The Big Read

Second Act

By Geoff Brown

Life In Brief

  • 1952 Nile Gregory Rodgers born in Greenwich Village, New York.
  • 1977 Chic get their name and release eponymous debut album.
  • 1978 Chic’s Le Freak is a Billboard # 1 single. For Rodgers, subsequent Number 1s include Good Times (1979), Diana Ross’s Upside Down (1980), Bowie’s Let’s Dance (1983) and Madonna’s Like A Virgin (1984).
  • 2010 Rodgers diagnosed with prostate cancer.
  • 2013 Co-writes and plays guitar on Daft Punk’s smash album, Random Access Memories, including the summer-soundtracking Get Lucky.

How Chic’s Cheerleader was anointed by Bowie, Madonna and Daft Punk, fought disco deprecators and cancer to prevail, once more, in 2013.

FROM DAVID BOWIE TO MADONNA, from Diana Ross to Duran Duran, the A-listers began beating a path to Nile Rodgers’ studio door in the early 1980s as the final echoes of his late ’70s hits with Chic and Sister Sledge faded. His golden touch continued down the decades, with interruptions for rock’s traditional derailers, drugs and alcohol, until earlier this year when Daft Punk tapped into Rodgers’ hit sound and guitar magic on the album and single of 2013 so far, Random Access Memories and the ubiquitous Get Lucky.

Chic were just going global when I first interviewed guitarist-songwriter-producer Rodgers back in 1979. Twice that year, in fact: first on January 18, then on October 10, by which time he was very, very exercised by the Disco Sucks campaign that, with racist and homophobic undertones, would peak in that summer.

“It makes me feel uncomfortable,” he said back then, “’cos I feel like I’m in the middle. I buy more rock’n’roll than anything else, so the fact that the people that enjoy that music and play it and buy it are all sitting around putting down the music I write, it makes me feel a little strange. I guess I feel a bit hostile because music is music. If people are good, then they’re good.”

And Chic were, are, undoubtedly good. Rodgers’ elegant, jazz-flavoured guitar lines and Bernard Edwards’ impossibly nimble-fingered bass parts made Chic a genre-busting proposition, far fresher than any lumpen rock prospect.

July 12th, 1979. Disco Demolition night in Chicago. Anti-disco rhetoric made Rodgers feel “strange” and “hostile”.

Rodgers and Edwards had shrugged off the music business’s reluctance to embrace their vision of a black rock band in the early 1970s to create the distinctive Chic sound that seeped into pop music’s DNA as thoroughly as any of the previous great black music totems – Motown, Stax, Philadelphia International. Edwards’ bass-playing became as influential as Motown’s James Jamerson’s or the Family Stone’s Larry Graham’s, and Rodgers’ guitar patterns imprinted themselves as indelibly as Jimmy Nolen’s in James Brown’s bands or Steve Cropper’s in the M.G.’s at Stax. Their roster of imperishable hits, from Le Freak to Good Times, We Are Family to He’s The Greatest Dancer, Upside Down to I’m Coming Out, have been sampled in industrial quantities. But if Rodgers and Edwards were the Holland-Dozier-Holland and Gamble & Huff of the ’80s to black music, they were just as comfortable working with white rock and pop acts.

By the time I next interviewed Rodgers, on July 14, 2003, both Edwards and Chic’s hit-era drummer, Tony Thompson, were dead. But although talking about the former’s death naturally caused moments of reflection – “There’s nothing before that’s been as traumatic and as devastating [as Edwards’ death in 1996 from pneumonia on a Chic tour in Japan]. All my life Bernard had taken care of me… He always defended me musically and as a human being” – Rodgers was as positive and forward-looking as ever, and resolutely certain of the quality and continuing pertinence of his legacy.

“All my life Bernard [Edwards] had taken care of me… He always defended me musically and as a human being.”

Now, in 2013, we meet as a two-pronged reissue programme – 4-CD box set Vol 1: Savoir Faire; bite-sized 2-CD digest Up All Night – is about to hit the stores to remind us of the strong musical foundations built by the original Chic team. It seems fitting that he’s staying at the Bulgari Hotel; that high-fashion roll call phrase from Rodgers’ Sister Sledge hit He’s The Greatest Dancer – “Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci…” sprang to mind as I walked to the Knightsbridge hotel. Up in the dining room of his plush suite, dressed in sweatshirt and slacks, a dark blue beret imprisoning long locks, Rodgers looks fit after recovering from prostate cancer, and is already talking to long-time colleague Michael Ostin.

“Michael and Jerry Greenberg,” he says, “are the only two record company guys that I am friends with. Michael brought Like A Virgin to us. I thought it sucked. I never heard it as a hit. It was totally Madonna. She heard it.”

Was that typical of the songs on the Like A Virgin album?

She heard Material Girl, but the key was not [right for her]. Freddie DeMann was Madonna’s manager and wanted to hear what we’d done. When he heard Material Girl he called, “What did you do to the voice!?” He used to be Michael Jackson’s manager and he played Thriller, and said, “Why doesn’t it sound like that?!” Who could come out and sound like that with a first record?! And Michael Jackson had been recording for years, was a legend in the business who had a history of hits, who could call up Vincent Price and say, “Will you do a cameo on my records?” (laughs). We sold a lot of records with Madonna.

Cest Chic
C’est Chic (1978): the genre-busting breakthrough album.
David Bowie's Let's Dance
Risqué (1979): the virtuoso disco band is born.

The year before, you’d done David Bowie’s Let’s Dance.

Bowie came in one day and said, “I want my record to sound like this,” and handed me a picture of Little Richard in a bright red suit, big quiff of hair.

A different kind of artist whose outtakes we hear on the Savoir Faire box is Johnny Mathis. How did that come about?

A friend of a friend informed us he was interested and we really hit it off. He had just come off hit records with Deniece Williams and we were coming up with what we thought was a new Johnny Mathis style. But the company stopped it before we got very far with it. We were fucking up more than we should have. Here is what was happening. In the hotel where Diana Ross was living there was a disco and we would go there with Johnny Mathis and have a great time. Management was concerned. “What if [disco] becomes his audience. What if he gave up on his old audience?” We said, “We’re not changing his audience, we’re expanding it.” A lot of it was our own fault, our interactions with the record company. I am always dedicated to the artist. Unfortunately, labels see that as adversarial.

Daft Punk wanted to work with you because you’d record analogue, could record stuff in one take. You’d learned your craft from years in house bands and studio sessions.

I think that that’s what gives me the foundation for always being interested in the music regardless of the genre. I’ve said a million times, I feel exactly the same if I were with the New York Philharmonic or the Costa Rican National Symphony, which is a really good symphony orchestra, as I do with Avicii and Basement Jaxx… I’ve made records with Herbie Hancock, jammed with John McLaughlin, three or four times now, I feel like buddies, I look forward to playing with guys that are virtuosos like that.

But, man, half of the reason that I am here [in Europe] today is I came to work on a record with my current favourite songwriting partner, Avicii, and people go, “Wow, what is it like working with a guy who is 23 years old?” And I go, “How old do you think I was when I wrote Everybody Dance?” Which to me is the best song that I’ve ever written. How old do you think I was when I wrote I’m Coming Out and Upside Down? or We Are Family and Lost In Music? I mean, to me these are clever compositions; they’re not like three-chord rock. It’s like sophisticated stuff. I was 24 years old, 23, 25, 26 years old.

From the start your guitar playing and Bernard’s bass had very distinctive styles.

I never met anyone who could play like Bernard Edwards. It’s an individual type of technique and you just can’t write that music and give it to a bass player and say, “Play that.” They’ll play it but it won’t sound like [Edwards] because (verbalizes bass intro to Everybody Dance) that’s gonna be incredibly staccato, almost like you’re hitting a typewriter at that tempo. Everybody Dance is flying, we were über-disco in those days. Bernard used to be a guitar player before he became a bass player so he plays with one finger when he’s doing that technique. He’s using his forefinger as a plectrum and he’s holding his thumb behind it to give it that extra bit of weight.

He tried a plectrum?

It sounds lame. Doesn’t sound right. Doesn’t sound like bass, to me. Or to him. He would always say, I’m a bass player – I wanna hear bass.

“Everybody Dance is flying... we were über-disco in those days.”

Your own sound and style was extremely distinctive as well.

That’s because Bernard sort of tutored me. When I first met him, I would say I was a jazz guitarist. That was my speciality. If I had a choice of jobs and they were all paying the same amount I would chose the jazz job.

Chic always sounds like a great band, but the singers, good though they are, can sound a bit incidental, like an afterthought.

That wasn’t accidental at all. It was totally conscious. To us we were the same as Kool & The Gang. They were instrumentalists and would sing group vocals ’cos no one was a good singer until JT joined the group. It was just like Chic, a group of people singing a song. Now what’s happened is, the sound has evolved because I’ve become, how can I say it, a little bit more confident of jamming. Now that sounds weird because when I was younger all we did was jam. But the audiences in the old days were much more open to jamming, that’s what bands did.

Once bands stopped jamming, a lot of shows became push and play. I mean, I hate to say it but I’ve been to some really big stars’ shows – and you can probably figure out who I’m talking about – where they’ll drop the mike and the lead vocal’s still going and you’re like, “Whoa! What’s goin’ on here?” So it’s all in sync and it’s dancin’ and all these big extravaganzas, but that’s not Chic. We’re just a band. We’re just a bunch of musicians playing and having a good time playing the songs.

That’s what’s fun to me. The fun is not putting on an extravaganza. I’ve never been that person. I’m like a bar band and the bar is a really big bar, (laughs) thousands of people were invited, but we’re just a band. There’s no pyrotechnics, there’s no cannons going off, no dancers coming from the skies and the Cirque Du Soleil. We go, “One, two, aaaah Freak out…,” and play the song. Some days it’s fast, some days it’s slow, some days it’s ultra funky, some days it’s more pop. We don’t know. It all happens after I count.

THE WORD ‘CHIC’ SUGGESTS sophistication but Nile Rodgers’ journey to that world was anything but smooth. His mother was 13 when she gave birth to him, and he was raised amid the hipsters and hepcats of ’50s Greenwich Village. His interracial parents – Beverly and Jewish stepfather Bobby – were both heroin addicts [Nile Rodgers Sr, his birth father, was a gifted Latin American percussionist].

After an eventful, asthmatic, somewhat peripatetic childhood split between New York and Los Angeles, where aged 13 he encountered Timothy Leary and LSD, Rodgers left home at 15, panhandled, lived in crash pads, and joined the Black Panthers; the beret he’s wearing today seeming like an echo of that time.

Nile and Bernard meet David Bowie PHOTO: Getty Images

“Bowie came in and said, ‘I want my record to sound like this,’ and handed me a picture of Little Richard in a bright red suit.”

Having shown little interest in making music, but listening to everything from Latino to classical, he started playing guitar and was tutored the Wes Montgomery ‘thumb’ style still heard in his playing today. A quick study, he was soon playing in the Sesame Street theatre road band, his first decent wage, and by 1970 had graduated to the Apollo house band in Harlem.

“We would come in on a Saturday morning and learn the show,” he told me in 2003. “The rehearsal was in the basement and after that we never did it until they went, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Maxine Brown!’ and we’d go into the song. And if you screwed up there’d be another guy sitting in your chair the next day. So I had to learn music right away, and more important, you had to make it sound good.”

On weeks off he played fill-in gigs. By then he’d met Edwards. “I come from a very hippy, beatnik, fusionesque world,” he told me, “and when I called Bernard to play bass with me, on my girlfriend’s mother’s recommendation, he thought I was so off the wall he actually asked me to lose his number and never call him again. And Bernard’s a nice guy so I must have really pissed him off.”

But they met again, hit it off this time and played in various bands, notably New York City (of I’m Doing Fine Now fame). At the end of their UK tour, in Nottingham, Rodgers had everything stolen – money, passport, instrument – but in London saw Roxy Music: “Phew! Boy, did that ever change my life.”

Back in the States, Kiss were also emerging. “That correlation between the theatrics and the anonymity to walk down the street as a regular person but then become Kiss or Roxy Music when you’re doing your thing was very compelling to Bernard and me because we didn’t see ourselves as stars; we were always back-up musicians.”

With record companies unwilling to countenance a black rock band, they refocused on dance music. Edwards came up with the name and the couture concept, and their contacts on the New York session scene did the rest.

C'est Chic: (from left) Bernard Edwards, Alfa Anderson, Tony Thompson, Luci Martin and Nile Rodgers. PHOTO: Getty Images

In the early ’80s the Chic sound became ubiquitous, through your own productions, through sampling, through imitators. Too ubiquitous, in the end?

