Bernard Fowler is a singer and musician who grew up in New York City who has been a touring member of the Rolling Stones since 1989 when he was asked to come on board as a singer for the Steel Wheels tour. In fact, Fowler will join the Stones on stage at Mile High Stadium on Saturday, August 10 for the No Filter Tour . But by the time Fowler became involved with the Stones, he had already been hired to do backing vocals on Mick Jagger’s first solo album, 1985’s She’s the Boss through the auspices of his friend and professional associate musician and producer Bill Laswell. Prior to that Fowler had worked with Laswell on the 1982 Material album One Down as well as various other of Laswell’s projects including the 1985 Compact Disc by Public Image Limited and, later, avant-garde composer Philip Glass’s 1986 record Songs from Liquid Days. Fowler’s power, versatility and taste has made Fowler an in demand talent in music for decades and his discography also includes performances on records and live with artists as diverse and respected as Herbie Hancock, Yoko Ono, Sly & Robbie, Ryuichi Sakamoto, James Blood Ulmer, Alice cooper and Bootsy Collins. Fowler has been around.
In 2019 the singer released a project that has been in the works for a few years now as an idea that had to become a reality and that is the album Inside Out comprised of Rolling Stones covers. But it isn’t merely a covers album. Fowler went through the Stones’ catalog and selected songs whose words struck deep and resonated with issues of racism, political corruption and class that were in the forefront of public consciousness at the time of their writing and the ways in which those cultural issues are very much at the heart of political discourse today not just in the United States but in the world generally. That approach to finding the songs with the appropriate words went hand in hand with doing the music in an almost entirely different style in the form of jazz and the spoken word and jazz fusion that was embodied by the East Harlem, New York City collective, The Last Poets. But unlike one of the other progenitors of hip-hop, Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets’ music wasn’t as widely accessible.
“Gil Scott-Heron, lucky for him, he was one of the spoken word artists that actually got played on the radio,” says Fowler. “So I heard him on the radio like everybody else did. But The Last Poets was a different story. The Last Poets was not something we heard on the radio. People learned about The Last Poets by word of mouth and the music played on the street. My older brother brought those records home. So we played The Last Poets at my house.”
Fowler was just slightly to young to have seen The Last Poets when he was coming up but in later years he met and hung out with Jalaluddin Nuriddin, one of the founders of the group before he passed away in June 2018. The collective still operates today with a 2019 album Transcending Toxic Times produced by Philadelphia-based bass player Jamaaladeen Tacuma. For connoisseurs of rap, The Last Poets are some of the founding fathers of the art form starting as spoken word poetry with a backdrop of percussion until 1973’s Hustler’s Convention where other instruments were added and gave the group’s music a more jazz and funk vibe. But the whole time, The Last Poets wrote sharply observant songs about life in the inner city in ways that hadn’t quite been articulated in the arts the same way up to that time.
“The things they were talking about were the things we were going through in the black community,” says Fowler. “Things are rough now but it was even rougher back then. And they talked about those things—poverty, corrupt government and children being hungry. It is also part of what influenced me to do this record. I just wanted to do something different. Someone wrote a comment about it being a vanity project. A vanity project? What’s so vain about doing something different? When I saw that the first thing that came to my head was ‘Fuck you, you don’t even know what you’re talking about.’ It’s like telling an artist known for abstract painting to not do portraits. Don’t paint portraits because we only want to see you doing abstract painting. People just want to put you in a box and if you step outside that box, oh, it’s a vanity project. This record is important for a lot of reasons, I think. It’s important because it mirrors the time we’re living in now and more important than that it shows how strong a songwriters that the [glimmer] twins are.”
Give Inside Out a listen and discover the real impact of the words written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Fowler stayed away from most of the big hits and chose songs that maybe some fans glossed over but whose lyrics struck Fowler deeply. In the liner notes of the album Fowler writes “Could it be that the Stones are actually some black guys disguised as English gentlemen?” And why so?
“Because the lyrics could have been written by a black cat from the inner city of New York,” offers Fowler. “Those lyrics were that strong. Obviously to be able to write and relate the way that they wrote they had to be going through something similar where they were. We didn’t have the internet back then so I’m sure they had an idea what was happening here but didn’t see it first hand. When you think about it, they did go through some shit. That’s where Exile On Main St. came From.”
Perhaps the only radio friendly song Fowler chose for Inside Out is “Sympathy For the Devil,” which is an oddity in radio play due to its length alone. It’s also the only song for which Fowler used the original chord changes and played by keyboardist Mike Garson. Otherwise the songs are rhythm driven and performed by some ace players in the jazz world including Ray Parker Jr. who many people really only remember for the 1984 hit song “Ghostbusters,” a song he also wrote and produced. Parker Jr., though, has had a storied career worth delving into including writing with Marvin Gaye, session work with Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Jean-Luc Ponty, Tina Turner and Herbie Hancock, to name a few. Parker Jr.’s guitar chops and creativity have graced numerous records including Inside Out and brought the jazz sensibility Fowler was looking to create in homage to The Last Poets’ style. So he also brought in other Midwestern jazz musicians like George Evans, Vince Wilburn Jr. and Darryl Jones – the latter two of which performed with Miles Davis – as well as jazz horn players like Keyon Harrold and Tim Ries. The result is an interpretation of Rolling Stones songs unlike any you’ve ever heard and which highlight the heft of the poetic clarity and heft of the lyrics of The Glimmer Twins. What do the Rolling Stones think of the album?
“They love the record,” says Fowler.
Catch Fowler on the road now with The Rolling Stones but keep an eye out for live performances of tracks from Inside Out when Fowler takes that music on the road to perform live beyond his home town of New York City.