Funky guitarist, gifted composer, hipster arranger, giving philanthropist and hit-making svengali, Nile Rodgers is just as chic as ever. And still shaking every thing he’s got.
In fact, he’s set for a return on March 31 to the legendary Hammerstein in New York City for “Legends of Disco ‘Live’ at the Ballroom,” an event which promises to recreate a Studio 54-style dance party featuring Chic, Tavares, the Trammps featuring Earl Young and Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes. Rodgers has been touring Australia for the first time in a decade, as well, offering fans another chance to groove to Chic favorites like “Le Freak,” “Everybody Dance” and “Good Times,” along with iconic tracks he wrote or produced like “We are Family” by Sister Sledge, “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross and selections from two of the biggest-selling pop albums of all time in Madonna’s Like a Virgin and David Bowie’s Let’s Dance.
That, of course, is just the tip of the proverbial chart-topping iceberg for Rodgers, who’s also produced and/or appeared as a sideman on signature recordings for Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duran Duran, INXS, Steve Winwood, Robert Plant, the Thompson Twins, Peter Gabriel, Mick Jagger, the B-52s, David Lee Roth, the Stray Cats, Howard Jones, and David Sanborn, among many others. Lugging around that many hit singles, as you can imagine, makes crafting a setlist one of the more difficult nightly tasks.
The evening ends up as a whirlwind tour, Rodgers tells us in the latest SER Sitdown, with little time for deep cuts: “We only play for an hour and half or two hours, and when you put 12 or 13 No. 1 records together, with the breakdowns and the musicality — plus we love to jam — you don’t really have too much time for experimentation,” he says. “So, what happens is, once we go through our palette of big hits, you realize that there’s not much time left!”
Yet, Rodgers — who’s winning a battle against cancer, begun in October 2010 — still makes room for charity work like the We Are Family Foundation, formed in the wake of the devastating attacks of September 11. The organization, in fact, holds fundraiser concerts at the very same Hammerstein Ballroom — meaning Rodgers will be right at home for this upcoming “Legends of Disco” show.
We caught up with the Chic frontman to discuss the enduring joys of his jazz-inflected R&B amalgam, how that legacy crossed over into a series of smash pop records in the 1980s, and the difficulties in carrying on after the 1996 passing of Chic co-founder and musical soulmate Bernard Edwards …
NICK DERISO: This will date me, but I was at a skating rink when I first heard the Sugarhill Gang. I remember turning to the guy next to me, and saying: “Wait a minute, that’s Chic’s ‘Good Times!’” Like many people, it was my first experience with sampling. “Rapper’s Delight” certainly opened a door for everything that came later.
NILE RODGERS: We’ve been doing that song since our summer tour of 1980. When we played “Good Times,” we would go into that, and we would also go into “Another One Bites the Dust.” Ever since then, we’ve come to realize that the songs that have come from our productions are an integral part of our Chic live experience. People may not realize this but when they come to our concerts, they are going to hear the compositions of the Chic organization, but also Nile Rodgers as a solo artist and producer. I added David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” a couple of years ago, and that’s gone over huge. Last year, we did (Madonna’s) “Like a Virgin” as a joke, and it went over so well that we’ve kept it in the show! When we play Chic concerts, and people hear all of the songs that I have produced, they go: “Whoa! Are you kidding?” It’s just No. 1 record after No. 1 record. It’s becomes this amazing show, with really familiar songs. We play for an hour and a half, sometimes two hours. And every song we play is a No. 1 hit, or at worst a Top 5 record. People know every song, so for two hours all your hear is: “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” (Laughs.) Of course, it’s always interesting when we segue from “Good Times,” which is toward the end of our show, and we break into “Rapper’s Delight.” That was a seminal moment in music history. It’s funny that before “Rapper’s Delight,” music was one way and after “Rapper’s Delight,” it was another way.
NICK DERISO: With that many hit singles, there are bound to be some that fell through the cracks of our collective memory. What are some of those forgotten favorites?
NILE RODGERS: “I Want Your Love” is one. People don’t realize that was a platinum single that was dwarfed by “Le Freak” — which ended up as the only triple-platinum single in Atlantic Records history. People forget that “I Want Your Love” sold two million units! So, when they hear it, they go: “I love that song!” That’s got to be in our show. I consider Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” to be the most perfect record we’ve ever done, but we actually do several songs from that album. “She’s the Greatest Dancer” was also a platinum single, but again people don’t realize it, because it was dwarfed by “We Are Family.” The first single was “She’s the Greatest Dancer,” a big, big record that set up “We Are Family.” So, we have to do both those songs. Of course, when we play “She’s the Greatest Dancer,” we then go into Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It.” Again, the sample was so big in that song, that we have to pay tribute.
NICK DERISO: Tell us a little bit more about the upcoming event at the Hammerstein, which is being billed as “The Legends of Disco ‘Live’ at the Ballroom.”
NILE RODGERS: From the performance point of view, the good thing is I’ve played in the venue quite a bit. It’s been the home base of my We Are Family Foundation charity event, our annual gala. So we know the room very well. Boy, have we rocked it, over and over again — and with some of the biggest stars in the world. I can’t even think of all of my friends who have played on this stage with me. So, it’s awesome for Chic to go in there and play once again, in slightly different circumstances. Now I get to go in there and just concentrate on partying and making people dance, and having a great time.
