Ava Cherry Gives an Insider’s Look at the Making of David Bowie’s Young Americans

Longtime David Bowie collaborator and artist Ava Cherry takes us behind the scenes of the making of 1975's Young Americans.

David Bowie
Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The second David Bowie World Fan Convention hit New York in June, featuring some of David Bowie’s closest collaborators in music, film, and fashion. Vocalist, songwriter, model, and actor Ava Cherry sang on some of Bowie’s most transformative records, and changed his outlook on music, fashion, and nightlife. From 1974 to 1978, Cherry was one-third of Bowie’s vocal backing trio, appearing onstage, in the studio, and on all TV appearances. Cherry and Bowie’s relationship was even closer than that, beginning as lovers, and enduring as friends.

According to the autobiography All That Glitters, written by Cherry and Lisa Torem, Ava was raised in Chicago, taking a job at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion when she was 17 years old, before moving to New York and working at the nightclub Genesis. This is where she met Bowie, who asked her to provide backing vocals on an upcoming tour in Japan. When the tour was canceled and David disappeared, Ava quit her job, gave up her apartment, and tracked him through Europe, taking modeling jobs for magazines like Vogue and Elle before catching up with the elusive singer in Paris a year later.

When David wanted to explore “blue-eyed soul” for his Young Americans album, Cherry was his guide, bringing him to the clubs where Bowie would find his rhythm section, led by guitarist and musical director Carlos Alomar, and fill out his backing vocals with Luther Vandross and Robin Clark. Cherry can be heard prominently as the high harmony at the end of Bowie’s first number one hit, “Fame,” in the vocal booth with John Lennon.

Cherry’s first solo album, Ripe, was produced by the legendary Curtis Mayfield. Her follow-up, A Streetcar Named Desire, produced by Bob Esty, was the victim of pop radio segregation. Her third album, Picture Me, spawned two dance hits. Spend the Night, released in 1997, was one of the first records to be distributed primarily via the internet.

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Ava’s latest single, “So Delicious,” dropped on March 15. The tasty tune corresponds to Cherry’s latest project, co-starring as the vampire Queen Citrine in director Tony DeGuide’s upcoming VampireS, with Richard Grieco and Eric Roberts. Cherry sat with Den of Geek to talk of her past with Bowie, her current projects, and musical conventions.

Den of Geek: When you first met Bowie, did you have any inkling you’d be at a David Bowie Convention?

Ava Cherry: When I first met Bowie, it was so long ago, I wouldn’t be thinking about conventions. I loved his music, I wanted to be a part of it, and I loved him on top of it.

You met Bowie at a party for Stevie Wonder, and I heard you call Stevie a mentor. What did you learn from Stevie?

When I first met Stevie, his girlfriend at the time was my best friend, and she would just invite me to some of the sessions. I was a Stevie Wonder fan from day one. That’s how I met him. Just before I went to find David, I asked him if I should work with him, because he’d asked me to go to Japan. And Stevie said, “Of course, do it all. Anything that brings you into the whole entertainment spectrum.”

How did David actually ask you to go to Japan?

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At the Stevie Wonder party, which was at Genesis, the club I used to work. Stevie asked me where we should give a party after he did Carnegie Hall. David was also doing Radio City that week for his American tour. My manager had given me Ziggy Stardust, the record. He thought David was going to be huge, and I didn’t have any idea who David was. I listened to it, and I really liked it. At this party about a month later, my manager came up to me and said, “Oh, you’ll never believe who’s in this room. That guy David Bowie I was telling you about.” He said, “I’m gonna go over and get him, and introduce you to him.”

At the time, I had short platinum blonde hair, and David had red Ziggy hair. David said, “Pleasure to meet you. I love your hair.” And I said “Well, I love yours too.” We hit it off right away. Later, we were all in the party singing. Stevie was at the piano, and all the R&B who’s who was in the room, Aretha [Franklin], Gladys [Knight], and I started singing. David looked at me and said “You’re a singer?” And I said, “Well, I’m just starting to become professional.” He said, “Maybe you’re interested in going to Japan with me? Your look and everything is right.” I said, “You want me to go to Japan?” I went and that was that.

You met Bowie when he was still in his Ziggy period. Do you remember him making the decision to move on from that character?

When I first met him, he was glam rock and Ziggy, which I loved him in that role. One day, when we were living in London, I used to play Aretha Franklin around him all the time, and Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye. And he said “I want to do soul music, where should we go?” And I said, “Well, we should go to New York, and go to the Apollo. Some of the top R&B acts in the world are at the Apollo.

Do you remember who was playing when you first took them to the Apollo?

Oh yeah. Richard Pryor was the comedian. I remember that so well, because then Richard and I became friends. The Spinners, The Temptations, Cuba Gooding father’s group the Main Ingredient. David thoroughly enjoyed it. He was really excited to be around all those people.

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What was Pryor like as a friend? Did he hang with Bowie?

