Nile Rodgers

Chic’s mas­ter­mind of 70s disco on chas­ing the mu­si­cal zeit­geist

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

WORK­ING with pop stars who like to re­main anony­mous has its ben­e­fits; Nile Rodgers knows that. In the video clip for this year’s ubiq­ui­tous hit Get Lucky, the 60-year-old Amer­i­can gui­tarist, song­writer and pro­ducer takes cen­tre stage with guest singer Phar­rell Wil­liams. In the back­ground the mem­bers of French duo Daft Punk form the rhythm sec­tion, dressed as what could be de­scribed as cabaret ro­bots, their faces hid­den by space-age hel­mets.

Those few min­utes of footage — not to men­tion his hyp­notic Get Lucky gui­tar parts — have in­tro­duced Rodgers to a gen­er­a­tion of fans who may not have known he is one of the mas­ter­minds of 1970s disco, co-founder of the band Chic and pro­ducer of hits for an eclec­tic bunch of artists rang­ing from Madonna and Diana Ross to David Bowie and INXS.

‘‘ I guess they were won­der­ing ‘ who’s the dude with the dread­locks play­ing gui­tar?’,’’ says Rodgers, who co-wrote, played on and pro­duced Get Lucky as well as Lose Your­self to Dance and Give Life Back to Mu­sic — from Daft Punk’s lat­est al­bum, Ran­dom Ac­cess Mem­o­ries.

It’s an ac­knowl­edge­ment of Rodgers’s cre­den­tials as a disco pi­o­neer that Daft Punk, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Ban­gal­ter, asked him to work on their al­bum, keen as they were to give their elec­tro-pop a disco makeover.

The al­bum’s suc­cess in turn has been a fil­lip to Rodgers’s and Chic’s 21st-cen­tury re­nais­sance, one that con­tin­ues in Aus­tralia in De­cem­ber when they ar­rive here to tour, armed with a swag of 70s dance-floor favourites that in­cludes Dance, Dance, Dance, Good Times and the clas­sic Le Freak from the Chic cat­a­logue, and more from Rodgers’s pres­ti­gious pro­duc­tion ca­reer. It also does no harm to his rep­u­ta­tion as a mu­si­cian that Rodgers has never had a hit record on which he did not play.

He’s grate­ful that his Daft Punk ex­pe­ri­ence has boosted his pro­file and con­nected him with a younger au­di­ence, al­though Rodgers de­scribes the DP fac­tor as just part of a con­ver­gence that con­nects his past, present and fu­ture.

Last month saw the re­lease also of Nile Rodgers Presents the Chic Or­gan­i­sa­tion: Up All Night, a dou­ble al­bum that con­tains the cream of his disco-era hits along­side oth­ers he cre­ated for Carly Si­mon ( Why), Deb­bie Harry ( Back­fired), Diana Ross ( I’m Com­ing Out, Up­side Down) and Johnny Mathis ( I Love My Lady).

‘‘ The Daft Punk fans started to fo­cus on me and then Daft Punk started to say how im­por­tant Chic was to their record,’’ he ex­plains. ‘‘ Now I re­lease Up All Night and it con­nects the dots. Peo­ple say: ‘ Oh, I didn’t re­alise he did Diana Ross and Sis­ter Sledge and so on.’ ’’

In 1979, Sis­ter Sledge’s We are Fam­ily, writ­ten and pro­duced by Rodgers and his Chic part­ner Bernard Edwards, pro­vided the song­writ­ing team with one of their big­gest and most en­dur­ing suc­cesses. Rodgers’s cur­ricu­lum vi­tae stretches across hun­dreds of record­ings span­ning five decades, many of them not in the dance mu­sic sphere. Mick Jag­ger, Peter Gabriel, Du­ran Du­ran and David Lee Roth have ben­e­fited from Rodgers’s stu­dio wiz­ardry, while just in the past few months he has been work­ing with Swedish DJ/pro­ducer Avicii and Bri­tish elec­tronic duo Chase & Sta­tus.

In the past few years Rodgers has stepped up Chic’s tour­ing com­mit­ments, which brought them to Aus­tralia early last year and took them to Eng­land’s cel­e­brated Glas­ton­bury Fes­ti­val a few months ago. He likes to be busy, al­though he’s never sure about how he should be spend­ing his time.

‘‘ The way it works for me is that I al­ways want to do what I’m cur­rently not do­ing,’’ he says. ‘‘ When I’m on the stage all I want to do is be in the stu­dio. We’ve been tour­ing re­cently more than we have done in our en­tire ca­reers, so I’ve been in the stu­dio for the past few days, and I’m in heaven.’’

Rodgers, clearly on a roll, isn’t ready to meet his Maker, but he has had a few scares along the way, notably in the 90s when he took a tum­ble into drugs and al­co­hol ad­dic­tion that threat­ened to end more than his ca­reer, as he ex­plains in his 2011 au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Le Freak: An Up­side Down Story of Fam­ily, Disco and Des­tiny.

In 2010 he was di­ag­nosed with prostate can­cer. Dur­ing his Aus­tralian tour last year, he had to be rushed to the emer­gency unit of a Melbourne hos­pi­tal to re­ceive treat­ment for what he tweeted as be­ing ‘‘ can­cer af­ter­math bull­shit’’. He was able to leave hos­pi­tal a few hours later to at­tend a book sign­ing and says he is in the peak of health now. The ill­ness did make him re­think his ca­reer strat­egy, how­ever.

‘‘ Right about the time I was di­ag­nosed with can­cer I said to my­self: ‘ Since I don’t know how long I’ve got, I’m go­ing to do as much as I pos­si­bly can.’ I went on the tear do­ing all th­ese shows. Once that started we got this great rep­u­ta­tion as be­ing some won­der­ful party band.’’ LIFE hasn’t al­ways been a party for Rodgers. His mother gave birth to him when she was 13. Like her, his bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther and the step­fa­ther he had from an early age were drug ad­dicts. As a young teenager he spent time in hos­pi­tal and a con­va­les­cent home be­ing treated for asthma, in be­tween mov­ing house on a reg­u­lar ba­sis to dif­fer­ent parts of New York and also for a pe­riod to Los An­ge­les. He ran away from his trou­bled home en­vi­ron­ment in New York when he was 15, tak­ing with him the gui­tar he had learned to play, and tak­ing refuge in a hip­pie com­mune. He stayed with his mother only oc­ca­sion­ally from then on.

Rodgers spent the fol­low­ing few years de­vel­op­ing his gui­tar skills and got his first break as a ses­sion player in New York’s Se­same Street tour­ing band.

From there his rep­u­ta­tion as a gun player spread and he be­came part of the house band at the fa­mous Apollo Theatre in Har­lem, back­ing some of the 60s’ big­gest black artists, in­clud­ing Aretha Franklin and Ben E. King.

In 1970, he met Edwards, a bass player, and to­gether they formed the band New York City. The group’s only hit, I’m Do­ing Fine Now, opened doors for the two mu­si­cians, but when their sec­ond al­bum flopped the band dis­solved. The two mu­sos, joined by drum­mer Tony Thomp­son, formed Chic in 1977.

Some­what sur­pris­ingly, Rodgers says Chic was in­spired by soul and R&B but im­age-wise also by ex­po­sure to English art-rock band Roxy Mu­sic. ‘‘ If there had been no Roxy Mu­sic there would have been no Chic,’’ he says. ‘‘ They were wear­ing dif­fer­ent, stylish couture clothes and not the typ­i­cal rock star thing. When we saw them we said, ‘ Let’s do the black ver­sion of that.’ ’’

The Chic Or­gan­i­sa­tion soon be­came a hit fac­tory, with Good Times, Ev­ery­body Dance, Dance Dance Dance, I Want Your Love, Le Freak and My For­bid­den Lover all mak­ing the charts.

The se­cret to writ­ing a hit song, Rodgers be­lieves, is hon­esty. All his ma­te­rial has some ba­sis in truth. Le Freak, for ex­am­ple, was orig­i­nally called F . . k Off, and was writ­ten about the band be­ing re­fused en­try to New York’s trendy Stu­dio 54 night­club.

‘‘ Ev­ery song I’ve ever writ­ten in my whole life . . . they’re all non­fic­tion,’’ he says. ‘‘ They are all based on real stuff. Absolutely there are many, many fic­tional ele­ments, but usu­ally the ideas come from some­thing very real. That’s why, if you look at the body of work, no two songs sound the same. Up­side Down doesn’t sound like Let’s Dance or He’s the Great­est Dancer. It’s be­cause all of th­ese songs come from real life. The song I’m Com­ing Out comes from me be­ing in a bath­room full of trans­ves­tites who were Diana Ross im­per­son­ators. That . . . was a great thing be­cause I would never have thought of that idea had that re­al­life sit­u­a­tion not hap­pened.’’

Nile Rodgers; and per­form­ing with Chic at this year’s Glas­ton­bury Fes­ti­val, right

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