It’s a blessing when people hear your music. But there’s a problem when it’s: “I heard that sound already, and Grandmaster Flash is doin’ it.” So they don’t appreciate the virtuosity, and how hard it is to do it. I remember when we were doing our last Chic record, right before Bernard Edwards passed away [Chic-ism, 1992], people didn’t really know who Chic was. We have always been a sort of anonymous band, and all the dancers on the set for the video kept coming up to us: “Mister, do you really know how to play that…?” They couldn’t believe that we were actually a band, because the phenomenon of the black band started to go away with sampling.

"I grew up with heroin addicts – there was nothing that was taboo. Everything was fine at my house!"

Well, that might’ve started when synthesizers replaced horn sections.

It’s a pretty amazing thing when you think that America invented this amazing art form: jazz, blues, and ensemble funky black music playing. Like, you can’t do it by yourself. I can’t do it by myself. I can do something cool but I can’t do that. And that’s gone away. I don’t know any record labels that have any black funk bands signed, any black R&B band signed except for The Roots.

Now the new Daft Punk record was made just like an [old] R&B record. And rock bands still make records that way. But black musicians don’t make records that way by and large. I’m not saying absolutely, positively no one does – Esperanza Spalding certainly does – but ninetysomething per cent of all black music is made with a guy in a room and a laptop or on some kind of computer device and doesn’t need a group of musicians. And the fact is that the fan base Doesn’t Care. I’ve watched it happen. First of all, I’m not anti- the way they make music now. It’s perfectly fine. Like in any art form there are different ways of doing things and usually those things happen as a result of technology.

When the 12-inch record was made, all of a sudden everybody’s got a 12-inch mix and a remix. When the CD came out, we went from albums with nine to 10 songs to albums with 15-20. I don’t think Chic ever put out an album with more than nine songs [Take It Off, 1981 had 10] and that, also, was because of technology. We were making vinyl and we wanted our bass to be boomier and lower than most records so we figured just make the hot song longer and make the grooves deeper.

Chic Boxset

When I did Bowie, there’s only eight songs on Let’s Dance. Once the CD came out you could have 80-plus minutes of music, which already is weird. I mean, 80-plus minutes of music is The Beatles’ double album or Prince‘s double…

When creating Chic you became associated with the dancefloor. Was it a great leap of faith to do a ballad like At Last I Am Free.

At Last I Am Free is a song that was in my life well before Chic. We played it in one of my early rock bands. I wrote At Last I Am Free only a few months after I first picked up guitar. I was 16-and-a-half, maybe 17 years old. It was a hard rock ballad, always a ballad, very Led Zeppeliny kind of thing. John Bonham was a huge hero of mine. Led Zep were just massive in my life when I was a kid so I wanted that big epic rock thing. And that’s what At Last I Am Free was.

Madonna's Like A Virgin
Like A Virgin (1984): sophisto-pop driven by La Ciccone’s nose for a tune.
David Bowie's Let's Dance
Let's Dance (1983): glistening funk-rock à la Nile.

When we turned it into an R&B song we kept the chorus but Bernard was most responsible for rewriting the verse, because I couldn’t do it. At Last I Am Free I wrote when I was in the Black Panthers. A good friend of mine, a young guy who had just joined our section, we were hippies and we went to Central Park and dropped LSD. And, er, he had what was a pretty good trip until the cops started beating him up.

He took off all of his clothes and was running around naked in Central Park. It was daylight, thousands of people there. I heard this huge commotion and a blood-curdling scream, and I ran over and what I saw in this crowd was my friend. The police had beaten him to a bloody pulp. But he felt no pain, he was screaming but I think he was screaming more from the bad trip. The cops couldn’t subdue him. They had horses, the whole bit. It was very brutal and violent.

Anyway, in Central Park they have a police precinct inside the park and so I pretty much knew that’s where they were gonna take him and so I started to walk towards that precinct. And every time I took a step the buildings took a step with me. For hours and hours, I would take a step, the building would take a step, I would take a step, the building would take a step… and I was walking for what seemed like an eternity.

