I interviewed bassist Gail Ann Dorsey (picture courtesy of her Facebook page) in 2010 when Columbia Records reissued David Bowie’s A Reality Tour, a souvenir of his two-night stand in Dublin in 2003. I didn’t even know the album existed, until a few days before the interview when the label sent me the reissue (with three bonus tracks!).
A resident of Woodstock, N.Y., the bald and beautiful Dorsey started touring with Bowie in ’95, and got her moment in the spotlight doing the Freddie Mercury vocal in “Under Pressure.”
She was actually asked to play in Queen with original members Brian May and Roger Taylor (replacing retired bassist John Deacon), but substitute vocalist Paul Rodgers objected, as she details below.
Dorsey, who released a fantastic solo album called I Used To Be in 2004 (pictured below), also shared some interesting Bowie tidbits and revealed the secrets of her style. Perhaps most importantly, she inspired me to start learning bass. It has only four strings. How hard can it be, right? Riiiiiight.
I GUESS UNDER PRESSURE IS YOUR BIG MOMENT ON THIS RECORD? OR ARE THERE OTHER SONGS THAT YOU TAKE CENTER STAGE ON?
I think that one is definitely my moment. There’ve been other things in the course of the years of touring with David that I’ve had other kind of features. We do a version of Laurie Anderson’s “Oh Superman” which I did the whole lead on, which was really fun, back in the drum-and-bass era on the Earthling album around ’97. But for this CD, sure, “Under Pressure” is definitely my moment. When I heard that the record was coming out the first thing I thought was I hope it’s a good “Under Pressure,” I remember it from the DVD but it’s been such a long time since I’ve watched it or listened to it.
DO YOU REMEMBER THAT SPECIFIC PERFORMANCE FROM DUBLIN?
Funnily enough, I can. That night I actually do remember because knowing that it was going to be documented at least for DVD. I had no idea they were going to make a CD of it was well. But I hoped they would at some point. Every time I do that song and I’ve probably done it a hundred times now, I actually say a little prayer to do the best I can for Freddie Mercury because Queen are my favorite band of all time. It’s kind of a little bit of a coincidence that I get to do this. David didn’t know that when he asked me if I would be interested in tackling it because it’s hard to sing it and play it at the same time. It’s quite a task. But I always look up at the spotlight and I say to Freddie, “This is for you.” I just always try and do the best I can, but they don’t always turn out so great every night! It’s not an easy song to sing and it’s certainly very, very huge shoes to fill. I have a lot of humility and respect for having the opportunity to do that. I do remember that night. I do remember thinking this has gotta be a good one. It’s going down in history now!
HAVE YOU HAD FEEDBACK FROM THE QUEEN GUYS? FREDDIE’S FAMILY? JOHN DEACON?
I’ve had feedback from Roger and Brian. Roger actually has been out over the years. He’s been out once or twice to a couple of shows that we’ve done, and I was so excited to meet him. One of my heroes from my favorite band, and he was always really thrilled with my version of that. They actually asked me to take John Deacon’s place in Queen a few years back when John left the band, But there were a few circumstances. Once I was busy and the second time they asked me Paul Rodgers had started to sing with them and I don’t think he was very keen on it! That’s between you and me, or you can say it if you want. I don’t really care. But I was feeling that it was little bit too much for me. Emotionally that was a huge thing to get a phone call from your childhood band and say would you like to join us? I’m thrilled with the offer but I don’t think I could. It’s different. Freddie’s gone and John’s gone. It’s not really the same band. I still have huge respect for Roger and Brian but I just didn’t feel it was appropriate for me to really kinda step into that. It was one thing to be able to do “Under Pressure” with David but to really join the band of Queen was a big deal. Bit I did have good feedback from that, which was very pleasing to me.
THE IDEA WOULD HAVE BEEN FOR YOU TO VOCALS AND BASS?
