David Bowie Diehards Rejoice: Rare Recordings Find Home in Drexel’s Archives

Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia made its mark on music history in the 1970s when artists recorded hit after hit in its studios. Artists from all genres, like Madonna, Billy Joel, The Jackson 5, Patti LaBelle, and The Roots, recorded at this local institution. In 2005, Drexel University inherited 6,200 of the studio’s master tapes dating from 1968 to 1996, when Sigma began recording digitally.

One of these tapes, labeled “reel 4,” was a recording by none other than David Bowie.

Created when Bowie recorded part of 1975’s Young Americans at Sigma in August 1974, according to Drexel professor Toby Seay the tape is one of few Bowie recordings that the artist himself doesn’t own. Taking care to employ a full-time personal archivist, Bowie has meticulously documented his life’s work, much of which helped fill the worldwide touring exhibit “David Bowie Is,” currently on display at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

With reels 1, 2, 3 or more lost to the ages, Drexel’s Audio Archives created digital copies of “reel 4” to send to Bowie. The artist allowed Archives director Seay to keep the physical copy, the only known tape from the Young Americans sessions. That is, until a surprising series of events led Bowie to reels 1 and 2: like any good thrift-shopper, he found them on eBay.

Seay, of course, was the logical choice to retrofit these new finds, digitizing the tracks for Bowie and preparing the physical copies to be shipped to him. Being a benevolent rock god, Bowie let Drexel keep the digital tracks for their archives. But wait, there’s more!

Drexel’s Audio Archives also house a mysterious tape labeled simply “DB.” Seay found it accidentally one day and soon realized it was a recording of a Bowie studio session. This hour-long tape features Bowie practicing songs like “Who Can I Be Now” and (get this) asking backup singer Luther Vandross to change up a vocal.

If you can’t make it to Chicago for “David Bowie Is,” the exhibit’s sole U.S. stop, you may have a chance to hear these rare tapes for yourself. Anthropologists, biographers, historians, and more have listened to them in person—by appointment only, that is. “David Bowie Scholar” must be a thing, right?