David Bowie Remembered By Past WMMS Directors

Concert poster for Bowie's second appearance in Cleveland, November 25 & 26, 1972.
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By Elizabeth Miller

David Bowie died Sunday after an 18-month long battle with cancer.  He had just released his final album, Blackstar on his birthday Friday.  About 45 years ago, a Cleveland radio station was among the first in the US to take a chance on Bowie. 

Cleveland rock station WMMS was at a crossroads in 1971.  The station served as an alternative to more traditional rock stations in the city.  Program director at the time Billy Bass said the folk-style music they were playing was getting old.

"We needed something fresh, something to freshen it up a little bit," said Bass.

As WMMS’ then music director Denny Sanders remembered it, in walks RCA record representative Chuck Dembrak carrying a record with no label on it.

“He says, 'I want to play you something that’s about to be released, what do you think?'" said Sanders. 

"I heard it, and I thought it was outstanding.  He says, 'the album is called Hunky Dory, and the artist is  David Bowie.'”

Sanders passed it to then program director Billy Bass, and soon, concert promoters booked Bowie’s first US show – on September 22, 1972, at Cleveland’s Music Hall.  Bass remembered introducing one of Bowie’s onstage personas that night.

“Being on stage, saying, 'For the first time in America, ladies and gentlemen, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars,' I was the man!" said Bass.

"I’m the guy that introduced this wonderful audience of mine to David Bowie.  Being in the audience to hear that show, and to see that show for the first time - mind boggling.”

Sanders said it was like nothing he’d ever seen. 

“He was dramatic, articulate, visually stunning, and just plain thrilling," Sanders said.

"He was lightyears ahead of just about everybody else.”

Bowie would play again in Cleveland 2 months later for two shows at Public Hall, an even bigger venue than before.

Both Bass and Sanders say WMMS was instrumental in launching Bowie’s career in the US.  Bass said later, the artist was also a large part of bringing something else to Cleveland – The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame  

"Because of David Bowie, and that music, and that sound, and the radio station becoming so big, it was probably inevitable that if there was going to be a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was going to be right here in Cleveland," said Bass.

David Bowie was inducted into the Rock Hall in 1996.  He died Sunday night at the age of 69.  


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