He didn’t hang with David. He met him, and they liked each other. After that, when I was living in LA, I would see Richard all the time. He would always invite me to the gigs, and just have me around, and we would all joke around. I wasn’t like his bosom buddy or anything like that. It was just whenever we saw each other we always were friends.

Do you remember any of the other clubs you brought Bowie to?

Oh yeah. Max’s Kansas City, Studio 54.

What it was like to be in the recording booth with Bowie and John Lennon?

It was a fascinating session because, of course, John Lennon was wonderful, and David really liked him so much, and was so excited to be working with him.

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What was it like to go out socially with John Lennon and Yoko Ono?

That was fun too. John and Yoko, I always wondered why the Beatles didn’t really like her that much. But it was because of women’s lib. I finally discovered it. It was so funny. I remember, I think it was the night we did “Fame,” we went back to the Dakota with Yoko and John, and we were sitting up all night, just partying and having a good time, talking and laughing and everything. It got to be about six o’clock in the morning. David said to me, “Ava, could you make us some coffee, and maybe some breakfast or something?” Yoko says, “Why should she make coffee and breakfast? She’s been up all night like the rest of us? Why is it her job to do that?”

David was looking at her with his mouth open, like, wow. I don’t think he was expecting her to do that for me. She said, “You don’t make coffee” to me. I just stood there, and didn’t make coffee. John was laughing his butt off. He was sitting in the kitchen, spitting over the fact that she was so wonderfully sure of herself, and confident in what women’s roles were, and what they were not. I really respect her for that.

Do you remember the early sessions, and how they gelled after bringing in Luther Vandross and Carlos Alomar?

When we went to the Apollo, Carlos was playing with The Main Ingredient. He brought Luther to the studio. That’s how we got Luther. Carlos was the musical director on that album. Truthfully, I was listening to the music, but I was more concerned about the vocals in those days. I knew the music was good, but I was trying to get my parts right. But it was a good interaction of all of us.

How were the vocals arranged for the Young Americans album?

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The background is an intricate part. Luther Vandross was very astute and very wonderful in getting done. His participation made it what it was. David let Luther arrange the parts, and the way they fell down came out really great.

Fashion is a big part of Bowie’s legacy. Do you remember the first style change you suggested?

Yeah, I mean, he used to wear my clothes! One of the pictures for Young Americans, he’s holding a glass of milk up, and he’s got a flight suit on. That was my flight suit. I had it on one day, and David asked to wear it, and he never gave it back. That’s how it started. He used to wear my shoes too. Then of course, when we met my dad, my dad had a closet full of Zoot suits. He asked my dad to borrow one. He had Freddie Burretti knock it off.

Your debut album was produced by Curtis Mayfield. How did he get your voice for the debut?

Oh, now that was great. I was working with Gil Askey, a great Motown producer. But he and I didn’t really get along that well. It was funny, we would be doing a track, and he would say, “Oh, I know the reason you sang it that way, because you were with David Bowie.” I didn’t quite understand where he was coming from, but I don’t think he liked David very much. I took offense to it because I didn’t quite understand it. I don’t think we were suited as producer and artist.

I went to Morris Stewart, who was the manager of Curtis at the time. I said, “Listen, Gil and I are not getting along that well, and I would like to work with somebody else.” He said, “I’ll ask Curtis to do a couple of tracks.” I said, “Oh wow.” He got Curtis on the phone. Curtis was so wonderful. So sweet, just perfect for me. Curtis said, “Of course. Let’s figure out a date and let’s do it.”

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Then I got in the studio, he encouraged me, He would sing [lines] to me until I [got comfortable and] would sing it out. I loved him so much. I enjoyed that so much.

You’ve explored a lot of different musical genres. Which are the most challenging, and what’s the most comfortable?

I have done dance music and then radio music. It didn’t really change, it was still pop, R&B, or more dance. I’ve done a couple of rock records. I’m just about doing music, whatever I liked, and I know I could do a few different genres. My last thing was “So Delicious,” but before that, the single “Love Shines So Bright,” that one is doing really well around the world. In April, I was in the Top 30 UK charts, and I came in at number 3. I got a lot of airplay on that one.

How did you get involved with the film VampireS?

It was a director I had met a little while ago. He saw some things I did on video, and asked if I was interested in filming this part, Queen of the vampires. I look forward to the beginning of a brand-new career in acting, even though being a performer is acting. It’s not the same as doing dialogue.

You were with Bowie during the making of Man Who Fell to Earth. Can you tell me a little bit about that period?

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David always wanted to act. He always told me he knew that what he was doing could influence millions of people. Fame and everything was taking a little bit of a toll, in terms of music. I was there the day he got the script. The doorbell rang, I went to the door, and the guy handed me a script, and said it was from Nicolas Roeg. He started reading it, and said, “Wow, this part is perfect for me. This is me. This is what I am.”

The David Bowie World Fan Convention is an annual event powered by Sound City.