Mike Garson

Excerpt from "Bowie's Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson"
by Clifford Slapper

BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, ONE HOT AUTUMN NIGHT in 1972. A struggling young jazz musician had just completed another small club gig in his hometown. He returned to his wife and baby in their cramped apartment with just a few dollars payment for having worked his usual magic up and down the black and white keys of the piano all night.

He was frustrated. The rewards were disproportionate to the effort and creativity he devoted to it. The five dollars in his pocket was not enough to feed three people until the next gig. There was only one way to play a show, he had to throw his all into it. Whilst playing, he did not care about what he was paid because his was a labour of love. But how could he provide for his family this way? So this time, Mike Garson entered the apartment and announced to his wife, Susan, that he had to find something else to do, something bigger and more lucrative. Of course, he had to continue playing, by now it was second nature to him. But he had to find some way to raise the stakes and the scale of his work. That night they slept fitfully as this grim reality descended on the Garson household.


Mike and Susan Garson on their wedding day -
March 24, 1968

Photo credit: Ilpo Musto / Rex Features

Cut to the Hammersmith Odeon, one of London's largest music venues, less than a year later. David Bowie is performing his last ever concert as his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust. The devoted crowd of nearly four thousand fans are wild with excitement. As they wait impatiently for Bowie to come on to the stage, they are introduced to an unscheduled support act. A lone pianist, who will be playing later that night with Bowie and the full band, will appear first. This pianist will not simply keep them entertained with some solo piano, which would be challenging enough, but will play some instrumental piano versions of the very songs which Bowie will later be performing in his set. Mike Garson, for it was he, more than rose to the challenge, and was cheered and applauded as he played his instrumental renditions of songs such as "Life On Mars?" which have since become widely loved classics of modern song.

In September 1972, Garson was playing in a jazz club on Sixty-Ninth Street and Broadway, in New York. It had been his routine for several years, since his army days, to practise for eight hours each day, often followed by several hours of playing a gig. The night on which our story begins, he found himself in a seriously talented line up. The sax was played by Dave Liebman, a childhood friend of Garson's, who later played for Miles Davis. The bass player was a phenomenal jazz musician called Steve Swallow. The drummer was Pete La Roca, who was superb but later got fed up with gigging, drove a taxi for several years, then became a lawyer. He returned to playing in his seventies but died in 2012 from lung cancer.

This was not a "club date"put together for a party or event. This was a true jazz gig. The band contained some of the most virtuoso jazz players around at that time, and yet there was just a handful of paying customers in the room that night. Jazz fans then could be cruel and fickle, failing to support live music beyond the scope of a few big names like Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis or John Coltrane. Even at 1972 prices, those few dollars would not go far. He told his wife that this could not go on, he had had enough of the frustrations of the jazz scene. He said to her that night, "I think I want to go out and tour with some big rock band, play to larger audiences..."
Mike and Susan in London

The following day, in a beautifully felicitous piece of synchronicity, Garson was telephoned with no less than three separate job offers within twenty-four hours. One call was from Woody Herman, who led a famous jazz "big band" in America at the time. The job would involve touring constantly, playing seven nights a week, virtually living on the bus or staying in cheap motels on the road for little pay. The second offer was from the trumpet player from the Woody Herman band, Bill Chase, who had established his own band. Chase was subsequently killed in an accident on the way to a gig at a county fair, along with several other musicians.

Then there was a call from a certain Tony Defries, with an intriguing offer. It was indeed a rock tour, just as Garson had announced he had wished for, the night before. He had heard of neither manager Tony Defries nor his artist, David Bowie. Bowie was already huge in Britain and on the verge of breaking America, but his name would certainly not have been common currency in the jazz community.

"This was going to be a rock gig, and it was going to be easy for me to play, so to speak. But what I didn't realize was that it was a gift, and it was going to bring out my originality and my real style, rather than being limited to just the jazz vocabulary."

