David Bowie: a musical icon and an undeniable influence over today’s music. This week, fans will be treated to hearing the music of Bowie backed by a live symphony orchestra, for We Can Be Heroes – The Music of Bowie Orchestrated. It will also feature vocalists Steve Kilbey from The Church, Chris Cooke, Dave Gleeson of The Screaming Jets and The Angels and internationally acclaimed music icon, Jeff Duff.
Jeff “Duffo” Duff rose to fame in the late 70s and early 80s in both Australia and the UK. With a phenomenal catalogue of albums under his belt, when I caught up with Duffo recently, I was curious to know what led him to forge a career in the music industry.
“It’s all I’ve ever known, it’s all I’ve ever done, and it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I started singing at home around the house, when Dad put on his Frank Sinatra albums. Mum also played piano; she played when I sang and then sent me off for singing lessons when I was about 12. I’ve been singing ever since. I haven’t ever stopped. The albums that I’ve written and recorded over the years are only due to the fact I’ve been in the industry for a long time.”
As well as his solo work, Duffo has become known for his performances showcasing the music of Bowie.
“I consider the David Bowie performances I do to be my day job. Having written and recorded all those albums of my own, I would much rather be going out performing my own music, but I’m always booked to do Bowie shows – I must be good at it! I have three different Bowie shows I do. One is Bowie Unzipped, which I’m coming to Adelaide to do in April; there is also the British Invasion show I did in LA last year with some other performers; and then there’s the Bowie Orchestrated show that is just grand. It’s amazing singing songs like Life On Mars with a huge orchestra behind you as well as a band.
“What attracted me to Bowie originally was the album Hunky Dory, before Ziggy Stardust. Once people discover one Bowie song, they go back over the catalogue of songs and get lost in all of the incredible material. Everything about him attracted me to him – his music, style, fashion. His albums are such works of art.”
It’s no wonder Duffo has become known for his work performing Bowie’s music. They both share a similar vocal range and quality, and Duffo was fortunate to have met Bowie on several occasions.
“I was living in London working under the name Duffo, and I was on all the major television shows, doing all the big concerts over there. I was working in a very groovy club in the West End called ‘The Embassy’ on Bond Street. One night the manager of the club came up to me and told me there was someone in the office waiting to meet me, when I went in, there was David Bowie. We had a bit of a chat and got to know each other. That would have been in 1979/1980 when I’d just moved to London. When I moved back to Australia a decade later, I moved into the place where I am now and I discovered I was living next to him. He lived there on and off for 10 years. We would catch up for coffee when he was here. On reflection, I think it’s the same with anybody when they lose someone, later you think about how you should have spent more time with them. I feel like that with David. But at the time I was very flippant. I wasn’t awed by meeting Bowie at the time, cos I was hanging out with the likes of Paul McCartney and Andy Warhol, but regret the time I didn’t spend with him looking back on it now.”
Bowie’s music is uniquely story-telling and naturally leads to working well with an orchestra.
“From early on, Michael Ronson, Bowie’s guitarist, was also a classically trained musician. He wrote string parts and orchestral parts for a lot of Bowie’s recordings. So, a lot of Bowie’s early albums were very orchestral to begin with. Life On Mars is my favourite number to sing on stage with the Orchestra, with that wall of sound just behind me.”
Musical Director George Ellis, who rose to fame from his involvement with the 2000 Sydney Olympics, has been taking the music of great artists, such as Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, The Beatles and others, and combining their rock music with symphony orchestras. He shared how Bowie’s music works hand in hand with a symphony orchestra.
“A song like Suffrage City is an out and out rock song. It never had an orchestral component when it was recorded or performed live, but the orchestra adds another dimension to it. I’m always hearing audience members saying afterwards that they had no idea that a song like that could sound so different – in a good way – with the orchestra. Hopefully, in my mind anyway, it embellishes and enhances it.”
We Can Be Heroes – The Music of Bowie Orchestrated will be performed at the Adelaide Festival Theatre on Thursday March 18 and Friday March 19 at 7.30pm. This performance will include all of Bowie’s greatest hits, including Space Oddity, Starman, Under Pressure, Let’s Dance, Rebel Rebel, Heroes, Life On Mars, Fame, Changes, Ashes To Ashes and more. Tickets are selling fast, and can be purchased through BASS or via https://www.adelaidefestivalcentre.com.au/events/bowie-orchestrated/
Interviews by Ben Stefanoff