A little bit of both. Bass primarily and also vocals on a few things. We were going to work out some things for me to sing. I think that was the sore point for Paul Rodgers! Not a competition thing but I think if he was going to be the singer he just wanted to be the singer. He was putting a little friction in the works and I just thought I don’t want to step into that.
HE’S OUT OF QUEEN NOW, ISN’T HE?
Yes he is. I actually only just realized that. I’ll have to give Roger and Brian a call and see what they’re up to! We could start a new band! Why not?
YOU SAID THE SONG WAS CHALLENGING TO PLAY AND SING ON. IS THAT THE CASE FOR MOST SINGING BASS PLAYERS?
Absolutely. It’s something that over the years I’ve gotten better and better at. It’s a matter of practice, and certainly the first time David asked me about singing that song he referenced the Annie Lennox version that they’d done at Freddie’s tribute at Wembley Stadium. And of course I’d seen.
And David said, “Let me see if I can dig up an audio version and maybe we can work from that. We’ll start from the version that I did with Annie because she did her own interpretation of it.” I was floored. And it was early on that he asked me to do this, maybe ’96, right in as we just started the tour with Nine Inch Nails. And it was my early days with the band. I started with them in the summer of ’95. I was very nervous, little frightened child, it seems like it, when I look back at it! And you never want to say no to anything. I didn’t want to disappoint him and say that I couldn’t do anything. I said let me just go away and I’ll let you know. And it took me about two weeks of basically drilling piece by piece the song, learning the bass and then adding the vocal and then taking sections and drilling them until they kinda meshed together. It was one of those patting your head rubbing your stomach type things. Very difficult. Some people make it look easy. There are many singing bass players but I think any of them will tell you it’s quite a feat.
I LOOK AT STING AND I WONDER HOW HE GETS AWAY WITH IT
He does excellent. Sometimes it depends on the type of bass line as well. A lot of things he’s doing is pretty much just laying down the root. It’s almost like playing the guitar, so it’s not quite so difficult. But when he does the Police stuff that sounds incredible. I don’t know how he does that. I’ve never tried!
HAVE YOU TALKED TO ANY OF THE BASS PLAYERS THAT HAVE PLAYED WITH BOWIE OVER THE YEARS?
Never. I wish. I’ve met Carmine Rojas from the Let’s Dance era. And I’ve only met him very briefly. We were on tour and I think at the time he was playing with Rod Stewart and our paths would cross. I never really had a chance to sit down and talk with him. We’d just meet in the dressing room and have a beer or whatever. I’ve met Dennis Davis, the drummer, who’s unbelievable. I have some great stories from him.
HAVE YOU MET CARLOS ALOMAR?
Oh, Carlos was in the band, in the first time. I love him. Carlos is amazing. But bass players, no. Not really many at all. Of course Earl Slick is also a veteran and Mike Garson. I would love to have met Herbie Flowers for example, the British guy who did “Space Oddity” and that era. Herbie Flowers is a great player. (Click here for a video about Herbie and his bass line for “Walk on the Wild Side.”)
HOW ABOUT WOODY WOODMANSEY (FROM THE SPIDERS FROM MARS)? (OOPS! I MEANT TO SAY TREVOR BOLDER INSTEAD)
I never met him. And then there’s another one, George Murray. I’m really bad. Sterling Campbell, our drummer in the band, he’s like a music aficionado. He knows everybody who’s played. I’m really bad at people’s names. I don’t really look it up. I just dig the music. If something really, really grabs me, I go “Who’s that?” I like the Young Americans era a lot, that’s my favorite Bowie era. That has Willie Weeks playing on the bass there, who’s one of my favorite bass players of all time.
WHO ARE SOME OF THE BASS PLAYERS WHO INFLUENCED YOU THE MOST?
I like Joe Osborn who played on the Carpenters stuff, Partridge Family, early Streisand, Fifth Dimension. That’s my favorite kind of music, believe it or not! I love that kind of stuff, that ’70s AM pop radio stuff. He was kinda the main guy who played on most of that stuff. I think he played the bass on America, “Tin Man,” those kind of things like that. He’s one of my all-time favorites. My biggest inspiration was Nathan East who actually produced my first solo record that I did many years ago in London. He’s my favorite, really. Something about him, he encompasses every bass player. He’s so good and so tasteful and has an amazing kind of vocabulary at his fingertips. He can play just about anything but just so tastefully. He never overdoes it, he never underdoes it. I always aspire to be a bass player like Nathan.
DO YOU PLAY THE UPRIGHT BASS AS WELL, OR JUST ELECTRIC?
Just electric. I’m self-taught. I have no musical training. I have never gone to music school. I haven’t had a music teacher. I don’t read music. I play by ear. Things without frets scare me! I have one in my living room. It’s more like a piece of furniture. Every now and then I kinda plunk on it because it sounds nice. I have tried to really think, “How can I incorporate upright bass?” I think it’s another lifetime. It’s quite an instrument. I stick with the electric. I started as a guitar player and bass was an accident.
DO YOU THINK BASS GETS RESPECT?
I think it does now. I think it didn’t for a long time. I didn’t even give it respect when I was younger. Until I became a bass player I didn’t realize how important an instrument it was in the ensemble, like super-important. It’s running the show, really. If you screw up, the whole ground comes out from under you, everything. You have a big responsibility being a bass player and I never realized that until I played. And then now as the years have gone by, especially for women playing bass there’s so many more women playing now than when I started, and I think people get into it more now. They realize it’s a credible instrument. There are more bass magazines out there. There are more singing bass players.
I COULDN’T REALLY THINK OF ANY MAJOR BASS PLAYERS BACK IN THE DAY WHO COULD HAVE BEEN A ROLE MODEL FOR YOU
There was Carole Kaye. There was the woman who played (with A) Taste of Honey (Janice Johnson). Who played bass in the Runaways? Lita Ford? No, she’s guitar player.
THERE’S A MOVIE COMING OUT SOON, WE’LL FIND OUT THEN!
Yeah we’ll know soon! I can’t wait to see that. I loved them when I was young. I love Joan Jett. (ANSWER: Jackie Fox)
DID YOUR APPRECIATION OF THE BASS ON THOSE ’70S SONGS HIT YOU AT THE TIME OR WAS THAT A LATER DEVELOPMENT?
I think later on I realized. I like that music so much that later on once I became a bass player and started to focus more on what the bass was doing I went back to those records that I loved so much and thought who is the person? For example the bass on “Stoney End,” Barbra Streisand’s version of the Laura Nyro song. That’s Joe Osborn. I loved that song as a kid, and the bass is really going to town. It lasts for 30 seconds of that track. It made me go back and go, Who is that? And I found out it was Joe Osborn. Someone sent me a list of all the things he’s played on, four or five pages long, it’s so many songs. But I like all kinds of music. That just happens to be my personal favorite, what I listen to most on my iPod. I love rock, I love jazz. I love it all.
WHAT WAS THE BASS PLAYING LIKE ON THE BEATLES RECORDS?
Of course. How could I forget Paul? He’s definitely my favorite Beatle. I’m afraid so! I used to be afraid to say that but I don’t mind anymore. I love Paul. He’s the best. He’s an incredible bass player. It’s the bass players that are melodic. He’s a very melodic player. A lot of the good bass players that I like also, they are songwriters. Or they sing, or they have some kinda other musical aspect, another string to their bow. And it shows in the bass where they play more lyrical lines. It’s not always just about groove or being funky. It’s this beautiful dance that the bass does with the vocal, with what the singer’s doing. That’s how I try to play. That’s what I’m always conscious of. I want to play something that’s almost another melody within the song, but at the same time keep the groove of it going. It’s a really nice challenge and it’s a lovely thing that you can do on the bass. That’s really cool, and people don’t even kinda notice it. But Paul McCartney does that most beautifully.
