By Larry Widen, Special to OnMilwaukee   Published Feb 21, 2018 at 1:16 PM

Bernard Fowler began singing backup vocals for the Rolling Stones in 1987 with the "Steel Wheels" album. He has toured with the band and recorded with them ever since. In between obligations to the Stones, he works with various groups of musicians on solo projects.

Fowler grew up in the 1960s in New York City. By age 14, he was singing on street corners for spare change by day and working evenings at a nightclub in Harlem. In 1976, Fowler auditioned for a band, and a week later he was recording an album at one of the city’s most prestigious studios.

"The whole thing happened really fast," Fowler said. "I wasn’t really that happy with my singing, but, hey, I had an album. Not many 16-year-old kids could say that."

Living in a loft on 30th Street in lower Manhattan, Fowler found himself in demand to sing with wedding bands and make dance records for the city’s clubs, including as a member of NYC Peech Boys, a group signed to Island Records.

"Every half hour I heard myself on the radio," he said. "But everyone was making money except me."

Fowler’s luck changed when avant-garde bass player and record producer Bill Laswell hired him to sing on jazz great Herbie Hancock’s "Future Shock." The record was a huge hit and Fowler toured the world for more than two years with Hancock’s band. After the tour ended, Laswell introduced Fowler to Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, which turned out to be the beginning of a 35-year relationship.

Bernard Fowler will appear in Milwaukee as part of the "Celebrating David Bowie" tour at The Pabst Theater on Thursday, Feb. 22. Before then, however, he took time to speak with OnMilwaukee about his extraordinary career and his lifelong love for music.

OnMilwaukee: There’s a lot of the church in your voice.

Bernard Fowler: Whatever you hear comes from way down deep inside me. Every summer I stayed with my grandmother in North Carolina. She was a Christian woman who attended church a couple times a week, and I went along. I never sang in church, but I’m sure I absorbed that music. My mother played the radio all the time, and I started singing along at a pretty young age. I think a lot of different music influenced me.

You grew up in New York City. What was your childhood like?

Rough, I’d say. (laughs). Poor, like most of the families around us. We lived in the Queensbridge projects, underneath the 59th Street bridge. Quite a few rappers came outta there. Lots of crime in Queensbridge. There’s more heroin there than in Harlem.

What kind of music were you listening to then?

I listened to the music that was around me and the music that wasn’t. In short, I listened to everything. The neighborhood was listening to soul music, blues and salsa in the '60s. I was different. My father gave me my first record, which was "12x5" by the Rolling Stones. That was white boy rock and roll, and I listened to it without telling anybody. I also loved Jimi Hendrix and The Who.  I was a bit of an odd kid! (laughs)

How did you come to be involved in the celebration of David Bowie’s music?

I had been a fan of David’s for a long time, and when I recorded an album with the band Nickel Bag, we included "Win" from "Young Americans." David sent me a note saying he loved our version of his song. I saw him again when he stopped by the studio where I was producing Ronnie Wood’s record, "Slide on This." In 2015, guitarist Earl Slick asked me to tour with him to mark the 40th anniversary of "Station to Station." He said David had given his permission to do the tour as long as I sang the songs. He said, "I’m glad it’s you. I was afraid they’d hire some skinny white boy to do Bowie-oke!" David passed away while we were rehearsing. No one but his immediate family had any idea that he was so sick. But now, here we are, doing an even bigger show with more of his old band members.

How did you get hired to sing for the Stones?

In 1984, I had just come off the Herbie Hancock tour, and Bill Laswell flew me to London, saying there might be some work to be had. He picked me up at Heathrow airport and we drove to a house. I had no idea who lived there. We went in, and there was a guy sitting on the floor playing a guitar. He turned around and it was Mick Jagger.

That must have been a surprise.

Surprise? Hell, that was a shock! But we started singing songs together and we hit it off. As I was leaving, Mick asked me to stop in at the studio where he was recording his solo album, "She’s the Boss." This was a time when the Stones were inactive. I sang on the title track, plus "Lonely at the Top" and "Lucky in Love."  

A few years later, the band decided to work together again, and they were making the "Steel Wheels" album. Mick asked me to help him finalize his vocal tracks and do some background vocals of my own. The rest of the band drifted in one by one while we were rehearsing and Keith said, "It’s great. Let’s do it for real." At that point, I said that it would sound more like the Stones if they sang with me. So Ronnie and Keith came into the booth and we laid down a few tracks. Afterward, while we were listening to the playbacks in the control room, I could feel Keith staring at me. I looked at him and asked if anything was wrong. He said, "No, you’re cool. At first I thought maybe you were one of Mick’s boys."

Have you gotten used to being onstage with the Stones?

I’ve sung with them for over 30 years, and I still pinch myself on a regular basis. I’ve been lucky, and I’ve been blessed. It’s funny how things just happen.

Will the Stones be playing in the U.S. this year?

I haven’t heard anything. If I knew, I’d tell you.