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