The singer Ava Cherry was sound asleep in her Lincoln Park home on the morning of January 11 when her phone began incessantly chiming and vibrating with alerts. Who’s Facebooking me and texting me this much this early? she wondered. What’s going on? Clearly something was wrong. She awoke at almost 5 AM to find some 350 messages reacting to the death of her ex-boyfriend and collaborator David Bowie. “My heart just sank,” recalls Cherry, who was raised in Woodlawn. “I felt kind of lonely. I don’t know why I felt that suddenly because, of course, he was married—but my remembering him from the past was just a flood of fantastic memories. He began my career in many ways.”
Though Bowie’s first marriage didn’t legally end until 1980, his love affair with Cherry spanned one of the late artist’s most intensely creative periods, from the tail end of 1972 until 1975, during which Bowie was either touring on, writing, or recording the albums The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), Diamond Dogs (1974), and Young Americans (1975). As a black woman, Cherry says she was able to give Bowie some confidence he needed to explore Philly R&B sounds on Young Americans, his so-called “plastic soul” album on which her voice can be heard in harmony with Luther Vandross’s. It was Cherry, after all, who introduced Bowie to the network of musicians at New York’s Apollo Theater, where he began piecing together a band to record with. In ’73 and ’74 Bowie produced the Astronettes, a nonstarter that features Cherry’s vocals on a curious collection of Bowie-penned tracks; the session was released in somewhat official forms in 1995 and 2009.
Cherry and Bowie split in ’75 as he descended further into drug addiction on the eve of his seminal move to Berlin to clean up. Since then Cherry has put out a handful of albums, including the very listenable 1980 disco record Ripe!!!. Next month she’ll begin work on a new release that she says will include a tribute cover of “Life on Mars?” “That was always one that made me really feel something,” she says. “And it talks about the lawman beating up the wrong guy—and that’s exactly what’s happening right now here in Chicago so I can relate.”
Cherry spoke over the phone on Tuesday about falling in love with the English gentleman behind the out-there Ziggy Stardust persona, Bowie’s attitude toward interracial dating, the rumors surrounding his and Mick Jagger’s relationship—and she even attempts to set the record straight about Bowie’s much-debated Labyrinth bulge.
You grew up in Woodlawn in a working-class family?
Yes. Trying to make ends meet! My dad was a trumpet player but he also worked for the post office for, like, 50 years. He worked two jobs all his life. He was the most wonderful man in the whole world, but I hardly ever saw him. At four o’clock in the morning he’d go out to work and wouldn’t come home until about nine o’clock at night. My mom worked for Playboy in the administration department and was a homemaker. Meanwhile I worked for Playboy too—I was a bunny and all that, lived in the mansion. She got that job on her own, and I got in another way: I went to a bunch of parties and then was invited to the mansion. The next thing I know, Hef asked me to pose.
So how does a girl who grew up on the south side of Chicago end up dating David Bowie?
We met in New York. At about the end of 1972 I was living in New York at that time and working in a nightclub called Genesis. My manager said, “There’s this guy from England named David Bowie, he’s really cool and he’s coming into town to perform at Radio City [Music Hall]. You gotta listen to this album.” So he gave me the Ziggy album, and I was like, “Wow, what a cool-looking guy.” I played the record and was very impressed by the music. It’s really different. At the time, I was hanging out with Stevie Wonder and his entourage and they were performing at Carnegie Hall. David was performing at Radio City the next night. Stevie said to me, “Where do you think we should do the afterparty after Carnegie Hall?” And I said, “Why don’t you do it at Genesis? It’s a nice place, nice size, it’s intimate.” So that’s what happened. The night of the party, everyone was there—Aretha [Franklin], Gladys [Knight]. At some point, my manager came over and said, “David Bowie’s over there!” He went over and got him and brought him over to me, and I said, “Oh my god, it’s the guy on the record! It’s Ziggy!” And he said, “Are you a singer?” I was not a professional singer at that point, but of course I wasn’t going to say no. He said, “Listen, I’ve got this tour I’m going to do in Japan. Would you be interested in going?” I said, “Yeah, I am.”
So he called me up and sent me the records—Ziggy and Aladdin Sane—and told me to learn this and that. But I got this note before I was to leave out to meet them that the tour had been canceled. David got sick and didn’t have a chance to tour in Japan. It really messed up my life because I had quit my job, I got rid of my apartment. I was like, He can’t do this to me! At the same time, a friend invited me to Monaco in the south of France. After I got there, I went to Paris on a search for David—and I found him. I speak French and I asked everyone I knew if they had seen him, if they knew he was in town or around. It was a year—a year passed by!—before I found him.
