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Bowie's old friend: 'He's the same guy I went to school with'

By Neil Curry, CNN
March 12, 2013 -- Updated 1736 GMT (0136 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Peter Frampton and George Underwood recall their long friendship with David Bowie
  • David Bowie's new album, "The Next Day" was released on March 8
  • All three friends played in school bands with bands, and remain friends
  • Frampton, says Bowie is healthy: "He's the same guy I went to school with"

London (CNN) -- The year is 1962 and at Bromley Technical High School in London the lad who will become David Bowie is about to announce his musical intentions.

Read review of David Bowie's new album

As the line of schoolboys shuffles into the makeshift careers office, the boy steps forward. His friend George Underwood takes up the story.

"I was right behind David and the careers officer said 'So Mr. David Jones, what is it you are planning to do when you leave school?' And David said, 'Well I wanna be a saxophonist in a modern jazz quartet!' I laughed my head off after that because they didn't know how to pigeon hole people and they went down the category of music careers and he said 'I've got an interview for a job at a harp factory in Bromley' -- that's the nearest thing they had to music which I thought was hilarious."

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Music had already brought the two boys together as friends through a common interest in skiffle ("the punk music of its time" offers George) and membership of a church choir. Their vocal harmonies continued at school, singing Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly songs in the reverb-rich stairwell outside the art block, encouraged by their charismatic art master, Owen Frampton.

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Frampton's son Peter joined the school three years after George and David and was soon in search of musical companions.

"I asked my father who was head of the art department at the school, who was into music," says Frampton, " and he said well there's this David Jones character -- he seems to play guitar and sax."

"So it was the three of us exchanging licks really -- they taught me Buddy Holly numbers and I showed them what I knew on guitar --so that's when our friendship started on those stone steps."

Underwood and Jones formed a firm friendship, which led to an uncanny coincidence.

"David's mother and my mother -- who didn't know each other -- were both knitting jumpers for us and lo and behold it was the same pattern and we were walking down Bromley High Street with the same jumpers like we were trying to pull birds!"

David's fondness for American radio led to an interest in American football results.

"No one at that time was into American football in those days. But David liked the image of the big shoulder pads and there was a certain glamor about the way they looked and he thought I'll get into American football."

When Jones wrote to the U.S. Embassy in London about his enthusiasm the two boys were invited to visit and try on the equipment, the shoulder pads seeming like an inspiration for the wardrobe of the future Ziggy Stardust.

But even best friends can have disagreements -- particularly when they are teenage boys trying to date the same girl.

"I managed to chat her up and arranged to meet her a couple of days later in this club. And David was rather annoyed and said, 'Actually Carol doesn't want to go out with you she wants to go out with me and she didn't have the heart to tell you.'"

George says David convinced him that the girl wouldn't turn up for the meeting.

"I was upset but I decided to go down to the club an hour and a half later and her mate said she had waited for me for an hour and David had made me look like a right prat."

Next day George couldn't contain himself when he heard David saying he had won George's girl.

There's all this speculation about his health but don't worry folks, he's fine -- the album proves it doesn't it?
George Underwood

"I just saw red and I don't go around hitting people I promise you that -- honest -- I wasn't that type. I knew David wouldn't fight me and I was so annoyed I just went like that." (he makes a punching gesture).

Peter Frampton takes up the story.

"I remember the day because my father came home very agitated and told the story of one of his pupils hit the other one and there was a fight or something and I heard that Jones had to be taken to hospital but that's all I knew I didn't actually see it happen. But the unfortunate thing is that as well as teaching art my dad also taught boxing and George was in his class so I think my father felt rather responsible!"

The incident left David with a frozen pupil, giving the effect that he has eyes of different colors, which contributed to the other-worldly look which became synonymous with the image of Bowie.

"Oh God my stomach was turning," says Underwood. "That was the last thing I wanted. But anyway we made up and years later he told me I did him a favor so I don't feel so bad about it now!"

All three boys dreamed of becoming pop stars. George and David played together in bands such as The Kon-rads and The King Bees but it was George who scored the first hit recording under the name Calvin James. Peter left school early at 16 to join hit-making bands The Herd and Humble Pie. That's when David Jones -- now performing as David Bowie -- took his first big step towards stardom.

"When we were on the roads together David's first single 'Space Oddity' went to number 1" says Frampton. "He was number 1 in Europe and Humble Pie we were number 2 with 'Natural Born Boogie.'"

The Bromley Tech alumni had arrived.

George quit music to focus on art and David asked him to work on three of his most famous album covers -- "David Bowie," "Hunky Dory" and "Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars." He was invited along on the "Ziggy Stardust" tour to America, crossing the Atlantic on the QE2 liner, where David astonished other diners by turning up for dinner in full Ziggy costume.

Underwood recalls the reaction of the fans on that pivotal tour. "The audience were just standing with their mouths open looking at him thinking, 'What am I seeing here?' It was interesting seeing that from the ground floor every night."

After achieving huge success as a solo artist -- "Frampton Comes Alive" remains one of the best-selling live albums in music history -- Peter Frampton suffered a series of setbacks which left his career in tatters, until David invited him to record and tour with him in the 1980s.

"I can't thank him enough for asking me. There are so many other people he could have asked. But he was very aware of what had happened to me as far as my musical credibility disappearing because of the pop icon deal that happened to me. It was very special of him to see that and take me back to places that I couldn't fill any more ... those kind of venues and take me around the world and reintroduce me as the guitar player and I still owe him."

Peter went on to win a Grammy for his 2006 album "Fingerprints" while George has developed a career in painting which has included exhibitions at London's prestigious Royal Academy. All three remain firm friends today and plan to download the new album.

Underwood says he wasn't concerned about Bowie's 10-year absence from recording. "I'm sure he'd let me know if there was anything wrong. There's all this speculation about his health but don't worry folks, he's fine -- the album proves it doesn't it?"

"A lot of people have copied what he has done, in terms of re-inventing himself all the time, just when you think he's got him figured out," says Frampton. "He's an actor, he's a musician, he's an artist and he puts them all together and does what he wishes when he wishes and he's very confident about what he does. But he's the same guy I went to school with."

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