As the Grammys prepare to pay tribute to David Bowie next week, legions of fans continue to remember his many artistic contributions to music, pop culture and fashion.
On September 16, 1965, David Robert Jones changed his stage name to David Bowie, which was only the first of myriad monikers he would take on throughout his career. News of his death from cancer on January 10, just two days after his 69th birthday and the release of his final album, Blackstar, shocked and saddened people all over the world.
The Grammys immediately tapped Lady Gaga to perform and Nile Rodgers to direct a tribute to Bowie at this year’s awards show, which will be broadcast live by CBS on February 15. In a New York Times article, Ken Ehrlich, the longtime producer of the Grammys, said that Lady Gaga’s performance “. . .is going to be a true homage to who David was, particularly musically, but not ignoring his influence on fashion and pop culture in a broader way.”
Ahead of what will surely be a memorable tribute, here are some of his biggest contributions to the arts and the world at large.
A Generous Collaborator
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted David Bowie into its ranks in 1996, and he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 for his impressive musical legacy, which comprised 26 albums. While it’s easy to draw a line from Bowie to many current pop stars, musicians from all over the spectrum—Joan Jett, Nirvana, Kanye West, Marilyn Manson, Arcade Fire, Beck, Bauhaus and Nine Inch Nails, just to name a few—cite him as a major influence.
Bowie had his first hit song in 1969 with “Space Oddity,” and the others that followed, including “Suffragette City,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Heroes,” “Fashion,” “Modern Love,” “China Girl,” “Young Americans” and “Golden Years”—would cement his place in the pop music pantheon. But his gift for collaboration really set him apart. Rock stars are not well known for their generosity to other artists, but Bowie recognized that he was adept at building bridges between different worlds. In 1975, “Fame,” co-written with John Lennon and Carlos Alomar, became Bowie’s first American No. 1 single; he wrote and recorded “Under Pressure” with Queen in 1981. For his 1983 album, Let’s Dance, Bowie recruited then little-known guitar virtuoso Stevie Ray Vaughan, who he had met the previous year at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. He even leveraged his celebrity to produce albums for Lou Reed (Transformer) and Iggy Pop (Idiot and Lust for Life), who asserts to this day that Bowie’s help resurrected his career.
An Art Lover
As a teenager, Bowie attended art school and was a painter himself before he dedicated himself to pursuing music. But he often noted that his love of art informed his music and he became a collector early in his life. His lyrics often includes references to artists, for example, Georges Braque in “Unwashed and Slightly Dazed” and Chris Burden in “Joe the Lion.” In 1974, Bowie partially based the set design for his Diamond Dogs tour on the work of satirical German artist George Grosz. Later, he pursued painting on his own and also became a writer for Modern Painters magazine. His life and career was the subject of the popular exhibition “David Bowie is,” which debuted at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum in 2013 before traveling to Berlin, Chicago and Paris, among other cities.
A Fashionable Role Player
With his thin frame and strange eyes (one clear blue, the other nearly black due to an enlarged pupil that resulted from a schoolyard fistfight), Bowie always had quite a singular look that evoked speculation: Was he male or female? Gay or straight? Alien or human?
For his 1972 concept album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, Bowie’s alter ego is a glam-rock alien bisexual who wears lots of makeup and strange wigs. He kept up a similar look for a few years before undergoing a full-scale makeover and entering his Thin White Duke soul phase. By doing so, Bowie made it not only okay to be different, he channeled the power of consistent transformation. His success proved the value in constant reinvention, which inspired not just fans of his music, but the creative community that cared about clothes.
In his 1980 hit, “Fashion” from the album Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps), Bowie blasts the shallow nature of the fashion industry, yet, at the same time, expresses a morbid curiosity about it all. Whether it was intentional or not, Bowie helped make fashion into the ever-evolving cultural force that it is today.
A Singular Actor
Bowie’s love of theatricality naturally extended to film and live theater where his chameleon-like skills served him well in a wide variety of memorable roles. In 1976, he landed the title role in the film, The Man Who Fell to Earth. In 1980, Bowie starred on Broadway in The Elephant Man, and was critically acclaimed for his performance. In 1983, he starred alongside Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve as a decrepit vampire in Tony Scott’s art film, The Hunger. Perhaps most interesting was his 1986 star turn as Jareth, the Goblin King, in the fantasy-adventure film Labyrinth, directed by Jim Henson and produced by George Lucas. Bowie performed opposite a teenage Jennifer Connolly and a cast of puppets in the movie, which became a 1980s cult classic and endeared him to a new generation of pint-sized fans. He also portrayed artist Andy Warhol (an inspiration and the subject of his 1971 song Andy Warhol) in Basquiat, the 1996 biopic of Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Champion of Equality & Self Expression
Although Bowie wasn’t the first rock musician to identify as gay (and then bisexual and then straight), his matter-of-fact discussions about sexual fluidity helped push the rock world—and, along with it, the rest of the world—toward today’s level of acceptance for alternative lifestyles. He was also an early and consistent support of equal rights for women and minorities. While being interviewed on MTV by VJ Mark Goodman Bowie noted that the two-year-old network seemed like a solid enterprise but was unafraid to point out what he perceived to be an unfair racial bias in their programming. “It’s got a lot going for it. I’m just floored by the fact that there are so few black artists featured on it. Why is that?”
As recently as 2014, Bowie and actress Tilda Swinton dressed up as one another for a PSA campaign that declared, “Gender is between your ears, not between your legs.”
An Inspiring Humanitarian
Bowie never shrunk from using his star power to do good and some of the main projects he and his wife Iman supported include Live Aid, Amnesty International, 7th on Sale (which benefited research into HIV/AIDS), Break the Cycle, which focuses on helping women out of domestic abuse situations), Keep a Child Alive which works to protect African children from AIDS. While he and Iman worked hard to keep their private life under wraps, it’s telling that the couple made their first public appearance at the “7th on Sale” event to benefit AIDS research in 1990.