What made you so dogged about finding him?
I felt he was very special. I knew it after I listened to his record. I knew it after I had met him—he was a gentleman. Also, he was British, and I had never dated someone from another country.
So, yeah, it took me a year to find him. When I did, his main thing was to figure out if he could produce me. After we spent some time in the south of France, he had me come to London, put me in an apartment on Oakley Street, and we started recording in a studio the Astronettes material. These were mostly songs he’d written.
Bowie was famously a perfectionist. How was that first recording session with him?
Yes, he was a perfectionist, not just about the studio work but also about how he looked, how he wrote, all kinds of different things. He would go into the studio and he had a special way he wanted to record. That being said, he got along with all the musicians. They loved working with him.
How did your professional relationship turn romantic?
That’s the thing—it was always both, romantic and work. I would work with him and he fell in love with me. We met, we were attracted to each other physically but he also saw that I was a talent. He also wanted to be around me, so he said, “I’m going to put her in a group.” That was how that began.
What is it like dating David Bowie? Did you go out on the town?
We used to hang out with Mick [Jagger] and [his wife] Bianca a lot. We’d go to dinner and whatever parties were going on in town.
He would look out for me too. We were at an Andy Warhol party once and I was drinking champagne and I guess I’d had too much. He came over from the other side of the room and said, “Ava, don’t drink any more champagne.” I said, “Why?” He said, “You’re getting drunk. Do you want to be in the paper tomorrow drunk?” That stuck with me. When I go to functions now, I don’t even drink.
It goes to show how conscious he was of living in public.
He was. He used to say, “We see how people worship us. We have a responsibility and a power.” He used to teach me things. He’d say, “Sit down and read this book” or “This is called German expressionism.” He would just teach me things like that, and I appreciated it.
What’s it like walking into a room on David Bowie’s arm?
You’d walk into a room and the cameras would be flashing and popping. People wanted to touch him or speak to him or take his picture. We’d get dressed to the nines and go out to the clubs and dance and talk to people. Whenever we went somewhere, it was an experience because there were so many people who loved him, so many people who wanted to see him or talk to him.
Was that exhausting—trying to vie with all the admirers for his attention?
I wasn’t trying to vie for his attention because I knew I had him. I knew he cared about me. When he walked away [during a party], I was talking to someone else—Andy Warhol or Mick or whomever. I was never the jealous type who would follow someone around a room. Even if he’d be talking to other people about work, he made me feel secure that he was with me. You’ve gotta understand that you have a mate who’s in show business.
You mentioned that you and David were hanging out with Mick and Bianca a lot. You’re quoted in a 2012 Mick Jagger biography by Christopher Andersen as saying, “Mick and David were really sexually obsessed with each other. Even though I was in bed with them many times, I ended up just watching them have sex.” Is that true?
Nah, honey. I told them I didn’t say that, but it didn’t stop them from writing it. It was not the sensational Mick and David having sex. They were friends, but it wasn’t sexual between them. That’s why David said he would not speak another word to [his ex-wife] Angie. What she tried to do was come in and say all these things that were not true just to hurt him about whatever he was. If he did sleep with Mick, it was in total secret and I never did see it. What I’m saying is that we partied and we had fun but it wasn’t about he and Mick having any kind of sex or anything like that.
Let’s say he was ambiguous. He was comfortable dressing up and wearing his hair like Greta Garbo or whatever. That was what the whole glam rock thing was about—it allowed men to look like girls or a fabulous drag queen. But because his artistry came from mime, putting on makeup and stuff like that wasn’t foreign to him in any way.
Did you and David feel you were judged at all as an interracial couple back in the 1970s?
We never discussed race, we never discussed color, we never discussed whether people might not like it. We didn’t really give a shit, to tell you the truth. We really did not care. And I mean that. It was a subject that never, ever came up ever.
Was part of Bowie’s nonchalance that that he saw himself as an extraterrestrial and therefore not bound by human concepts like race or gender identity or sexual preference?
That’s what I’m saying! If he liked someone, that was it—he just liked them and would act accordingly. When we started dating, he was getting really into black music—Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye. One day he was like, “I really want to do a soul record. Where can I go to find a soul band?” I said, “The Apollo Theater! All the greatest groups perform there.” He was like, “Oh, OK!” So I came over to New York from London first and he met me three weeks later. When he got here, we went to the Apollo and saw guitarist Carlos Alomar perform. That’s when they began to form the band that would play on Young Americans. Carlos helped him pull in band members and they booked Sigma Sound Studios in Philly. Luther [Vandross] was on those sessions. David was dead set on being a black crooner. He was into Frank Sinatra, too, and all that stuff, and also Bryan Ferry—he really liked that crooner quality Ferry had in his voice.
