The singer opens up about her whirlwind romance with the rock legend, whom she calls "the first man I really loved"

By Jordan Runtagh
Updated January 10, 2021 09:00 AM
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Ava Cherry
| Credit: Anne Nieves

David Bowie was at the peak of his creative powers in the mid-'70s, and Ava Cherry was right there by his side. For five years, the nu-soul diva joined him onstage and in the studio, singing backup on some of his biggest albums and tours. She also shared his private life as his girlfriend, witnessing a side of the Starman that few would ever get to see. Cherry spoke to iHeartRadio for their upcoming biography podcast series Off the Record (launching Jan. 18), which explores the life of the chameleonic musician over 11 episodes. On the fifth anniversary of his death, PEOPLE has an exclusive excerpt of that interview, in which Cherry remembers their love and recalls what it was like living with a legend. 

It began in the winter of 1973, when Cherry was beginning to make a name for herself as a model in New York City. Bowie wasn't yet a superstar in the States, but her agent was an early convert and passed along a copy of the British singer's latest record, the groundbreaking Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. "I started listening to the tracks and I was just blown away," she recalls. "It was so different." She grew intrigued by the alien-like man peering out from the album. Before long, she practically wore the record out.

The pair met in the flesh that February at the after party for her friend Stevie Wonder's Carnegie Hall concert. In the midst of the post-show revelry, Cherry's agent approached her with a big grin. "You're not going to believe who's here," he said. "That guy, David Bowie!" Cherry's pulse started to race. "By this time, I had played that record about a hundred times and I was already smitten. I was in love, honey, just listening to the music and looking at the pictures."

Introductions were made and it was something approaching love at first sight. Bowie was in full Ziggy regalia in an electric blue suit and his spiky hair dyed fire engine red. The 'do perfectly complemented Cherry's new bleached blonde buzzcut. Despite the loud attire, Bowie was the consummate English gentleman, greeting her with an elegant, "It's a pleasure to meet you, Ava," delivered in his finest patrician clip.

Ava Cherry in 1975
| Credit: Tim Boxer/Getty

They struck up a conversation and, naturally, the topic turned to music. "Are you a singer?" he asked her. Though she didn't have any professional experience, she said yes — a gusty thing to do in a room filled with the likes of Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight. "I wasn't going to say no!" she laughs now. It proved to be the right response. On the spot, he invited her to sing backup on his upcoming tour of Japan. The opportunity was too good to pass up.

The following day she met with Bowie at a local recording studio for a brief audition. After running through a few songs, he made a more personal proposition and invited her to dinner. "I got all dressed up and I met him at his hotel," she remembers. "Oh, he was a gentleman. He opened the door for me. He was just the best. We had the most wonderful dinner." Following a concert by jazz legend Charles Mingus, they retired to his hotel — together.

"The next morning, I was like, 'Wow, I feel like I'm in love, and I've never really felt like this before.' He was so different. We're lying there, and then all of a sudden the phone rings." Minutes later, the door opens and a woman enters. David calmly introduces her as his wife, Angie. "I'm standing there like, "What?" I didn't say much, because I didn't know what to say." Angie greeted her warmly with enthusiastic hellos and a kiss on the cheek before heading on her way.

Cherry was more than a little confused. "I said, 'David, why didn't you tell me you were married? I don't know if I would have come if I had known that.' And he said, 'Oh no, we have an open marriage. She has a girlfriend or a boyfriend and she does what she wants.'" The explanation suited Cherry just fine. "I was already hooked. There was nothing I could do about how I felt. I wasn't going to let him go."

David Bowie in the '70s
| Credit: NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

In preparation for the tour of Japan, Cherry quit her job and gave up her apartment. Then she got a telegram telling her that the tour was canceled. Devastated, she made the most of her newly untethered situation and set out for Europe with little more than $200 and her modeling portfolio. Through a series of friends and fortuitous connections, she wound up in Paris, where she heard Bowie was recording a new record. "One day I'm in this bar, and I heard someone say, "David Bowie." When I heard his name, I went up to them and said "Excuse me, did you say David Bowie?" And he said, "Yes, he's across the street.'"

Sure enough, she found Bowie in the chic Castel club next door. Though Cherry found him in mid-conversation with another woman when she arrived, they soon had eyes only for each other. "He said, 'But you came all the way over here just to find me?! Wow.' The next thing I know he goes, 'Let's go.'" A limousine was summoned, transporting Cherry into a fairy tale brought to life. They arrived at Château d'Hérouville, an 18th-century castle on the outskirts of Paris that had been converted into a recording studio. This was Bowie's home while recording his 1973 album Pin Ups. For a week they lived together like royalty. "It was heaven," she says. "I would have to say d'Hérouville was one of the most beautiful times in my life." Sometimes they ventured into the City of Light for a night on the town. "We would go and have dinner, and we'd walk by the Seine, and we would go see other artists perform. And then, of course, he loved to make love. That was a favorite of ours!"

He began to talk of recording an album with Cherry, both solo and as a member of an R&B trio called the Astronettes. The sessions wouldn't be released until decades later, but the experience of being in the studio with Bowie was a once-in-a-lifetime education. "He was my mentor. It wasn't just a love relationship," she explains. "He taught me to appreciate a lot of things. I love classical music now, because I started off with Vivaldi with him. Films, German expressionism, and Andy Warhol. He taught me a lot of things."

She influenced him as well, nurturing his passion for soul music. As a boy, Bowie had treasured his copy of James Brown's Live at the Apollo. Now Cherry took him to the hollowed Harlem music mecca, where he soaked in the sounds of the crack house band, the Main Ingredient. He recruited the group's guitarist, Carlos Alomar, and headed to Philadelphia's Sigma Sound. The studio was ground zero of the "Philly Soul" explosion, and Bowie vowed to cut a record that emulated the funky sounds of the Spinners, the O'Jays or the Stylistics. He would call it Young Americans.

Cherry was recruited to sing backup alongside Alomar's wife, Robin Clark, and his old friend, a then-unknown vocalist named Luther Vandross. "It was hard work," remembered Cherry. "David was about getting the work done, so he wasn't about playing around. We were in there, and we were all working real hard, especially on that song, 'Right.'"

One session, held at New York's Electric Lady Studios, stands above the rest. Bowie had asked John Lennon to play guitar on his cover of the Beatles' track "Across the Universe." To his shock, Lennon actually agreed. Even the ice cool Bowie was more than a little starstruck. Cherry says he was practically giddy. "We're all set up [in the studio] and David goes, 'I wonder if he wears those granny glasses all the time.' The doorbell rings, the door opens and there's John with the granny glasses on. It was, like, unbelievable. David turns around to me goes, 'Oh my God, he's got the granny glasses on!'" 

Yoko Ono stopped by to deliver a sushi feast for lunch, and during the break Bowie and Lennon began jamming on one of Carlos Alomar's hypnotic guitar riffs. The twin rock titans amused themselves by scatting dummy lyrics. In a flash, they had co-written a new song called "Fame." It would be David's first American number one. Cherry can be heard on the track, her voice intertwined with Lennon and Bowie.

"After we finished doing the session, we went back to the Dakota [apartment building] and had dinner with them and we just sat up all night and talked. We used to have the best time with Yoko and John… He was really hysterical, and she was so sweet." Bowie marked the monumental day in his diary by writing, "Today, I introduced Ava to a Beatle."

Cherry would inspire two songs on Bowie's next album, 1976's Station to Station, "Stay" and "Golden Years." The latter of these became a Top 10 hit and one of his best loved songs. Cherry remains proud of her role in its creation. "Listen to the words. 'Don't let me hear you say life's taking you nowhere, angel. In walked luck and you looked in time, always walk tall, act fine.' He walked in and we attached to each other. From then on, he was trying to help me."

By the time "Golden Years" had cracked the charts, the couple had begun to drift apart. Bowie was plagued with business, management and marital problems, and his dark, paranoid mood was exacerbated by near-constant cocaine use.

Increasingly paranoid, Bowie started to push everyone away — Cherry among them. "When David and I broke up, it wasn't because of anything like me cheating on him or him cheating on me or me doing something wrong. It was because the business was all messed up. He didn't know where his money was and all that. So he just wanted to break from everybody and anything that seemed like that he had to be responsible for… I stayed in love with him for so long because I knew I didn't do anything wrong for us to break up. It was just the circumstance."

Bowie's withdrawal left her heartbroken, and she sought solace in the arms of their mutual friend, Mick Jagger. "He was such a cool guy, but I also just felt emotionally good with him. I felt comfortable around Mick. He was a friend and I needed somebody to reach out to who knew David. But David didn't see it like that. Some kind of way he heard about it, and I think it was the last straw. I tried to call him and one of the girls [at the office] said, 'He's mad at you.' And I said, 'What?' She goes, 'Because he heard about you up in Montauk with Mick and the Stones.' And I said, 'Oh.' And there was really nothing I could say… I guess I didn't really realize that he would be jealous of that. But I still carried on loving him for such a long time after."

Ava Cherry
| Credit: Alan Luntz

Cherry attended the engagement party for Bowie and his second wife, Iman, with whom she was acquainted through the fashion world. Though genuinely happy for them both, the sight of Iman's engagement ring stung. "I felt hurt inside, I have to admit." It was the last time she ever saw Bowie. "Iman always says that she knows David Jones. [Bowie's birth name] I didn't really know David Jones. I knew David Bowie. He showed his David Jones side when he stopped doing drugs and everything like that. But I saw David Bowie. I was there for some of the early prolific stuff."

Forty-five years after the release of "Golden Years" — and five years after Bowie's death — the song reminds Cherry of the special time they shared together, unleashing a torrent of emotions each time she listens. "It used to make me feel sad and tearful, but now, I just enjoy it. I know that it was about me."

Cherry has kept busy in recent years with her music career. Over the summer she released the enthralling "Testify Love" — which she wrote and produced herself — and also the track "In My Soul." Both anticipate a new full length due out soon. In addition to her originals, Cherry regularly honors the man she still loves. Last January, she released a funked-up version of Bowie's 1983 hit "Let's Dance," and this year she joined the star-studded virtual tribute concert A Bowie Celebration: Just For One Day!, which aired Friday, Bowie's birthday. In addition to belting out ferocious versions of "Young Americans" and "Fame," just as she did on the original records, Cherry arranged the vocals for a soaring cover of "Heroes."

Cherry says she's also working on a film about her life with Bowie, which is slated to resume filming this summer if COVID-19 allows. "I certainly loved him. And I believe he loved me, through the way he treated me. Whenever we took pictures together, he always looked at me as though he loved me. You could love more than one person in a lifetime… But he's the first man I really loved like that."