into musical discussions based on Garson’s fascinating history.

So Clifford Slapper is certainly well qualified to write this story and does so with an easy style that immediately involves the reader and a knowledge of his subject that is second to none. However, whilst ensuring that the narrative is at all times a proper assessment of Garson’s technical ability, he also ensures that the text is easily accessible to non-musicians. Despite having previously written for magazines, this is Clifford Slapper’s first book and his style is so engaging it is to be hoped that more soon follow.

The story of Garson is that of a piano genius, steeped in a background of classical and jazz, who provided a crossover influence to rock that has influenced so many pianists since.  Mike Garson grew up in Brooklyn and was taught by blind jazz legend Lennie Tristiano who was the only New York musician who gave lessons and knew how to teach jazz. His lessons lasted only 10 minutes and Garson travelled two hours each way for them but the principle learned would stay with him and help him develop his signature style. He also benefitted from having a supportive father who had taught himself some improvised Western themes and supported and encouraged the young Mike to innovate without feeling pressured.

Until around the age of 14, Garson had intended to become a Rabbi, such was his devotion and ability in Hebrew but this changed as his musical ability further developed. However, a crucial point is that his aims on taking up music were the same as if he had become a Rabbi, or even doctor, and that is to help others and Garson is still devoted to helping other musician today. As the only Jew in the barrack room, he was originally bullied whilst in the army but his ability on piano saw him rapidly become very popular and so good was he that the army ensured he was kept out of the frontline.

The classical and jazz training that Garson had experienced ensured that he became the most versatile of pianists and his reputation spread around New York, helping him achieve his first big break with Elvin Jones. Garson was watching Jones perform in a Greenwich Village club when the pianist fell off stage in a drunken stupor. He was dragged outside and dumped on the street but Jones’s saxophonist had noticed Garson in the audience and insisted he join them onstage as a replacement.

The next break was his biggest and most life-changing, leading directly to his pre-eminent position today. His contributions to a jazz album having been heard, he was recommended to Bowie who was about to embark on an American tour and needed a pianist. The story of Garson’s audition is almost magical when its importance is now evaluated, and is indicative of the fascinating minor details that Clifford Slapper includes to bring this story vividly to life. Having longed for the chance to work with a rock act, Garson took a call from a manager he had never heard of, Tony Defries, to audition immediately for an act he had never heard of either. Bowie at the time was on the verge of breaking America, already huge in Britain and was waiting at RCA’s studios in Manhattan. Garson was in the middle of giving a piano lesson with his wife out at work and shot off leaving his student to mind his daughter who was swinging in a hammock, much to the later anger of his wife. He was struck initially by Mick Ronson’s ‘wild blonde hair’ and clothes as Ronson handed him the chord chart for Changes, a song Garson had never heard. After just a few bars, albeit embellished, Ronson stopped him, immediately informed him that he was in and that is how easily musical history was changed.

Bowie was immediately struck by Garson’s ability and he was soon not just a part of Bowie’s band, but also the opening act for the Ziggy Stardust farewell shows where he played four Bowie tracks he had re-arranged. However, his piano solo on Aladdin Sane is the piece that Garson is most readily associated with, the one that Clifford identifies as the best example of his defining influence and the one that Garson still receives emails about every day.  It sprang from Bowie’s insistence that he play something more avant garde than the standard ideas Garson was offering and leads Garson to describe Bowie as “the best producer I have ever met, because he lets me do my thing”.

Bowie has continued to let him “do his thing” over the decades and albums, as have a range of other hugely influential artists such as Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails and Mick Ronson solo. He joined the jazz flute quartet Free Flight in 1980 and continued for many years with fellow member James Walker saying he had “an abundance of jazz vocabulary knowledge” which really is the key to the importance of Garson. He is crucial to bringing the disciplines of classical, jazz and rock together in a way that has influenced so many.

Clifford Slapper has offered us a compelling tale of how a hugely talented, yet utterly modest man has risen to the top of his profession and given so much to fans of a wide range of music.

Bowie’s Piano Man: the life of Mike Garson by Clifford Slapper (Fantom Books, April 2015) is available now from Amazon.
All words by Dave Jennings. More from Dave can be found at his Louder Than War Author Archive. He is also on Twitter as @blackfoxwrexham.
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