Imagine being a young rock fan admiring David Bowie among all the rock gods. You become a musician and through the twists and turns of your career, you start impersonating your idol, only to find yourself shooting a commercial playing David Bowie alongside the real David Bowie. This is the story of David Brighton, who’s been the star performer of Space Oddity: The Ultimate Tribute to David Bowie since 2000.
Long before he prowled stages worldwide impersonating the Thin White Duke, David, an accomplished guitarist, got a call from a friend, a call that could have put him on a different path to fame. “I was very good friends with Kevin Dubrow, the singer from Quiet Riot, and after Randy Rhoads left to play with Ozzy Osborne he was trying different guitar players for a while. He and I had been talking about doing a band together for a long time and so I did play with him for a while.”
Randy Rhoads was already on his way to being a guitar god, and replacing him was an intimidating task for the young musician. “Randy was a superstar even before he made it. I learned a lot from Randy and I watched him play hundreds of times you know and he was really a great, great guitar player and he was fun,” says Brighton.
All this led to his friend Kevin Dubrow producing a demo for him, and with that in his pocket, David managed to get a record deal. He chose to pursue his own path instead of continuing with Quiet Riot, but the band would soon find huge success with their next album “Metal Health”. “I’ve had some regrets at the time,” he says. “But everything happens for a reason and I’m really happy with where I am right now.”
David Bowie’s music played a huge role in Brighton’s career even before he started impersonating him, and he soon realized that shedding your influences can be a difficult thing to do. “The one complaint that I used to get from the record companies,” he says, “is that I sounded too much like David Bowie. And I would try not to sound like David Bowie and they’d say well now you sound like a guy who sounds like David Bowie trying not to sound like David Bowie!” [laughs]
Surprisingly, Brighton’s first foray into impersonation involved another one of his influences. “I got into this business of impersonating people in the mid-nineties when I got a job portraying George Harrison with some guys who were from the original Broadway Beatlemania show.” After doing the Beatles thing for a while and touring with various bands, Brighton wondered if he could use his passing resemblance to David Bowie to spin into his own tribute show. “I didn’t know if I could look like him or not because I had a different haircut and so forth,” he explains. “I have features that were somewhat reminiscent but then when I got the wigs and the costumes and hired a make-up artist and all of those things I kind of learned how to create that illusion.”
Making a career out of impersonating another musician often brings with it its share of mockery, as rock fans often overly value authenticity. “The whole tribute phenomenon sort of swept into the rock world and it’s become much more accepted,” he says. “At the very beginning I’d get people looking at me sideways ‘you think you think you can impersonate Bowie’, and they’d come to the shows with their arms folded. By the end of the show though they’d be really into it, fortunately.”
With so many of these rock legends passing recently, talented musicians like Brighton ensure that their legacies live on. “We’re doing a David Bowie show because we think what he did was important.” I pointed out that classical music fans never complain that Beethoven isn’t conducting the symphony, and maybe rock is in a transformation phase where the music of its pioneers will live on through others. “I’ve drawn that parallel for a lot of years,” he chimes in. “Rock wasn’t only a sound it was a visual that went with them. In Elvis Presley and the Beatles, part of the success was what you saw and David Bowie of course is huge in that area. Rock music is the marriage of sight and sound and I think that when it is passed on in the future, I think you would want to see and hear them perform.”
Brighton’s knack at personifying his idol took a surreal turn when he was hired to play the singer’s many personas alongside the real Bowie in a commercial for Vittel Mineral Water. “I remember he and I standing there talking to the director,” he recalls, “And I have listened to this guy’s music since I was, you know, 17! This was so surreal. You don’t think you’re going to meet your music heroes dressed up like them. I would say he was the perfect English gentlemen and was entertaining as hell in-between takes. His comedy and his performance skills… he was pretty much performing the whole time even when we were off camera.” Did the man himself ever check out his tribute show? “I was told by somebody that he did see our show,” he says. “However if that’s true he didn’t come up; he was a very secretive type; he probably would come in a disguise.”
The “Space Oddity” show covers most eras of David Bowie’s career over the course of two hours, except the very early years and the latest album. “We’re going to wait a little while for that. In a 2 hour show you can just sort of touch on all of the major areas and throw in as many album cuts as you can between the hits,” he says. “He’s been releasing records for 50 years so there’s a lot of material there so once in a while we throw in odd tunes. We won’t do exactly the same show twice, you know.”
Has living and breathing Bowie’s music for 16 years made it hard for him to appreciate it simply as a fan anymore? “I probably won’t put on his hits when I’m driving,” he admits, “But I certainly will play a lot of album cuts. But I have heard “Fashion” or “Young Americans” a zillion times; I feel that they’re great songs but it’s not what I would put on for enjoyment at the moment. And I’ll be honest: I don’t listen to the Beatles for enjoyment anymore either.”
David Brighton’s Space Oddity: The Ultimate Tribute to David Bowie will be in Montréal at Club Soda on June 2nd (tickets can be purchased here) and at Le Capitole in Québec on June 3rd (tickets can be purchased here)