Did you give him the confidence to sing black music? Despite being a fan of soul music, that obviously wasn’t his direct life experience.
It was my influence that helped him decide to do black music. I didn’t go in the vocal booth and tell him how to sing or anything, but I urged him to do it, to go to New York to find a band and to form a black group.
Do you ever listen to Young Americans these days?
Oh, yeah, I listen to it all the time. I still listen to all that stuff. I’m going to miss him so much. Luckily some of the things we did are recorded on tape so I can go back and recapture that magic.
Obviously you and Bowie had a great love affair. What kind of a lover was he?
I don’t think I can explain exactly how good of a lover he was, except let me tell you I was deeply, deeply in love. Read between the lines, my friend.
So how and why did your romantic relationship with Bowie ultimately dissolve?
The end began with financial troubles. What happened was that David freaked out because he thought he had millions and suddenly because of bad management or whatever he didn’t have much at all. He started being very irritable and erratic and was trying to figure out how he was going to fix what was going on, and obviously he was in some legal stuff. And so he moved out of the place he was in and broke up with me. It was one of those breakups like, “I’m so desperate right now and I have to break up.” It wasn’t like I had done anything. I just happened to be there when this streak of bad financial luck happened and he felt he had to be on his own to figure it all out. He was devastated and wanted to cut ties with everybody and be by himself for a while. He was upset all the time and wasn’t explaining it to me very well. I started to feel insane because he was upset all the time and I was trying to calm him down. I suppose if I was out $3 million, I’d be upset too and would be trying to figure out how to get it back. Because I was so young I didn’t quite understand why he was being so erratic, but now I do. It still was no less hurtful. I kept trying to find a way to not make it a final [breakup].
So then what happened was I was hanging out with my girlfriend who was a Playboy playmate, Claudia Jennings—she was a model and actress but she died in a car crash in 1979. Claudia said, “Come with me. Let’s go to Jamaica until you figure out what you’re going to do.” Truthfully, I really felt like someone had come and rescued me. David moved out and went to LA, and Claudia and I went to Jamaica and Barbados—we just traveled everywhere for about a month. When we came back, she had a very nice house up in the Hollywood Hills. She was dating Bobby Hart, the songwriter who penned a bunch of the Monkees songs. So she took me up to her house and I stayed with her. I knew David was in LA then and I reached out to his lawyer at the time. I said, “Please tell David I miss him and I want to talk.” The lawyer got the message to him and he did call me. I said, “I’m staying at my girlfriend’s.” David said, “I’ll be there in an hour.” So he shows up with his suitcase and says, “I’m going to stay with you guys.” Didn’t ask or anything. He was just tired of wherever he was. When he would get tired of people and places, he would just leave—just go. Of course I didn’t want him to go anywhere, so I asked Claudia if he could stay. She said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, he can stay with us—no problem.” She was very nice. Well, it turns out she had the use of Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood’s apartment in Century City in LA for about two months. And so that’s where the three of us went—Claudia, David, and I.
I was trying to pull him back in to see how we could do better. That was all good, but it was the period [around 1975] where everyone was partying hard and all that other stuff. He started feeling insecure about things and people and acting a little bit paranoid. He was worried people were going to hurt him—not physically. That’s when that started. Claudia urged me to move on.
When you say he was partying hard and was acting paranoid—this was related to drug use?
He was just like a lot of other people during this period—using coke.
In “David Bowie Is,” the exhibit that was on display in 2014 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, one of the Bowie artifacts shown was his cocaine spoon.
Everybody was doing it. Every time we went to a party people were doing it. But when I first met him in New York, he didn’t do any coke. He might’ve smoked some hash and drank some wine, but that was it. The thing that got him into coke was living in Hollywood. He had a capacity to stay up for two or three days. Some people couldn’t do that even if they were doing drugs. He could do that. Sometimes he would push himself to the limit of how long he could stay up.
Bowie was prolific in film as well as music. One of his more famous roles is as the Goblin King in Labyrinth. There’s been much speculation about whether his bulge is enhanced with a codpiece. Can you set the record straight?
What I can tell you is that he was the man I wanted and needed at that time. He could do everything that needed to be done. I’m just going to say this: He wasn’t Tiny Tim. [Laughs] v