At the piano with baby daughter Jennifer
The afternoon that Garson received that life-changing call from Defries, he was teaching a piano lesson at home in Brooklyn, whilst Susan was at work. Defries introduced himself as David Bowie's manager. Garson asked: "You manage who?" Defries explained that Bowie was an English rock star who was going to break America, and he asked Garson whether he could be at RCA's studios in Manhattan in twenty minutes. His baby daughter, Jennifer, was by the piano, swinging in a little hammock.

"She's floating back and forth; I'm giving the piano lesson; Susan's working - we've always been working people. We were just struggling people, and I said to my piano student: 'Can you baby-sit my daughter? I have an audition!' I got in the car; I was there in twenty minutes. I left my student to babysit - my wife wanted to kill me. So, I run to the studio, I walk in, I see this booth. In those days, it's not like it is now - there was a booth with a window that separated the control room from the studio room."

The first thing he noticed was Mick Ronson's "wild blond hair" and high socks and boots, Trevor Bolder's "wild black hair" with silver on the sideburns, Bowie's red hair, shorter but full; whilst Garson stood there in a t-shirt and plain dungarees, "and I didn't know where the fuck I was!" The details of what happened next have been told many times in the music press and in biographies of Bowie, but Garson is clear that many of those accounts have been inaccurate, and now offers to give me exclusively his definitive account.

Photo credit: Rex / ITV

David Bowie, Mick "Woody" Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder stayed behind the glass and Mick Ronson joined Garson at the piano, greeting him in his broad Hull accent, saying, "Alright? I'm the guitarist, I arrange some of the tracks, I play some piano. We're coming into the States, we need a piano player." There was at this point no clue as to how they had found him or what plans they had, and the whole experience was bewildering for Garson. He says now that he was dazed by the whole whirl of it. He is clear that just the night before, after his five-dollar gig, he had specifically said he wanted to go on tour with a rock band; and here he was, hours later, being auditioned for exactly that.

Mick Ronson asked Garson to play by reading from a hand written chord chart headed "Changes", saying "This is a song we do, can you read it?" Garson says he looked at the chart, there was "a C chord, a C-sharp diminished, maybe a D minor, a G, maybe E minor or whatever; there were some lyrics on there, but the intro didn't have words, just chord changes. Ronson held it and was asking, 'Alright? Can you play this?'" Garson went straight into it, embellishing from those chords. The recorded version had been out for a while, but Garson had definitely not yet heard it at that point. They stood and watched what Garson did with this bare chord structure. After just the first few bars, Ronson abruptly stopped Garson and said, "You're in! You've got the gig". Garson recalls:

"I thought either he's nuts or I'm on an LSD trip, or somebody doesn't know something, or somebody really knows something, and gets it real quick! But, I didn't know which one it was, because I hadn't even got going. But... he's a piano player, he knew I could play. And they're all watching from behind the glass…"

His first reaction was to think "be careful what you ask for", and wonder whether he really did want this gig. He had his baby at home, his wife at work (and coming home soon, possibly in time to find his student baby-sitting). This would mean being away a lot. A moment later he was shown an itinerary: the first gig of their tour across America was in Cleveland, Ohio...and only a week away. That was it, his whole life shifted. He was hired initially just for eight weeks, but would in fact stay on the tour until it ended in London the following July, having been right across the USA, Britain and Japan. He was handed a cassette tape with the whole set on it, and had just days to learn these songs and to familiarise himself with the chord progressions through which his life would now change direction dramatically.

From left: Ann, baby Sarah and Trevor Bolder; Geoff MacCormack; June and Woody Woodmansey (crouching); three others; Mike Garson, Mick Ronson.

Bowie's Piano Man:
The Life of Mike Garson

by Clifford Slapper (Fantom, 2015)

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"The must-have book in this field."
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"A great book about one of the greatest pianists of our times." - Blues And Soul Magazine

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