Gail Ann Dorsey

As music fans, we know that sometimes, outstanding musicians don’t always get the recognition they deserve; they remain a little under the radar.  In our humble opinion, Gail Ann Dorsey is one of those people.  Guitar player, bassist, vocalist and songwriter; Dorsey is a hugely talented, self-taught session musician whose style covers a broad spectrum of music genres.   Her integrity and versatility led her to work with some of the biggest artists in the music industry, although she’s probably best known for her long-term partnership with David Bowie.

Born on 20th November 1962 and the youngest of five children, Dorsey grew up in 1970s Philadelphia amid a thriving music scene.  At this time, the Phillysound era was at its peak, and many of her peers played at least one musical instrument; Dorsey herself learnt to play clarinet at school and also started to play guitar aged nine.  She was inspired by the records that her older siblings brought home and was heavily influenced by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Nancy Wilson (Heart) and Mark Farner from Grand Funk Railroad.  However, it wasn’t until she was in her teens that Dorsey picked up a bass guitar.  She observed that bands were always looking for bass players, not guitar players, so she saw the bass as an opportunity for work.   So, after seeing an advert for a bassist in her local music store, she auditioned using a friend of a friend’s Rickenbacker bass.  Unsurprisingly, she won the audition.  Her mother bought her an Epiphone bass of her own, and so began Dorsey’s journey to being a bass player, although she didn’t consider herself a proper bassist until she was in her early twenties.

Although a passionate musician, Dorsey originally pursued a career in film – and she was good at it; earning a full scholarship to attend the California Institute of the Arts in the School of Film and Video.  She was the only female in her class and the youngest woman ever to be admitted to the Live Action department at that point.  However, after her third semester there, Dorsey realised that the film industry was not where she wanted to be, and she decided to move to New York to pursue a music career.

After getting little response from record companies in New York, Dorsey then moved to London where her luck started to change when she started working with jazz drummer, composer, band leader and teacher, John Stevens, as part of his Community Music organisation.  It was via these humble beginnings that Dorsey credits Stevens with kickstarting her career, as her work with him (and his son Richie) eventually led to her first job singing in Charlie Watts’ Big Band, as well as further session work with Boy George.  Further collaborations followed including work with 20To, Pete Stern and producer Paul “Doc” Stewart, which culminated with an introduction to CBS Records and her first record deal.  A committed and skilled session musician, Dorsey has worked ever since, and her impressive list of collaborations reads like a who’s who of the music industry.  Tears for Fears, Lenny Kravitz, Bryan Ferry, Gwen Stefani, Donny Osmond and Seal are just a few of the artists she’s worked with over her long and diverse career.  Alongside her session work, Dorsey made her own music too, and released her first solo album, The Corporate World in 1988.  Produced by bass legend and Fourplay band member, Nathan East, the album featured artists such as Eric Clapton and Andy Gill.  The record was very well received and was voted one of the Top 5 Albums of the Year by London’s Q Magazine.

A second solo album followed in 1992, but it was in 1996 when Dorsey became bassist for David Bowie that she began to enter the mainstream spotlight.  Originally only recruited for the Outside tour, Dorsey famously (and successfully) provided lead vocals and bass for live performances of Under Pressure (taking the part originally sung by Queen’s Freddie Mercury). Bowie clearly recognised Dorsey’s talent and what started out as a six week tour turned into a 20 year partnership, which only ended when Bowie died in 2016.

In our view, the thing that makes Dorsey such a successful session musician is that she always prioritises what serves the song best – and this is mirrored in the type of bass guitar she uses.  Therefore, depending on who she is working with (or for), and what sound they are looking to create, she will play the bass that best fits the brief.  However, like all bassists, she does have a personal favourite, which comes in the form of a Music Man Stingray – playfully named Marilyn due to the image of Marilyn Monroe that Dorsey has placed under the clear scratch plate.  This bass has had quite a life; having been used on every tour and album she’s ever done.  The warm yet striking tone of this model complements Dorsey’s soft playing style and she has been quoted as saying that it is her ‘favourite bass in the whole world’.  However, she also plays a Fender Jazz – particularly for her work with Lenny Kravitz who demands a harder, louder sound.

Dorsey released her third solo album in 2003 but she continues to work and make music.  She took part in the Celebrating David Bowie tour in 2017 and her work was recognised in 2021 by Bass Player Magazine when she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award.  She describes her current music style as ‘Black-arach’ – inspired by the music that she heard on the radio when she was growing up.  Dorsey is keen not to limit herself and continues to strive for authenticity, so it seems right that we give her the last word: “I just want to maintain honesty and substance in the work. That is my responsibility to the music and the audience”.


Facts and links about Gail Ann Dorsey:

  1. Watch Gail Ann Dorsey performing alongside David Bowie in this iconic performance of ‘Under Pressure’ here:
  2. Check out the latest news on Gail Ann Dorsey on her Instagram channel
  3. Gail Ann Dorsey being interviewed at the David Bowie World Fan Convention 2022 in Liverpool:
  4. Watch a brilliant interview with Gail Ann Dorsey talking about her career:
  5. See Lenny Kravitz introduce Dorsey as ‘The Superior Female Energy’ here: