The King of Disco, Nile Rodgers, grooves in to town with hits he created for everyone from Bowie to Madonna to INXS
the age of seven and a half, Nile Rodgers was confronted with a sight that would stay with him all his life: a naked man threatening to jump from the ledge of a hotel in New York’s Greenwich Village – a man he recognised as his heroin-addicted, biological father.
“I don’t think he’ll jump if he sees me,” Nile Jr told the desk clerk after frantically running inside. It was the first time Nile Rodgers Sr, a once brilliant percussionist who fell prey to drink and drugs, had seen his estranged son in six months, but it was enough to successfully coax him back inside the window.
Today, the younger Nile Rodgers’ name is synonymous with some of the greatest pop and rock music of the past four decades – from his own band Chic and fellow disco act Sister Sledge to groundbreaking production for artists as diverse as Madonna, David Bowie and Australia’s INXS. Rodgers’ performance with Chic at Womadelaide next month will explore all these facets of his career.
On that late spring day in 1960, however, Nile Jr was struggling with not one, but three drug-addicted parents. It has been a remarkable journey, both musically and socially. “Yeah,” he laughs, “I just wrote a book about that very thing.”
That memoir, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny, makes it evident that it is a miracle Rodgers even survived, let alone succeeded. “I had a lonely childhood for a number of reasons,” he says. “Both my parents were heroin addicts. My biological father was a heroin addict, my stepfather was a heroin addict, and eventually my mom became one. Just the daily quest for drugs, it’s a difficult life.”
His mother, Beverly, became pregnant with Nile when she was just 13. While his mother was lightskinned, Nile inherited his father’s very dark complexion, which caused its own problems. “In the black community . . . colourism is a widely practised thing. Most of the black people in America who advance or do well are lighter skinned,” he says, adding that he was usually the only black kid in class.
Even though he changed schools constantly – sometimes only staying for a week or two as the family moved about – Rodgers says he was able to keep up with his studies because of the standardised curriculum and his hunger for learning.
“Teachers embraced me, and that may have been the greatest thing in my life,” he says. “You know how teachers are: if a student wants to learn, they want to teach.”
Drug habits notwithstanding, Rodgers’ beatnik, jazz-loving mother and step-father created a loving and supportive environment. Nonetheless, Rodgers ended up living on the street at 15 – mostly because of insomnia, from which he still suffers. He was