DO YOU STARE AT THE PHONE AND WAIT FOR DAVID BOWIE TO CALL YOU? HEY LET’S HIT THE ROAD FOR A THREE-YEAR TOUR? OR IS THAT NOT GOING TO HAPPEN ANYMORE?
I really don’t know. I don’t stare at the phone and wait for him to call, that’s for sure. I learned that lesson about 15 years ago. Being a session person you never wait for anybody to call. You’ve just got to keep going. I’ve been lucky that people do call, the offer certain things. I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know if he will or he won’t. I assume he probably will do something. I never assume that I’m gonna be a part of it but it would be nice if it was. I’m so humbled by this job. It’s unbelievable that I’ve had this experience that in a professional sense as a musician has changed my life forever. Especially this CD coming out now, it’s like an official stamp now. I’m going down in history on one of his many amazing live albums. I hope that he will return. I really don’t know. I never pry into an artist’s life or process either. I don’t write to him and go, “What are you doing?” Or call and go, “Why aren’t you playing?” You let people be and you see where it falls. I just try and keep playing and keep doing interesting things and hopefully do some good music of my own.
WHAT’S THE EXTENT OF YOUR COMMUNICATION WITH HIM, OR THE OTHER BANDMATES?
Emails mostly. That’s my communication with most people! I’m not a big phone user. Birthdays, Christmas, occasional things — that reminds me of you, or something. And I talk to the band as well. I talk to Sterling Campbell quite a lot, and (guitarist) Earl Slick. I actually just did a record with him and Sterling for a singer in Montreal called Anik Jean. We did her album over Christmas. And (guitarist) Gerry Leonard and Earl Slick, they live up here as well. They’re all about 20 minutes away from me.
DID YOU SEND DAVID A BIRTHDAY CARD ON JANUARY 8?
I sent him a birthday email! He’s just being Dad, I think, laying low. I can’t imagine he’s not writing or doing something, but we’ll just have to wait and see.
IT SEEMS HE BASICALLY DISAPPEARED. YOU NEVER SEE HIM IN THE MEDIA AT ALL
Has he ever really been? I think about that some times. He’s never been one to be always out about town. I don’t even read the papers. I don’t know. I wonder. He’s there when he’s doing something. You’re visible because you want people to know you’re doing something and get them engaged and come out and see you or buy something. I think he’s a little bit like Sade! When nothing’s going on, go home. What’s the point? Just to be seen in a restaurant? I don’t blame him in some ways.
BUT HE IS A ROCK GOD, AND YOU DO EXPECT ROCK GODS TO BE UBIQUITOUS
That’s true! Some are just a bit more outgoing than others, in the rock god category! There are some that stay present. I think generally he’s kind of a private person.
WHAT ARE THE EASIEST AND MOST DIFFICULT SONGS IN THE BOWIE CATALOG TO PLAY
The most difficult are some of the faster songs like Hang On to Yourself and Cracked Actor. The Man Who Sold The World, doing it the way the original was done. We’ve done a few different versions of that with different incarnations of the band that I’ve been in with him. But playing the bass part of that in the original pattern was a little tricky, to get the feel just right. You don’t want to be too retro. It’s awesome whoever did it (Tony Visconti).
There was a song that’s not on this that was on the (Heathen) album called I Would Be Your Slave (by either Tony Visconti or Tony Levin) that didn’t make the live record or the DVD. That was a little bit challenging. That part was just a beautiful part that I was just so enamored with that I was painstakingly trying to play every note just as it was on the record. And I remember spending a lot of time working on that and in my own bastardized music writing charts that I write that no one else can probably read, I remember writing it out so that I could really try to remember every nuance of that. It was a lovely bass part.
There’s another one that was hard. Drive In Saturday, which was (most recently) on the (VH1) Storytellers album. That was tricky. It’s those older real British pop, really early ’70s songs. That style of bass playing is tricky. It’s very complicated.
