The King of Disco, Nile Rodgers, grooves in to town with hits he cre­ated for ev­ery­one from Bowie to Madonna to INXS

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - FEATURE - PA T R I C K M c D O N A L D


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

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