He’d been Ziggy Stardust and Alladin Sane, a wild innovator and one of rock’s more “out there” stars. But by 1983, David Bowie had perhaps grown tired of putting on masks and other-wordly personas and just wanted to be himself. And to take his career to the next level. On this day 39 years ago, he had succeeded, with his single “Let’s Dance” hitting #1 in the U.S. It was the first single and title track from his 15th studio album, which would go on to be the biggest of his career.
Bowie had, of course, some degree of success before in the 16 or so years he’d been recording prior to this. He’d even had a prior American #1 song, (“Fame”) and in his native Britain, he’d scored three. Nevertheless, he’d always been considered a bit of an oddity, a mid-level star known more for his wild appearance and alter-egos than his radio hits. He wanted to change all that. To do so, he had to step on a few toes. When preparing to record a new record, he’d originally penciled in his friend Tony Visconti to produce it, as he had his last four albums. He had a last-minute change of heart and brought in Nile Rodgers instead.
Rodgers was the American guitarist and co-leader of the band Chic, which had put out a string of disco-based hits at the tail end of the ’70s, and was also integral to producing and putting together the sound of Sister Sledge. Rodgers says when Bowie called him, “he told me that he wanted me to did what I do best – make hits.”
That he did, and he made Bowie’s sound a bit more danceable, a bit more smoothly pop-sounding than it had been in the past. This song for example, was (according to Bowie) rather a folksy-sounding guitar ballad before Rodgers got his hands – and session player pals – on it. Even when it was completed, Bowie didn’t think it sounded like a single. He was partial to “China Girl” (which would in time be released as a single and make #2 in the UK and #10 in the States) but both Rodgers and Bowie’s new record label, EMI , which he had just signed to, insisted otherwise. Wisely so, as it turns out, as it hit #1 in the UK, U.S., Canada, Ireland and elsewhere, quickly propelling the album to the top of the charts and platinum status.
The BBC applauded the song’s “loud stadium-ized drum and bass sound” while journalist Johnny Law noted with it, “Bowie became for the first time. a global pop brand.” That would be helped along by the following singles, the aforementioned “China Girl” and “Modern Love.” “Let’s Dance” would have a second-life, unfortunately precipitated by Bowie’s death in 2016. After that it quickly rose to #23 again in the UK and was the #6 most-streamed song in the U.S.
Bowie wasn’t the only one to benefit from the great single. The striking guitar work on it is courtesy Texan bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan, whom Bowie had seen at Montreaux the previous summer and been impressed enough to want him on the record. Vaughan had been a popular bar performer in Texas but was not widely known in 1982. After the Bowie single, he put out his debut album, Texas Flood, later in ’83 and it hit #38 in the U.S. and spawned his first hit song, “Pride and Joy.”