Five minutes into a conversation with Bernard Fowler and it’s easy to tell he’s the coolest man in the room.
He’s currently in New Orleans where he just performed with the Rolling Stones as part of that band’s No Filter tour. He’s been the legendary rock band’s back-up singer and percussionist for 30 years and life on the road is treating him right.
“Do they still got it?,” Fowler said about the Stones, all in their ‘70s. “I was doing a radio interview and the guy was saying he saw them in the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. I asked him, ‘When was the best show for you?’ And he said, ‘The one I saw the other day.’ And it’s true – they’ve gotten better over the years. I think it took this long for them to get comfortable with what they’ve done. It sounds like it and it feels like it.”
One doesn’t get to be the back-up vocalist to Mick Jagger by any chance occurrence. Fowler has been making music much longer than his tenure with the Stones. His recent work outside the band is Inside Out, a deconstruction of Stones tunes, performed in spoken word style. It’s funky, jazzy, and creative, much like his career.
Fowler grew up in the Queensbridge projects of New York City where he was influenced by the sounds coming from the windows of his predominately African American and Puerto Rican neighborhood. Music was a chance to escape for those more artistically inclined. His first paid music gig came for performing at and winning a talent show, singing Temptations songs at the Golden Terrace Ballroom in Richmond Hill, nestled between the Brooklyn and Queens boroughs.
He later helped to form the funk act The Peech Boys, a band ahead of its time, one that could be viewed as the road forward for hip-hop, R&B, and house music. The hit ‘Don’t Make Me Wait,’ would later become a favorite in the era of sampling and remixes. Look for it online and you’ll find countless dance versions of the song with its infectious four-to-the-floor bounce, falsetto vocals, and killer beat.
“A lot of people owe me some money,” Fowler semi-jokes. “That Peech Boys record was a huge record. At one time I was the most sampled voice on the radio – hip-hop and everything. Anybody who used a vocal sample more than likely had come across the acapella of the Peech Boys record. De La Soul, Queen Latifa, Big Daddy Kane, “Pump Up the Volume.’”
Fowler would later join Tackhead, another act ahead of its time, a theme the singer admits seems to follow him around. That late-‘80s/early-‘90s band parlayed in a melting pot of sounds including funk, dub, and hip-hop. He found himself in London when the group signed a deal with SBK Records, home to Wilson Phillips and of all acts, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
By this time, Fowler had become an in-demand singer, appearing on songs written by a who’s-who of artists and composers: Bootsy Collins, Philip Glass, Public Image Ltd., Herbie Hancock, and Mick Jagger. It was that last relationship that would lead to a guest spot on the Stones’ Steel Wheels album and later, an invitation to join the biggest touring machine in the world.
“When they asked me to go on the road with them, it was a no-brainer,” Fowler said. “When the world’s greatest rock and roll band asks you to go on the road, you don’t say no. I had a brand-new baby on the way not long after, so that steady work was a blessing.”
While he’s recorded two solo albums, 2006’s Friends with Privileges and 2015’s The Bura, it was his time with the Stones that gave him the idea to re-record some of their songs in his eclectic style. The Stones signed off on the project that would become Inside Out, which completely reinterprets some of their classic singles and deep cuts as genre-bending spoken word exercises.
Tracks include the fan favorite “Sympathy for the Devil,” which shares the percussion beat and piano riff of the original with little other similarity. “Sister Morphine,” with it’s straight ‘70s funk bassline, wouldn’t be out of place in a blaxploitation flick. “All the Way Down” is a wah-wah pedal rocker.
All of it is made wholly unique by Fowler’s vocal delivery, which isn’t surprising based on the sounds he grew up to during a time when spoken word poets carried heavy cultural clout.
“My brother brought home The Last Poets albums,” Fowler said. “I did work with [famed spoken word artist] Gil Scott Heron, but even before that there was a show on PBS, Channel 13 New York PBS, called Soul and it basically had up and coming artists, a few known artists, and spoken word artists. Amiri Barack, I saw him on there, Nikki Giovanni, I saw him on there. It’s part of my neighborhood and upbringing soundtrack.”
In between albums, he’s living the high life, traveling across the globe with the biggest band on planet Earth and doing what he loves to do for a living: singing and performing.
“It’s still a good time in the best way possible,” Fowler said. “If you really want to know how to do it, you need to spend a day in the life of someone on The Rolling Stones tour. The road crew is the absolute best and everyone has made lifelong friends being here and touring with them.”
The Rolling Stones perform at NRG Stadium on Saturday, July 27. Fowler’s Inside Out is out now.
Photo by Hans Elder