David Bowie’s Let’s Dance illustrated the durability of Chic’s hitmaking sound

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Much has been made of David Bowie’s chameleon-like ability to remake himself, but Let’s Dance actually had more to do with the constancy of Chic’s hitmaking formula.

Often derided as a disco band, Chic certainly sent its share of soul-lifting hits up the charts — from “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Le Freak” to “Good Times” and “Everybody Dance.” But there was always something more to this band, which started out focused on rock before catching a ride on the dance-floor zeitgeist.

Let’s Dance, released this week in 1983, simply proved it on a grand scale.

“Before we became Chic, we were a black rock and roll band,” Chic’s Nile Rodgers tells us, in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. “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.”

Over a lengthy period in which people roundly ignored Chic’s albums in the post-disco era, they in fact remained all over the radio, helping to shape hits for Sister Sledge, Diana Ross and Madonna. They provided the basis for rap’s first breakout single. And untold millions purchased Let’s Dance, marvelling at David Bowie’s latest transformation, without ever identifying the album’s essential DNA — that is to say, Nile Rodgers as key producer and guitarist, with notable contributions by Tony Thompson on drums and Bernard Edwards on bass.

“You could hear the passion in the record,” Rodger adds. “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.”

Credit David Bowie for understanding how to cast his latest iteration. But also Nile Rodgers and Chic for having the goods to make that nascent vision a reality.

“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,” Nile Rodgers tells us. “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.”

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