Earl Slick on Being David Bowie's Sideman and His New Documentary

Though a prolific guitarist and blues musician in his own right, Earl "Slicky" Slick is most known for his work as David Bowie's sideman throughout his extensive career, from Diamond Dogs to Blackstar.

But what exactly is a sideman? According to Slicky, a sideman's job is to "get up there, and make sure you got [the artist's] back. If anything’s wrong, you’re there to catch him if he falls. You’re the guy."

Audiences are used to seeing sidemen sharing the stage with their favorite stars, but they rarely realize what the dynamic between the two musicians is and what the sideman's role is truly about.

To shed light on that role he and so many others have been doing for so long, Slicky set out to film a documentary that takes a closer look at the story of the sideman. We sat down to talk with him about that documentary and why its such an important story.

I want to start with the documentary that you’re making about sidemen, Rock 'n' Roll Guns for Hire: The Story of the Sideman. Can you talk about that? How you’re involved, the story, and why it’s important?

I’ve had people telling me for years that I needed to write one of those “tell–all” books that were popular for a while. At the time, nothing was out that really focused on what I do [as a sideman]. This was 10–15 years ago, way before 20 Feet from Stardom and Muscle Shoals.

Photo by Chuck Lanza

I was initially putting together a book, but I was contacted by Francis Whately (who I worked with previously on Five Years and then The Last Five Years) who said, “This is a movie, not a book, so we’ve got to start putting together a concept.”

There are people that are integral to an artist, be it to their songwriting or studio work. Sidemen are extensions of the artist that everybody knows, right?

Yeah, exactly. I address the stage a lot [in the film], mainly because that’s where it’s the most evident — where you see the relationship between artist and sideman.

When you see it on film, especially the last couple tours that we did with David Bowie, I’m front and center. Bowie gave me half of the stage and would say, “Slicky, that’s your real estate. Fucking work it.” I said, “You got it, boss.”

We had an unspoken language of when and what — when I would take over the front man situation, and when I would give it back. If you watch a whole concert, you’ll notice that David will just disappear off the stage at times, leaving me there to be the frontman.

Because David and I did it so many times, I could tell without looking when he was getting ready to leave and when he was coming back. We were that closely connected.

The audience sees this and falsely assumes there’s a real “rock and roll” lifestyle that goes along with it — 20–year–old mansions with 15 servants and the rest of it. When, in reality, the payback isn’t what you think it is, even with high–profile artists like David Bowie.

We’d be on the bus and he just hated when the little kitchen area got coffee spilled around it. He’d clean it himself.

The audience puts us on such a pedestal without understanding what really goes into being a sideman.

The audience puts us on such a pedestal without understanding what really goes into being a sideman.

So the film is trying to convey what being a sideman actually means.

Yes. We interview a variety of people, like myself, Bernard Fowler, Lisa Fischer from 20 Feet, and Steve Cropper.

Buddy Guy is in the movie, too. He started off as a sideman, playing behind all kinds of people before he went out on his own. He’s the anomaly in the movie because he’s the only one we talk to who went out on his own and became as major as he is.

But [the film] is about what it’s really like to be the sideman. You don’t set your price, you don’t set the dates that the tour goes out, you don’t set what songs you’re going to play. That’s the artist’s job. Your job is to get up there, and make sure you got his back. If anything’s wrong, you’re there to catch him if he falls. You’re the guy.

We’ve been talking a lot about the sideman on stage, but I don’t think many people would use the same term to describe the musicians who play in the studio. They would say session players, but it’s basically the same thing, right?

Yes, and no. When you’re working in a Bowie–like structure, where you continually work with the artist, then yes. You’re still the sideman in the studio doing all of the same things you do live on the records.

Slick and David Bowie on the Reality Tour

But there are guys who are strictly session players, too. I’m not a session player because I have a very blues–based style of playing. I can’t read music, and I can’t just do session work.

There are guys like Steve Lukather who, I think, is one of the most amazing guitarists in the world. He can do anything, sound like anything. He does live work, but he’s ultimately a session musician because he can walk into any session and play anything for real.

These guys don’t have an image, per se. It’s not about what they wear, it’s about the fact that they make records. And that’s the difference.

Do you think that sidemen ever want to be the frontman, or are most sidemen content in that supportive role?

I think a true sideman is happy with what he does. I never wanted to be the guy in front. It just never interested me. I want to be the support guy, the guitar player. I want — need — that man up front that I can feed off of.

Do you think there are other sidemen who do want to be in front?

There probably are, but a lot of them don’t. I think if you gave Ronnie the choice of being a big star on his own without The Rolling Stones, he’d probably say, “Fuck that shit, I’m a Rolling Stone.”

But what we sidemen do have is the urge to write songs and put records out, which we do. I have no expectations when I put albums out. I do them for the sake of it — because I have to, for my gut, for my soul.

Yeah. You gotta feed both masters at that point, right?

You do. You have to be able to get out your own ideas that may not necessarily apply to your gig as a sideman. I’m a blues player, by all means. That’s my love.

That’s what I was doing when DB hired me, which was funny because I was 21 or something, and my bands were all doing blues. I was like, “This is a bit out of my comfort zone.” But I think that’s what he liked. That’s why I got hired.

Slick playing with Buddy Guy. Photo By Chuck Lanza

I’d love to talk some gear with you for a minute. I’ve seen photos of you with everything from a Framus to a Fender. Are there any favorites in your collection?

I have lots of babies here, and I’ll occasionally gravitate toward one for a while and then another one. I do have my own line — the Slick guitar line — and I really like one of them. I have a Strat that I use, and I use my Nash Tele all the time.

It’s interesting that you have a Nash, and you’re not rocking an old ‘52 Blackguard or something. What made you gravitate toward the Nash?

I was at NAMM four or five years ago, and someone told me that I needed to have a listen to this guitar they had. They handed me a Tele, so I started playing it, and said “Fucking hell, this guitar is amazing. Where’d it come from?” Someone behind me says, “I made it,” and I turned around and saw Bill Nash.

We hadn’t met before, so we had a conversation, and he asked what I would like. I said “Christ, the one I have in my hands is great!” It was basically a beat up Blackguard. Later, he built me one with a Gibson scale neck because I don’t have a Fender like that. It’s kind of cool.

Wow. I don’t know that Bill’s ever made another one of those, I’ve never seen it before. Is that the scale that you prefer?

It depends. I’ve played Gibsons and Fenders for a long time, and Gibsons are obviously more forgiving because of the slightly shorter scale. I just thought it was a really good idea at the time because I’ve got a reissue ‘72 Custom Telecaster like Keith [Richard’s].

I also have a ‘68 J–45 that I bought brand new when I was a kid.

Wow. That’s one of the ones with a pretty thin neck, right?

Yes. As a matter of fact, I thought it was a 1970 the whole time because that’s when I bought it. For some reason, I decided to check the serial number and found out it’s a ‘68.

Is there a guitar from your collection that you still wish you had? Something that you sold or that was stolen maybe?

Yeah, there are some that I really wish I still had. There’s a picture of David online somewhere holding a white, anniversary Les Paul from the Station sessions. That’s mine. It was stolen.

I was with Ian Hunter and his band, and we were rehearsing to go on tour. The rehearsal place had been broken into. We were completely alarmed and everything. It was upstate New York, and we couldn’t figure out how it got stolen.

As it turns out, some guy that worked for us did it because he knew the codes. And nobody ever found him.

Lead Photo by Madeloni Photography

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