After 32 International gold and platinum records, Carlos Alomar’s place in music history is secure. The legendary guitarist burst upon the rock scene with David Bowie in the mid-1970’s, when he, Bowie, and John Lennon co-wrote the hit song “Fame.” Over the course of the next 30 years, Alomar would record and tour the world as Bowie’s music director.
His ability to play R&B, Philly soul, hard rock, and ambient music meant that he was always in demand – and able to keep up with Bowie’s quicksilver changes of musical persona. He also co-wrote Mick Jagger’s first solo effort, “She’s The Boss,” Iggy Pop’s comeback hit “Sister Midnight,” and played guitar for a Who’s Who of pop/rock royalty – from Paul McCartney to Simple Minds.
As a rare Latino musician in the rock scene, Alomar also occupies a singular place in Latin music history. Over the years, as a producer, co-founder of the National Rock Movement of Puerto Rico, and advisor to the Latin Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (LARAS, the organization that does the Latin Grammy Awards), he has championed Latino rock musicians.
But Carlos Alomar is not about history; he’s about the future. While remaining active on the music scene, working with contemporary artists like the Scissor Sisters and Alicia Keys, Alomar has also become a cutting-edge figure in the worlds of music education and music technology.
Photo by Dennis O’Regan
Now, as the Distinguished Artist in Residence at Stevens Institute of Technology, Alomar is pioneering the use of digital technology as a means of giving young musicians the tools to change the way music is made. And he’s doing it at a university that is uniquely positioned to allow its students to do just that: Stevens has a 140-year tradition of combining academics, research, and hands-on, real-world experience in the fields of science, engineering, and entrepreneurship, earning its reputation branding as “The Innovation University.”
This may seem like a surprising detour from a road that began with David Bowie’s Young Americans, but the whole of Carlos Alomar’s career has been a surprise. It’s the story of a Puerto Rican-born minister’s son who became the music director of some of the world’s most lavish and legendary rock tours; it’s the story of a musician who has stubbornly refused to be put in a box. “Musicians don’t think that way,” Alomar says. “We have been impacted by everything we hear; we don’t put music in a box.”
Alomar grew up mostly in the Bronx and Upper Manhattan, hearing R&B and religious music in his father’s church. He began playing guitar in church at age 10, but was soon sneaking out to play in rock bands with his friends. “My father died when I was 14,” he recalls, “but he told my mom, the boy has a gift, don’t stand in the way of his talent.” So at 17, he became the youngest guitarist in the history of the Apollo Theater, walking on stage and winning over a dubious crowd with solo versions of Motown hits by the Supremes and Junior Walker. Alomar became a guitarist in the Apollo’s house band, performed with James Brown, and by the early 70s was a sought-after session musician for RCA Recording Studios in New York.
It was there that Alomar met Bowie in 1974. When recordings began for what would become Young Americans in 1975, Alomar brought much of the band, including the singers Luther Vandross and Robin Clark. “Luther was my best friend when we were fifteen, sixteen,” Alomar says, “and I met Robin through him.” Carlos Alomar and Robin Clark have maintained a long professional relationship – and a long personal one. They are married, and the parents of the R&B/dance-music singer/songwriter Lea Lorien. Robin Clark is perhaps best known as the lead female vocalist for the band Simple Minds, helping them to their greatest global success with the 1985 album Once Upon A Time – an album that also featured Carlos Alomar.
Alomar’s relationships tend to be long-term: he began working at Stevens Institute of Technology in 2005, and of course the musical relationship with Bowie would span, with a few breaks, more than three decades. You can put it down to Alomar’s versatility – and his ability to keep a level head when surrounded by what we might euphemistically call the “rock n roll lifestyle.” He led Bowie’s rhythm section for much of the 70s and into the early 80s; directed the Station To Station, Serious Moonlight, and Glass Spider world tours; and over the years would co-author songs like “DJ,” “Dancing With The Big Boys,” and “Never Let Me Down.” “I suited the music and was respected early on as a guitarist,” Alomar explains. “When Bowie wanted to do blue-eyed soul, I was doing the Philly sound, so it fit. Then, when he wanted to change to rock, or to ambient, I just did it.”
It’s too bad the Nike folks have claimed the phrase “Just Do It,” because it could easily have been Alomar’s. Whether it’s playing guitar, writing songs, or producing albums, he has shown a knack for just getting it done. This, not surprisingly, is how he now approaches music education. He has little patience for extended, theoretical exercises. “A person will take 14 weeks to study for a recital,” he says, “and at the end of those 14 weeks you have to do three songs. Taking 14 weeks to do three songs is not the way I think. So I say, why don’t you study your instrument for two months, and then come to me for the last month and then it’s like, we’re in the studio. This is how it’s done.”
This approach extends to technology as well. After poor critical response to the Glass Spiders tour prompted Bowie and Alomar to part ways for several years, Alomar immediately went to work on Dream Generator, a solo album of music for the new guitar synthesizer. “People expected me to do rock,” he says, “but I wanted to do something different.” Inspired by the possibilities of the new instrument, Alomar created an album of colorful electronic tapestries that, to his great frustration, he could not perform live. That has now changed.
“Technology is the future of music,” he says simply. “We still hear organically, but the means of production has changed dramatically.” The ability to bring music out of the world of ideas and into actual practice is what attracted Alomar to Stevens Institute of Technology in 2005. “The first thing I did when I got to Stevens was to borrow nine iGuitars from Brian Moore Guitars and nine Roland Synthesizers, just to show there are other ways.” Other ways in this case meant accompanying a 60-voice choir performing the music of Mozart’’s Passion with nine students playing guitar synthesizers. It was a dramatic introduction to the possibilities of new digital technology. And recasting traditional music theory as digital, or binary, information has proven to be one of Alomar’s most quixotic but successful moves.
“It’s because this generation grew up with this technology,” he explains. “A student will come to me and say, I play the guitar. And I’ll say, okay, play me a B minor seventh flat five 7-b5 chord, and they’re like, uh – wait a minute. But I break it down into numerical code for them, and in 15 minutes they can play any chord.” He is planning to further spread this way of approaching music theory in a book tentatively called “Conversations on the Guitar: Breaking The Code”.
Alomar has also maintained an involvement with the Latin music scene, producing the Argentine band Soda Stereo’s Doble Vida (in which he plays guitar – and raps). And as part of the National Rock Movement of Puerto Rico, he traveled throughout the island, producing and recording local rock bands. “Everyone just expected Puerto Rican musicians to play salsa,” he recalls. “So I came back with these incredible tapes, and I brought them to the various record labels. And the response was amazing: NO.” Puerto Rican music, he was told, was salsa. Not rock. The irony of telling this to rock’s most successful Puerto Rican musician seems to have been lost on the label chiefs.
Past and future have come together for Carlos Alomar. His resumé means the phone still rings (most recently it was Alicia Keys on the other end), and both he and his wife, Robin Clark, are still performing. Their daughter, singer Lea Lorien (“yeah, we named her after Lothlorien in The Lord of the Rings,” he admits with a chuckle), has also found a place for herself in the music world: she hit the top of the Hot Dance Music charts with David Morales’ hit “How Would U Feel” and is working on a solo album.
Alomar’s teaching program, a hands-on, get-it-done approach, has proven so popular at Stevens that the University is expanding the Music & Technology program, with Alomar as its first-ever Distinguished Artist in Residence. The facilities for the newly expanded program will include a Sound Synthesis Research Lab, with Alomar in charge, that is scheduled to open in January, 2011. It’s all in the service of arming students with new approaches to technology and learning music so that they can make a difference in the music world. What kind of difference? Alomar is reluctant to guess. “I can’t really define what they’re getting from us because they’re such brainiacs! They’re gonna give it back to us in ways we can’t anticipate.”
For Alomar, waiting to see what develops as a new generation of musicians makes its way in the world, with new tools and new ideas, is just as exciting as following David Bowie during their long collaboration – in other words, he has to be ready for anything. “We can push them off the edge,” he says, “but when they fly, they’ll soar. I’m happy to be the teacher, for a while; and then happy to be the student, when they soar.”