David Robert Jones (8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016), known as David Bowie (/ˈboʊ.i/), was an English singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, record producer, arranger, painter, and actor. Bowie was a figure in popular music for over four decades, and was known as an innovator, particularly for his work in the 1970s. His androgynous appearance was an iconic element of his image, principally in the 1970s and 1980s.
Born and raised in South London, Bowie developed an early interest in music although his attempts to succeed as a pop star during much of the 1960s were frustrated. Bowie’s first hit song, “Space Oddity”, reached the top five of the UK Singles Chart after its release in July 1969. After a three-year period of experimentation, he re-emerged in 1972 during the glam rock era with the flamboyant, androgynous alter ego Ziggy Stardust, spearheaded by the hit single “Starman” and the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Bowie’s impact at that time, as described by biographer David Buckley, “challenged the core belief of the rock music of its day” and “created perhaps the biggest cult in popular culture”. The relatively short-lived Ziggy persona proved to be one facet of a career marked by reinvention, musical innovation and visual presentation.
In 1975, Bowie achieved his first major American crossover success with the number-one single “Fame” and the hit album Young Americans, which the singer characterised as “plastic soul”. The sound constituted a radical shift in style that initially alienated many of his UK devotees.
He then confounded the expectations of both his record label and his American audiences by recording the electronic-inflected album Low, the first of three collaborations with Brian Eno. Low (1977), “Heroes” (1977), and Lodger (1979)—the so-called “Berlin Trilogy” albums—all reached the UK top five and received lasting critical praise. After uneven commercial success in the late 1970s, Bowie had UK number ones with the 1980 single “Ashes to Ashes”, its parent album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), and “Under Pressure”, a 1981 collaboration with Queen. He then reached a new commercial peak in 1983 with Let’s Dance, which yielded several hit singles. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Bowie continued to experiment with musical styles, including blue-eyed soul, industrial, adult contemporary, and jungle. He stopped touring after his 2003–04 Reality Tour, and last performed live at a charity event in 2006. Bowie released the studio album Blackstar on 8 January 2016, his 69th birthday, just two days before his death from liver cancer.
Bowie also had a successful, but sporadic film career. His acting roles include the eponymous character in The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), Jareth, the Goblin King in Labyrinth (1986), Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Nikola Tesla in The Prestige (2006), among other film and television appearances and cameos.
David Buckley said of Bowie: “His influence has been unique in popular culture—he has permeated and altered more lives than any comparable figure.” In the BBC’s 2002 poll of the 100 Greatest Britons, Bowie was placed at number 29. Throughout his career, he has sold an estimated 140 million records worldwide. In the UK, he has been awarded nine Platinum album certifications, eleven Gold and eight Silver, and in the US, five Platinum and seven Gold certifications. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
Bowie was born in Brixton, London. His mother, Margaret Mary “Peggy” (née Burns), from Kent, worked as a waitress, while his father, Haywood Stenton “John” Jones, from Yorkshire, was a promotions officer for the children’s charity Barnardo’s. The family lived at 40 Stansfield Road, near the border of the south London areas of Brixton and Stockwell. Bowie attended Stockwell Infants School until he was six years old, acquiring a reputation as a gifted and single-minded child—and a defiant brawler.
In 1953 the family moved to the suburb of Bromley, where, two years later, Bowie progressed to Burnt Ash Junior School. His voice was considered “adequate” by the school choir, and his recorder playing judged to demonstrate above-average musical ability. At the age of nine, his dancing during the newly introduced music and movement classes was strikingly imaginative: teachers called his interpretations “vividly artistic” and his poise “astonishing” for a child. The same year, his interest in music was further stimulated when his father brought home a collection of American 45s by artists including Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Platters, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Little Richard. Upon listening to “Tutti Frutti”, Bowie would later say, “I had heard God”. Presley’s impact on him was likewise emphatic: “I saw a cousin of mine dance to … ‘Hound Dog’ and I had never seen her get up and be moved so much by anything. It really impressed me, the power of the music. I started getting records immediately after that.” By the end of the following year he had taken up the ukulele and tea-chest bass and begun to participate in skiffle sessions with friends, and had started to play the piano; meanwhile his stage presentation of numbers by both Presley and Chuck Berry—complete with gyrations in tribute to the original artists—to his local Wolf Cub group was described as “mesmerizing … like someone from another planet.” Failing his eleven plus exam at the conclusion of his Burnt Ash Junior education, Bowie joined Bromley Technical High School.
It was an unusual technical school, as biographer Christopher Sandford wrote:
Despite its status it was, by the time David arrived in 1958, as rich in arcane ritual as any [English] public school. There were houses, named after eighteenth-century statesmen like Pitt and Wilberforce. There was a uniform, and an elaborate system of rewards and punishments. There was also an accent on languages, science and particularly design, where a collegiate atmosphere flourished under the tutorship of Owen Frampton. In David’s account, Frampton led through force of personality, not intellect; his colleagues at Bromley Tech were famous for neither, and yielded the school’s most gifted pupils to the arts, a regime so liberal that Frampton actively encouraged his own son, Peter, to pursue a musical career with David, a partnership briefly intact thirty years later.
Bowie studied art, music and design, including layout and typesetting. After Terry Burns, his half-brother, introduced him to modern jazz, his enthusiasm for players like Charles Mingus and John Coltrane led his mother to give him a plastic alto saxophone in 1961; he was soon receiving lessons from a local musician. Bowie received a serious injury at school in 1962 when his friend George Underwood punched him in the left eye during a fight over a girl. Doctors feared he would become blind in that eye. After a series of operations during a four-month hospitalisation, his doctors determined that the damage could not be fully repaired and Bowie was left with faulty depth perception and a permanently dilated pupil. Despite their altercation, Underwood and Bowie remained good friends, and Underwood went on to create the artwork for Bowie’s early albums.
Biographer David Buckley writes, “The essence of Bowie’s contribution to popular music can be found in his outstanding ability to analyse and select ideas from outside the mainstream—from art, literature, theatre and film—and to bring them inside, so that the currency of pop is constantly being changed.” Buckley says, “Just one person took glam rock to new rarefied heights and invented character-playing in pop, marrying theatre and popular music in one seamless, powerful whole.” Bowie’s career has also been punctuated by various roles in film and theatre productions, earning him some acclaim as an actor in his own right.
The beginnings of his acting career predate his commercial breakthrough as a musician. Studying avant-garde theatre and mime under Lindsay Kemp, he was given the role of Cloud in Kemp’s 1967 theatrical production Pierrot in Turquoise (later made into the 1970 television film The Looking Glass Murders). In the black-and-white short The Image (1969), he played a ghostly boy who emerges from a troubled artist’s painting to haunt him. The same year, the film of Leslie Thomas’s 1966 comic novel The Virgin Soldiers saw Bowie make a brief appearance as an extra. In 1976 he earned acclaim for his first major film role, portraying Thomas Jerome Newton, an alien from a dying planet, in The Man Who Fell to Earth, directed by Nicolas Roeg. Just a Gigolo (1979), an Anglo-German co-production directed by David Hemmings, saw Bowie in the lead role as Prussian officer Paul von Przygodski, who, returning from World War I, is discovered by a Baroness (Marlene Dietrich) and put into her Gigolo Stable.
Bowie took the title role in the Broadway theatre production The Elephant Man, which he undertook wearing no stage make-up, and which earned high praise for his expressive performance. He played the part 157 times between 1980 and 1981. Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, a 1981 biographical film focusing on a young girl’s drug addiction in West Berlin, featured Bowie in a cameo appearance as himself at a concert in Germany. Its soundtrack album, Christiane F. (1981), featured much material from his Berlin Trilogy albums. Bowie starred in The Hunger (1983), a revisionist vampire film, with Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon. In Nagisa Oshima’s film the same year, Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, based on Laurens van der Post’s novel The Seed and the Sower, Bowie played Major Jack Celliers, a prisoner of war in a Japanese internment camp. Bowie had a cameo in Yellowbeard, a 1983 pirate comedy created by Monty Python members, and a small part as Colin, the hitman in the 1985 film Into the Night. He declined to play the villain Max Zorin in the James Bond film A View to a Kill (1985).
