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Liza Jane: The Story Behind David Bowie’s Debut Single
Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo
In Depth

Liza Jane: The Story Behind David Bowie’s Debut Single

A pacy slice of mid-60s R&B, Liza Jane was credited to Davie Jones With The King Bees, but is better known as David Bowie’s first-ever single.

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Even for David Bowie’s earliest groups, The King Bees were particularly short-lived. But though the London five-piece barely survived a handful of months together in 1964, their legend is secure thanks to the release of a solitary single: Liza Jane. Credited to Davie Jones With The King Bees, the recording, a slice of hopped-up mid-60s British R&B, failed to create much buzz on the charts, yet it holds a place in rock history, and its story gives crucial insight into Bowie’s formative years.

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Forming The King Bees: “Before you could say ‘short back and sides’, they decided to join forces”

Fittingly, for a man whose later hairstyles would inspire countless imitators, David Bowie allegedly met the future King Bees at a barber’s in Bromley, South London, in April 1964. “In between clips he got chatting to the four lads,” said a press release issued alongside Liza Jane, “and before you could say ‘short back and sides’, they decided to join forces.”

Almost 30 years later, Bowie would remark on the “quite scary” prospect of playing with musicians who were “virtually professional” in comparison to the outfits he’d previously formed with school friend George Underwood. But that would ultimately be to his benefit. Unlike The King Bees, earlier groups The Kon-Rads and The Hooker Brothers never made it as far as an official release.

Bowie’s third group, The King Bees featured Bowie (then still calling himself Davie Jones) on vocals and saxophone, George Underwood on rhythm guitar, Roger Bluck on lead, Dave “Frank” Howard on bass and Bob Allen on drums. Naming themselves after bluesman Slim Harpo’s signature song, I’m A King Bee, in their brief time together the five-piece worked up a repertoire based on tunes copped from Muddy Waters (Hoochie Coochie Man, Got My Mojo Working) and Mavin Gaye (Can I Get A Witness). But it was an old standard, developed from a plantation-era slave song, that the band recorded and issued as their debut single.

Finding a record deal: “We turned up in jeans and sweat shirts and played our usual brand of rhythm and blues”

If the blues-indebted Liza Jane did little to hint at the future-shaping music Bowie would later make his name with, it revealed a love for old-school R&B that would resurface throughout his career, not least during his final Ziggy Stardust gig, for which Bowie invited British guitar hero Jeff Beck on stage to join The Spiders From Mars on stage in a high-octane run through Chuck Berry’s Around And Around.

Bowie’s unwavering self-belief was also in evidence throughout The King Bees’ time together, the hopeful star sending a letter to entrepreneur John Bloom in which he offered the white-goods magnate the chance to back “one of the most talented and up-and-coming groups on the pop scene” if he would agree to front the money for new band equipment. Known more for the “Washing Machine Wars” than battles for chart supremacy, Bloom instead introduced The King Bees to Leslie Conn, a music publisher who became the group’s de facto manager.

Despite the “dismal failure” of performing at a party held in celebration of Bloom’s wedding anniversary (“It was a dinner dress affair and we turned up in jeans and sweat shirts and played our usual brand of rhythm and blues,” Bowie said shortly afterwards), the group impressed Decca Records enough to get themselves signed to one of the label’s subsidiary imprints, Vocalion Pop.

Recording Liza Jane: “That was David and I, sitting there with a guitar just fooling around”

In one short session at Decca Studios, in West Hampstead, London, Bowie and The King Bees recorded Liza Jane and its B-side, a cover of Paul Revere And The Raiders’ Louie, Louie Go Home. Described by Chris O’Leary, in his Bowie guide Rebel Rebel, as “a party song, a game song, a child’s song that adults made filthy”, Liza Jane – originally known as Li’L Liza Jane – tended to change shape every time someone touched it.

Following in the footsteps of country-blues family band Mississippi Sheiks, Western swing icon Bob Wills, rock’n’roll pioneer Fats Domino and singer and activist Nina Simone, The King Bees worked up their own take on Liza Jane – although Leslie Conn would end up carrying the sole credit, thanks to a purported lyric suggestion. “He’d written some words; I don’t think we even used them,” George Underwood later told Uncut magazine.

“That was David and I, in my mum and dad’s house, in the kitchen, sitting there with a guitar just fooling around,” Underwood added of the group’s energised approach to the song – all twanging guitar, rasping sax and a youthful Bowie pushing at the edges of his range as he sang about “a girl who loves me true”.

Released on 5 June 1964, Liza Jane, backed with the altogether looser Louie, Louie Go Home, marked the first appearance of David Bowie on record. Yet despite being promoted by high-profile TV appearances on Ready Steady Go! and The Beat Room, and earning a “hit” vote from comedian and Juke Box Jury guest panellist Charlie Drake, the single didn’t give Bowie the breakthrough he’d hoped for. Before The King Bees could request another short, back and sides, he’d moved on to his next band, taking over lead vocals for The Manish Boys, another assemblage of blues acolytes, already established on the London scene.

‘Toy’ Re-Recoding: “It wouldn’t have made sense for anyone else”

All but the most committed of Bowie fans may have forgotten Liza Jane over the decades that followed, but Bowie gave it an unexpected 40th-anniversary airing on stage at PNC Bank Arts Center, in Holmdel, New Jersey, while touring his Reality album. Playfully introducing it as “a second placer” rehearsed during that day’s soundcheck, he led his band through a low-slung arrangement of the song which, even more surprisingly, had been re-recorded just a few years before.

Off the back of his triumphant headlining slot at the 2000 Glastonbury Festival, Bowie was in a rare reflective mood. Taking his band into the studio to record up-to-date versions of many of his pre-fame songs, he’d intended to release the results on an album called Toy, but ultimately shelved the collection in favour of 2002’s all-new Heathen.

Amid more than an album’s worth of vintage songs was a take on Liza Jane that stretched to double the length of the original. As his band churned behind him, Bowie, his voice treated in a way that recalled the mid-70s albums he produced for Iggy Pop, once again indulged in his love of the blues, laughing as the song dissolves into a haze of electronic effects.

“His connection to the songs was just so deep,” Bowie’s then bandleader, Mark Plati, told Dig! in 2022, around the time of Toy’s eventual release. “It was just really fun to do them that far down the road – especially in the position that he was in at that point.”

Noting that few artists would have considered revisiting material that had failed to take off first time around, Plati added, “It wouldn’t have made sense for anyone else. But because it was him, it was like, ‘OK, we’re doing this today. Sure.’”

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