NICK DERISO: It’s funny, I’ve always bristled a little when people pigeonholed Chic as a disco band. Certainly, you guys had dance-oriented hits, but the albums always included a wide variety of textures and sounds. I wondered how you felt about that label.
NILE RODGERS: I was never angry about being labeled a disco band. I just thought it was disingenuous for us to take credit for it. We were smart enough to take advantage of it, if you will. There was an opportunity there, an openness in the disco movement. If you listen to Chic records, we are a jazz-influenced R&B band that learned how to write catchy songs that made people feel good. The singles that we released were up-tempo dance songs, to get reactions on the dance floor. Somebody pointed out something recently that I had never thought of before: Because we didn’t exist before 1977, at the height of the disco boom, we were labeled that way. If you notice, there were other R&B bands that had lot of disco success — Kool and the Gang, Earth Wind and Fire, acts like that — but they had been around longer. No one ever labelled them disco bands, when in fact — certainly with Kool in the Gang — their biggest records were disco records.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: In our second edition of Disco That Doesn't Suck, we examine the lasting joys of unjustly maligned favorites from LaBelle, the Bee Gees, the Miracles, ABBA and Rose Royce.]
NICK DERISO: David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, in particular, showed how your sound expanded well beyond than disco. It seemed to be a kind of belated vindication for what you’d accomplished in the previous decade. Certainly, there was the DNA of Chic within the songs, and yet it was malleable enough to be changed very easily into something else.
NILE RODGERS: What you’re saying is so on point. Before we became Chic, we were a black rock and roll band. All of the record companies loved our demos — until they saw us. What we sounded like, because of our lead singer — Bobby Cotter, who had been really successful with Jesus Christ Superstar — was Journey, who at the time were huge. They just thought we were a different version of the band Journey. But when they saw us, they were like: “Oh, they’re all black!” We couldn’t get signed. But we’ve been closet rockers since we started playing. So, to get a chance to work with an artist like David Bowie was huge for us. You could hear the passion in the record. I don’t think people analyze records — you know, is this person black; is this person white? — they just listen. I wrote my autobiography recently, and I didn’t even realize until I put it down on paper that there’s nobody white in the rhythm on Let’s Dance. Stevie Ray Vaughan came in and played lead on top, but the record was cut basically by Chic. The only supplemental players were (drummer) Omar Hakim and (bassist) Carmine Rojas. I never even thought about it! Those were just my go-to guys, some of the best rock musicians that I knew. Also, at the time, I was certain that Bowie wanted people who could play jazz — even though we weren’t going to play jazz music on his record. That was important. He wanted the inspiration of jazz, because he’s a real jazz fanatic. So, I wanted guys who were proficient in jazz, even though we were going to be playing a rock record — or rock, funk, soul, jazz, whatever. Let’s Dance was absolutely going to be an experimental record, but David told me to make it an experimental record that was also a hit. He was very clear.
NICK DERISO: This new round of shows, including the Hammerstein event, find you taking the stage once again without Bernard Edwards, who died of pneumonia while you were on tour. Has that gotten any easier?
NILE RODGERS: When he passed away, imagine what it did for me — or did to me, spiritually. Here we are, playing together. He’s giving me his all. We’re in Japan, and it’s Steve Winwood and my good friend Slash, Simon LeBon from Duran Duran, Sister Sledge. It was just a magnificent night. We just had a perfect band, a perfect night. Three great shows. But in the middle of that third show, disaster struck. He passed out in the middle the show, though he somehow completed the night. After that, he went back to his hotel room and passed away. I never wanted to play Chic music again. I certainly never thought I’d play it without him. I couldn’t image playing “Good Times” or “Dance, Dance, Dance” without Bernard Edwards. Fortunately, because I have the kind of life where I live on royalties, because of all of the hits that I have written and produced, I didn’t actually have to play live shows anymore. So, I never thought I’d pick up an instrument and play those songs again. But then, a Japanese promoter asked me to come back and pay tribute to Bernard a year later. At first, it was uncomfortable for me, and I thought it was the wrong thing to do. Now, I thank that gentleman. The truth is, just as he put it to me that day, the music is just as much mine as it was Bernard’s. We played and it was fantastic, and all of sudden I started looking at the music differently — to look at my songs as compositions, as opposed to my Chic possessions. They are to be interpreted my musicians, like jazz. You play them together, and they are still the same songs fundamentally, but they have a different spin when you play them with different people. It’s always fun to have different people interpret my compositions. It sounds new to me every time I play it. And I’ve got to pat myself on the back a little bit. My band, we do it very well. Even Bernard Edwards Jr. comes to the shows and says: “You guys might even play it better now.” And maybe, he’s right. There’s a certain new enthusiasm I have, because I realize now what a privilege it is to play those songs.
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Nile Rodgers and Chic will be featured as part of “The Legends of Disco ‘Live’ at the Hammerstein Ballroom,” at 7 p.m. Saturday, March 31, 2012. Also appearing: The Trammps featuring Earl Young, Tavares, France Joli, and Harold Melvin’s Blue Notes, with MCs Deney Terrio from Dance Fever and Joe Causi from CBS-FM. Tickets are on sale at http://tickets.discopartynyc.com. For group sales of 10 or more tickets, contact Leonard Shostak at firstname.lastname@example.org or 212-937-7911.