“There were days he couldn’t come in. But when he got in front of the microphone, he sang his balls off": Tony Visconti on the making of David Bowie's final album Blackstar

Tony Visconti and David Bowie
(Image credit: Burak Cingi/Redferns | Jamie McCarthy/WireImage both via Getty Images)

On the day before he was due to start recording his 26th solo album at Magic Shop studios in New York in January 2015, David Bowie asked his longtime friend, frequent collaborator and producer Tony Visconti for a private one-to-one meeting. In the course of that meeting, the then 68-year-old English musician removed the woollen cap he was wearing to reveal a bald head, a side-effect from the chemotherapy treatment he had begun after being diagnosed with liver cancer six months earlier. Bowie told Visconti that he expected to beat cancer, but informed the producer that he only felt strong enough to commit to a few hours per day in the studio.

"There were days he couldn’t come in," Visconti reveals in a new interview with The Guardian. "But when he got in front of the microphone, he sang his balls off. I’d never seen him happier."

For the recording of what would turn out to be his final album, Blackstar, Bowie recruited a New York jazz quartet, the Donny McCaslin Band, as his backing group. Visconti recalls his friend being "thrilled" to be working with real jazz musicians for the first time.

"When David saw us," bassist Tim Lefebvre told MOJO magazine recently, "he heard how electric and aggressive we were – more than he anticipated – which really sold us to him."

"Jazz musicians are like classical musicians, they practice long and hard, and they often have university degrees, so we had the best you can get," Visconti told Classic Rock in 2016, "and they absolutely loved the batch of songs that David had written for Blackstar. I think Blackstar was one of the most unique albums that David ever made, and for me it was certainly a journey I had never taken before." 

The Guardian reports that the producer was "shocked to the core" when Bowie died just 48 hours after the album's January 8, 2016 release. "I did a lot of crying," he admits. "It was like losing a best friend."

Following Bowie's death, Visconti posted a tribute to his friend on Facebook.

"He made Blackstar for us," he wrote, "his parting gift. I knew for a year this was the way it would be. I wasn’t, however, prepared for it."

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.