Finally, I got to the edge of Central Park and the words that kept resonating in my head were, “At Last I Am Free, At Last I Am Free...” Now I gotta go help my comrade, my brother. He was covered in blood and it had started to coagulate and dry on these crusty bandages on his head. It was horrible. And what was funny was that he didn’t even remember it. He knows it’s true because many people have corroborated it and he did wake up with bandages, but he doesn’t remember being beaten, he doesn’t remember taking off all his clothes, none of that.

Was that the only song that came out of that period?

No, no. We wrote the song for Norma Jean [Wright], I Just Can’t Wait ’Til Saturday, that was an early song. It’s credited to Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers and a guy named Bobby Carter. Bobby played the role of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar and he had that great voice, every person who plays that role really has to sing, it’s an incredible part.

"There’s no pyrotechnics, no dancers coming from the skies. We go, ‘One, two, aaaah Freak out…,’ and play the song."

So when we started our band with Bobby everybody thought we were white. They thought we were like a more soulful version of Journey, ’cos Journey’s vocals are very soulful, Gregg Rolie sounds like Sam Cooke. So they couldn’t wait to meet this band called The Boys or the Big Apple Band, whatever we would go by in those days – it would change depending on whatever demos we were submitting – and when we walked in it was like four black guys and a white-looking guy, who was actually Puerto Rican but looked white to them, so they directed the entire conversation to him. He says, “Look, I just joined the band. Those guys are my bosses.” So w“ couldn’t get a record deal.

Sister Sledge were even younger than you when you started working in the studio with them.

We didn’t know what to expect but we had written everything before they got there. There were never any demos. We made the record. When they walked in We Are Family sounded like We Are Family except we were still writing the lyric. They couldn’t believe it: “They’re writing our song right in front of us?”

OK, wait about half-hour, we went and finished it and started singing it to ’em and… there were a bunch of things that happened with that record that were remarkable, but the most remarkable thing is we heard Kathy Sledge’s voice. You gotta be kidding me! This 16-year-old girl can do this? Bernard and I thought that maybe she was going to be (chuckles) our Dionne Warwick – she was just going to sing every song we ever wrote from now on.

A marriage made in heaven?

We just found this angel who walked into our lives out of nowhere, 16 years old and we have her singing about having sex with some guy that she never met and we had no idea that she was religious and a virgin. I’m talking about the song He’s The Greatest Dancer.

That caused a little rift between us because we basically have her say, “My crème de la crème, please take me home.” and “One night in a disco on the outskirts of Frisco, I was cruising…” The word ‘cruising’ in those days was sort of taboo because mainly the people who cruised were gay people, hardcore. But you know, I grew up with heroin addicts – there was nothing that was taboo. Everything was fine at my house!

So we had no idea this would offend them, that they were so religious. [In the end] Kathy pulled me aside, this 16-year-old girl, sweet as can be, and she said, “Nile, do you think that I’m ever gonna hear this song on the radio?” I looked at her and I said, “Of course you’re gonna hear it on the radio. Of course you are.” And she says that when she felt that air of confidence coming from me, she went in and attacked that song.

MOJO’S CONVERSATION WITH RODGERS is brusquely interrupted by the piercing shriek of the Bulgari Hotel fire alarm. We look at each other in some consternation. Taking no chances, Rodgers strides quickly into the adjacent room, grabs his computer and heads for the lift. In the foyer, calm reigns. It is indeed an alarm test. There were letters to that effect in every room, the embarrassed staff assure us. “We’re Americans,” laughs Nile. “We don’t read.”

Maybe not. But they do write, as Rodgers proved with last year’s revealing and entertaining autobiography, Le Freak. A cathartic experience?

“Yes it was and (long pause) it was great for me because it taught me something about research and to listen to other people‘s points of view about a situation that I thought I had absolute clarity about. It was almost like being in Rashomon (laughs), it was like, “What a minute. I was there too. What are you talking about?!” It took me four years to write it but most of the time was spent rewriting. Most of the stuff never made the book, which was sad for me. My publisher said, “Nile, a first time author can’t turn in a 700-page book.” (Laughs)

A second volume of that, too, then? “I certainly have the will and the desire to do it but I’m working on so many projects that require a huge amount of time,” stresses Rodgers. “I’m writing a theatrical production of my book and that is really all-encompassing. So that’s huge. I honestly wish there were at least two or three of me so I can get all of this stuff done now.”

"I honestly wish there were at least two or three of me so I can get all of this stuff done now."