HOW ABOUT THE JEAN GENIE?
That’s pretty straightforward.
Oh yeah. That was tough. Now, Hang On to Yourself was very hard. I don’t normally play a lot of fast stuff, not any more. When I was younger and just started out I did all the slapping and all the fast playing and fancy stuff. I’ve mellowed out. For my own taste, I think less is more. But certain songs, when you’re recreating them, you play them as they were. That stuff is full-steam ahead!
BUT BOWIE DOES LIKE TO REINVENT HIS STUFF, DOESN’T HE?
Absolutely, quite a lot. When I first started with him we were really not doing the hits, as it were, quote-unquote. And if we were doing them we changed them so much people didn’t even recognize they were the same song until he started to sing it, including versions of “The Man Who Sold the World.” He gets bored. If you’ve been playing the same songs your whole career, the ones everyone wants to hear, he definitely likes to move forward. “Do I have to play this again? Well then we’ll have to do it so that I don’t recognize it.” So we would come up with these great versions, which were really fun. We kinda went full circle though. By the time this was out we went back to the more organic way of playing the older songs. But it still sounded fresh. By the time we’d done Reality, the band was just so right. The actual members of the band were perfect and were able to make a whole new sound, make it our own. I think he felt the same way, He was really enjoying singing the older songs again and that was exciting for us because we loved playing them.
YOU TALKED ABOUT BEING A NERVOUS LITTLE CHILD WHEN YOU FIRST STARTED WITH HIM. AT WHAT STAGE DID YOU BEGIN TO SHED THAT NERVOUSNESS AND FEEL THAT YOU WERE ACCEPTED?
I think it was half-way into the Earthling tour in ’97. It took a couple of years. Earthling is the only studio album that I play bass on. Outside had already been recorded when I started. I came in and did that tour, and then Earthling morphed out of the tour. Some members of the band whittled away and it got down to the quintet — four people and David. Then we did the Earthling album right off the tour and we all were involved. We went straight off the stage and into the studio, basically. That’s when I started to feel like, “I’m really here and I’m part if this.” I started to gain a bit more confidence because I was able to write my own bass lines and that kind of thing. From that point I felt that I had my footing. But I was terrified. I was in my early 30s, maybe 35, when I started. Quite a surprise for me, because he just called me on the phone out of the blue. I didn’t have any warning or anything.
WERE YOU DISAPPOINTED THAT HE DIDN’T USE YOU ON THE OTHER RECORDS?
Not really. Of course I would like to have been part of it. But I totally understand. Being a solo artist myself, you just understand and respect a person’s process. Unless you are a band with a band name, it’s the artist’s prerogative to do what they want, change who they want, use who they want. They want to get what they need to get. I never would assume that I was gonna come back, record after record, tour after tour. Once the next one’s finished, that’s my lot, thank you very much. Having played a week with him would have been amazing. To think that I’ve got 12-13 years out of it is unbelievable.
DID YOU GUYS MAKE SET LIST SUGGESTIONS TO DAVID?
Yeah, there were a few things. Everybody in the band would every now and then throw in their 2 cents of something that they really wanted to play. I remember at some point Zachary Alford, our drummer before Sterling, he got him to play “Five Years.” I got “Suffragette City” in there which I always loved because I used to play it in a top-40 band when I was 14! I thought I would love to play this for real with the real guy, wouldn’t that be incredible? “Suffragette City” was one of my suggestions as well as “Diamond Dogs” earlier on, I got him to play that for a little while. And I worked on him forever to play “Young Americans” but it never happened because that’s my favorite. I actually sing it on my solo show now. I only just started to do it just an acoustic guitar version of that, just for my own fun.
WHAT WAS HIS REASONING FOR NOT PLAYING “YOUNG AMERICANS”?
He just didn’t want to. He would never give a reason. He would either snub his nose at that and go “Nah.” OK, I’m not gonna push it. We learned “Win” from that album. We actually learned it and every night we’d say, “How about sticking ‘Win’ in the set list tonight?” And he’d go, “No, don’t think so.” I don’t know. It’s something about that album he didn’t want to do it. Other than “Fame.” That’s my favorite Bowie album of all time. I love that record, I just think he sings so great on that record.
“WILD IS THE WIND” — ISN’T THAT ON THE RECORD?
That’s on the next record, Station to Station. We did do that. That’s probably my second favorite Bowie record. I think they’re back to back. I can’t remember which came first, but they’re definitely next to each other. That era of Bowie is my favorite, soulful, more croony, just great stuff.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF TIN MACHINE?
I like Tin Machine. I didn’t have any of their records. I don’t know if I can remember the songs so well. They didn’t stick with me so good, But there were a couple of theirs that we did for a while. We did “Baby Universal” and “Amiapura” — kinda in that Earthling period. I liked Reeves (Gabrels, the guitarist), I have to say. I thought he was definitely the most colorful guitarist. He had a bite, that’s for sure! He’s really, really unique!
DID DAVID EVER YELL AT YOU OR YOUR BANDMATES FOR ANY WRONGDOING?
Oh gosh, probably! I don’t remember! He probably yelled at me for something else! Musically, not really. We didn’t screw up. You just don’t. Somehow you don’t. I’m not saying it to brag, but somehow it’s a mental thing. You just get prepared. You’re playing for David Bowie, you just can’t screw up. You just can’t. You do sometimes. Everybody makes a mistake, or hits the wrong something once in a while. I don’t think he ever yelled at anyone for messing up musically, He’s often had his idea of something he wanted to hear, and if he’s not hearing it that way he’ll get a little excited about it until you get it and he hears it, He’s a very lovely person. He’s not one to have temper tantrums and things like that. He’s pretty easygoing most of the time.
WAS THERE MUCH BACKSTAGE CAMARADERIE? YOU’D ALL SIT AROUND AND DRINK BEERS AND TELL DIRTY JOKES?
He doesn’t drink! Sober. But yeah, sometimes. If he felt he had a good night, he’d always come into the band dressing room usually right after the show and sit with us because you don’t want to be by yourself — unless he had a bad night and wasn’t feeling good about it maybe. But most times we all huddled together and some of us drink wine or beer or whatever. Go out on trips together. We had some wonderful trips with him. We went to the Motown Museum together on one of our Detroit shows, a little band outing. He often would do that. He’s a very smart chap. He’s interested in a lot of things, and reads a lot. I’ve been to several book stores with him and various things. When we’re out on the road he’s always out looking for things, learning things.
YOU’RE BOTH SMART PEOPLE, BUT IT MUST BE OVERWHELMING SOMETIMES TO BE IN HIS PRESENCE IF HE’S GOING OFF ON A TANGENT ABOUT SOMETHING THAT YOU KNOW NOTHING ABOUT?
Oh totally. I’m not as smart as he is. Some days I can take it and if I’m feeling fragile, I’ll go crawl in my bunk — I don’t know anything. I don’t know what anyone’s talking about. It can be intimidating sometimes.
HAS PLAYING WITH DAVID INFLUENCED YOUR BASS STYLE?
I think it’s made me a better bass player. All of the work that I’ve done with him has made me better and better and better, and more confident to tackle just about anything. Playing for someone like him with such incredible songs, the writing of the songs, the structure of the songs. It doesn’t get any better than that, unless you were playing (with) the Beatles. I think it’s just made me a better musician all round, definitely. There’s times it’s actually intimidated me a little too, when I go to work on my own music. I feel like I’m never going to be able to write anything as good as his stuff. But then I get my head out of that.
NOTE: For more on David Bowie, check out my gossipy rock bio Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles, which is available here. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 2013 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING