Gail Ann Dorsey: Bowie’s Bottom End

By Team JamBase Apr 1, 2010 4:00 pm PDT

By: Ron Hart

Gail Dorsey by Myriam Santos
Anyone who has followed the four-decade career trajectory of the legendary David Bowie harbors the understanding that the Thin White Duke holds a high watermark for the musicians with whom he tours and records. But while his roster of guitarists reads like a six-string hall of fame with the likes of Mick Ronson, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Adrian Belew and Reeves Gabrels, little is spoken of the Bowie bassists. That is, however, until Gail Ann Dorsey came into the fold.

Since being personally recruited by Ziggy himself for the band he put together for his historic 1995 co-headlining tour with Nine Inch Nails in support of Bowie’s industrialized comeback masterpiece Outside, Dorsey has been a prominent recurring member of the British rock icon’s team for the last 15 years, both in the studio (she played bass on Bowie’s misunderstood 1997 venture into drum ‘n’ bass Earthling) and onstage (she has been onboard the last six tours). Dorsey’s key role in Bowie’s late-period years has never been more prominent than on the recently released live album, A Reality Tour, the long-awaited soundtrack to the DVD of the same name chronicling the Dublin, Ireland stop on Bowie’s 2003-2004 world trek, widely speculated to be possibly his last tour ever. Thanks to her fluid Nathan East-cum-Joni-era Jaco Pastorius inspired bass lines – honed from her years as a solo artist and session musician who has logged in studio time with everyone from Tears for Fears to Gwen Stefani to Stones’ drummer Charlie Watts’ jazz band to Seal to Gang of Four – A Reality Tour marks the very first time in the Bowie lexicon where the four-string trumps the six-string in just about every way. And thanks to her fine singing voice, Bowie was able to properly perform his classic Queen collaboration “Under Pressure” in concert.

JamBase recently spoke with Gail Ann Dorsey about her role as Bowie’s bottom end for the last fifteen years in this exclusive interview. For more information on this incredible, multi-talented musician, who also plays guitar, clarinet, drums and keyboards, visit her official MySpace page.

JamBase: You’ve been playing with Bowie since 1995. How did you hook up with him initially?

Gail Dorsey: He actually called me on the telephone. It’s a crazy story. He just called out of the blue one day. I had no warning or anything. He tracked me down and asked me if I would like to be a part of the Outside band when they were touring for that album with Nine Inch Nails. Quite an initiation! [laughs]

JamBase: Reeves Gabrels from Tin Machine played guitar on that tour, right?

Bowie & Dorsey A Reality Tour 2004
Gail Dorsey: That was Reeves Gabrels and Carlos Alomar was also in the band. And it was a treat to have the opportunity to play with Carlos. He’s probably my favorite of the Bowie guitarist. Of the whole Bowie legend of guitar players, Carlos is just magic. He plays guitar like no one really plays guitar anymore. He’s a great rhythm player, one of the best ever in the world. That kind of guitar playing that he does is almost a lost art. It’s always an upfront thing or a lead thing, but just learning where to sit in a group with a guitar and not do too much and not do too little is definitely an art. And Carlos was just brilliant with that.

JamBase: Bowie seems to have a high water mark when choosing his musicians. So, getting the call from him must have been quite a thrill.

Gail Dorsey: No kidding. It took me two years to ask him, I was so afraid [at first]. I was such a frightened child when I first joined with this group of major players. I was very afraid to even ask Bowie why he chose me, so it took me time to get up the courage to just ask him that question.

What did he say?

It was a very interesting answer, because it was one I did not expect. He had seen me on television in the U.K. many years ago with my solo work. It was for my first solo record in the late eighties [The Corporate World – 1988] in London. I was on a major label and 25 years old and on TV a lot promoting the record. And he said he was in a hotel in London once flipping through channels and I came on the television and he thought that I was really interesting. I was singing and I went on the couch and talked to the host of the show and I did another song or something, and he was really impressed. And he said he thought that one day when he’s putting together the right ensemble that he would want to work with me. And this must have been like five years later, and I just thought to myself whatever I did on that night, I must have been really on [laughs].

What was the first Bowie album you got into yourself?

Gail Ann Dorsey
Well, I liked Ziggy Stardust, especially “Suffragette City.” I used to play in a Top 40 band when I was about 15 and we used to play that song all the time. But my favorite thing of Bowie’s was Young Americans, that era. That is my favorite Bowie album, and I think following that was Station to Station and into Low and Lodger and all those things. That era was when I just loved him. I just thought the singing was never better than on those records, just the way he sang, especially on Young Americans and the whole Philly soul thing. He got more croony and the songs are really soulful and show his voice so brilliantly. I just fell in love with that period mostly, but I was never like a huge fan. I didn’t really know a lot of the early stuff. I heard whatever they played on rock radio in Philly. I was more into Queen, and I liked Steely Dan; stuff a little bit lighter than him, America and The Doobie Brothers.

Speaking of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen lives up your way in Upstate New York from what I gather.

Yeah, I’ve seen him up here a few times.

Did you run into him at one of Levon Helm‘s rambles up in his Woodstock studio?

I have been to two of them now. What an amazing experience that is. I love it. I just love it. I’m trying to play one of them. I’ve been talking to Larry Campbell about it a little. I might go up and do a little something in one of the opening spots.

So, The Reality Tour live album sounds great. It’s definitely one of the best sounding Bowie shows I’ve ever heard.

Dorsey from
Yeah, it sounds pretty amazing, I have to say. It really shocked me, because I hadn’t listened to any of this stuff in so long. I hadn’t seen the DVD since it was made, and I haven’t really gone back to revive any of it and listen to the old albums or anything. So, when it came in the mail and I got a chance to listen to it a few weeks before it came out, I couldn’t believe how amazing it sounded. The audio sounds much better than the DVD audio. It’s just something about the mix that’s just great on the record version. It was really an emotional experience listening to it after all this time. I had forgotten how good it really is. I have to agree with you, it might be one of the best live Bowie records, though all of them are so good. But to me, I just feel amazingly blessed and I just can’t even believe that I’m part of that legacy, you know? And now I’m on the record forever [laughs].

You played on Earthling, which I think is one of the most misunderstood and underrated LPs in the Bowie catalog. Did you enjoy making that album with him?

I loved it. I don’t know that I’ll ever experience anything musically like that again. It was such an interesting hybrid of music. And the thing that was so cool with Bowie was the fact that during this period when that music was just growing and beginning following Outside, he was then on the forefront of it and really had his nose to the grindstone. He was into it; he was listening to all these underground 12-inches that were coming from London, what the kids were playing in the clubs. He would bring them to rehearsal and put them on a little turntable. And he’s saying, “The only thing missing from this stuff is the song. And if you can blend the two things together, it would make the whole thing so much more interesting.” That’s what he was attempting to do with Earthling, and I thought he did it so beautifully. To take this whole movement and type of music coming out of London and Europe and put some incredible songs to it was so exciting to be a part of. I think it was maybe the most exciting period I had with him, like we were really, really creating something. But different tours had different vibes, and by the Reality Tour, it was more like just being a part of an incredible ensemble of musicians and playing this really classic music. It was about getting our hearts and bodies and minds around the brilliance of his catalog.

Now people are saying that this could very well be the last time we will hear Bowie live, this tour and the CD documenting it. What do you say to those rumors?

Gail Ann Dorsey
I can’t really answer that question for you. I wish I could. I don’t really know what he’s up to at the moment. I can only imagine he must be writing something or involved in something, even if it’s not music. He’s never been one, in my experiences, to work or to go out and do things just to make a million. He really has to have something to say, and I think that’s what makes him so special. There’s not much fat you can cut off his body of work.

I’m with everybody else. I just hope, as much as anyone else, as a fan of music that he returns, because we would love to have him back. Whether or not I’ll be there when he gets back or if I’ll still be behind his left shoulder, I don’t know. But if I am, I’ll be happy, and if I’m not I’ll still be happy. I had the most incredible ride of my life, and this CD is a great exclamation point to the whole thing.

As someone who is just getting into Charlie Watts’ jazz and big band music, you played with him in the eighties, didn’t you?

That was one of my very first gigs ever. I was very, very young.

How did you get the job?

With a friend of his who’s now deceased, another drummer called John Stevens. John Stevens was one of the first people I met when I went to London, and he gave me a job. He was one of Charlie’s best friends. So, when Charlie wanted to put together a big band and play the music that he loves more than anything, which is jazz, it was just being in the right place at the right time. So John asked me if I wanted to be involved. And that was the first time I ever saw David Bowie. He came to one of those gigs at Ronnie Scott’s. He sat at the front table, and when I had to go out and sing my number, I was looking down at his little plate of food and I’m like, “Oh my god, David Bowie’s in the audience.”

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