Absolute Beginners (1986), a rock musical based on Colin MacInnes’s 1959 novel about London life, featured Bowie’s music and presented him with a minor acting role. The same year, Jim Henson’s dark fantasy Labyrinth found him with the part of Jareth, the king of the goblins. Two years later, he played Pontius Pilate in Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ. Bowie portrayed a disgruntled restaurant employee opposite Rosanna Arquette in The Linguini Incident (1991), and the mysterious FBI agent Phillip Jeffries in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). He took a small but pivotal role as Andy Warhol in Basquiat, artist/director Julian Schnabel’s 1996 biopic of Jean-Michel Basquiat, and co-starred in Giovanni Veronesi’s Spaghetti Western Il Mio West (1998, released as Gunslinger’s Revenge in the US in 2005) as the most feared gunfighter in the region. He played the ageing gangster Bernie in Andrew Goth’s Everybody Loves Sunshine (1999), and appeared in the TV horror serial of The Hunger. In Mr. Rice’s Secret (2000), he played the title role as the neighbour of a terminally ill 12-year-old, and the following year appeared as himself in Zoolander.
Bowie portrayed physicist Nikola Tesla in the Christopher Nolan film, The Prestige (2006), which was about the bitter rivalry between two magicians in the late 19th century. He voice-acted in the animated film Arthur and the Invisibles as the powerful villain Maltazard, and lent his voice to the character Lord Royal Highness in the SpongeBob’s Atlantis SquarePantis television film. In the 2008 film August, directed by Austin Chick, he played a supporting role as Ogilvie, alongside Josh Hartnett and Rip Torn, with whom he had worked in 1976 for The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
- David Bowie (1967)
- David Bowie (also released as Space Oddity) (1969)
- The Man Who Sold the World (1970)
- Hunky Dory (1971)
- The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972)
- Aladdin Sane (1973)
- Pin Ups (1973)
- Diamond Dogs (1974)
- Young Americans (1975)
- Station to Station (1976)
- Low (1977)
- “Heroes” (1977)
- Lodger (1979)
- Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps) (1980)
- Let’s Dance (1983)
- Tonight (1984)
- Never Let Me Down (1987)
- Tin Machine (1989)
- Tin Machine II (1991)
- Black Tie White Noise (1992)
- The Buddha of Suburbia (1993)
- Outside (1995)
- Earthling (1997)
- ‘Hours…’ (1999)
- Heathen (2002)
- Reality (2003)
- The Next Day (2013)
- Blackstar (2016)
Selected film roles
- The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) as Thomas Jerome Newton; received Saturn Award for Best Actor
- Just a Gigolo (1978) as Paul Ambrosius von Przygodski
- Christiane F. (1981) cameo as himself
- The Snowman (1982) narrator in re-released version
- Baal (1982) as Baal
- Yellowbeard (1983) the sailor wearing shark fin – The Shark
- Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) as Maj. Jack ‘Strafer’ Celliers
- The Hunger (1983) as John Blaylock
- Jazzin’ for Blue Jean (1984) as Vic and Screaming Lord Byron
- Into the Night (1985) as Colin Morris
- Labyrinth (1986) as Jareth the Goblin King
- Absolute Beginners (1986) as Vendice Partners
- The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) as Pontius Pilate
- The Linguini Incident (1991) as Monte
- Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) as Phillip Jeffries
- Dream On (1991) as Sir Roland Moorecock
- Basquiat (1996) as Andy Warhol
- Gunslinger’s Revenge (1998) as Jack Sikora
- Everybody Loves Sunshine (1999) as Bernie
- Mr. Rice’s Secret (2000) as William Rice
- Zoolander (2001) cameo as himself; nominated for MTV Movie Award
- The Prestige (2006) as Nikola Tesla