In Memoriam

Dennis Davis

Dennis Davis

by Patrick Berkery

There’s much to love about every drummer who played behind David Bowie. From Mick Woodmansey’s workmanlike chops to slick groove merchants like Andy Newmark and Omar Hakim to Mark Guiliana’s envelope-pushing concepts, all did amazing work with Bowie. It’s a useless exercise to attempt ranking them—though you could make a pretty good argument that of all the drummers to play with Bowie, no one covered as much ground as Dennis Davis. 

Davis, who died this past April 6 after succumbing to cancer, was a jazzer at heart, having studied under Max Roach and Elvin Jones. Though from his first track with Bowie—the slamming, slashing funk of “Fame”—it was clear he could drive a rock band hard, and with the type of sophistication a world-class iconoclast like Bowie demanded. His fearlessness on the kit meshed perfectly with Bowie’s increasingly adventurous songs, and Davis would serve as the singer’s go-to drummer during the highly creative phase that spanned 1976’s Station to Station to 1980’s Scary Monsters, anchoring the core rhythm section of bassist George Murray and guitarist Carlos Alomar with a style that was alternately funky, freaky, and fierce.

Cue up any Bowie song from that era, and the drumming will blow you away. Two particular highlights among dozens: The smooth transitions into and out of the two-handed 16th-note hi-hat patterns and the halting syncopated fills on Station to Station’s “Stay,” and the “Heroes” deep cut “Blackout,” where Davis twice stops the hard-hitting groove cold to drop in crazy conga-tom-snare combinations.

And he wasn’t only an amazing player; Davis’s experimental spirit was perfectly suited to the sonic possibilities Bowie was exploring with producer Brian Eno during that time. “I told him about a Charlie Mingus gig that I saw where the drummer had polythene tubes that would go into the drums, and he would suck and blow to change the pressure as he played,” Bowie told Modern Drummer in 1997. “Dennis was out the next day buying that stuff. Dennis is crazy, an absolute loony man, but he had a lot of his own thoughts on things, and he would throw us all kinds of curveballs.”

Sadly, Davis and Bowie both left us this year. But the music they made together sounds as groundbreaking today as it did upon its release. Chalk that up to Bowie’s musical genius, and to the bold, beautiful playing of his drumming collaborator.