Niles Rodgers revisits ’Good Times’ @ the Hammerstein Ballroom
Nile Rodgers, one-half of the creative team behind Chic (with Bernard Edwards, who died in 1996), returns to New York to play in the Legends of Disco Ball at the Hammerstein Ballroom on March 31st. Other featured acts include The Trammps, France Joli, Tavares, and Harold Melvin's Blue Notes.
Rodgers, a musician, composer and producer, had a handful of top ten hits with Chic, including the number one songs "Le Freak" and "Good Times." "Le Freak" remains the best-selling single in Atlantic Records' history. He and Edwards also produced the blockbuster debut album for Sister Sledge ("We are Family").
In the 1980s, he produced major albums for Diana Ross ("Diana," featuring "Upside Down"), David Bowie ("Let's Dance"), and Madonna ("Like a Virgin"), as well as several other acts. He also had a long association with Duran Duran.
In 2011, Rodgers chronicled his life in the autobiography "Le Freak: An Upside Down History of Family, Disco, and Destiny" (Spiegel & Grau).
EDGE recently spoke with Rodgers about his eventful life and music.
Everyone knows the music
EDGE: You wrote of the music of that era as reaching across all social, racial and political boundaries. How would you describe the pop music of today?
Nile Rodgers: I think pop music in and of itself does that. It may not do it as effectively as it did then. The average Chic audience now is aged 20, 30, 40-everybody knows the music. It was coming from a time when everyone was looking to find their voice. We weren’t age-predisposed or race-predisposed. Kathy Sledge was just sixteen when she sang about a one-night stand in "He’s the Greatest Dancer."
But today’s condition is that in order to sell, they want to target a group with a product to fit that group. Top Forty format was great because you might buy a country record that you liked because you were exposed to it. I still remember going to a black person’s house and seeing a Bee Gees record. Even the Beatles didn’t have that crossover, although a black artist might cover their songs. A song during the disco era would cross barriers in its purest form. You didn’t need someone to cover "I Will Survive."
EDGE: Listening to a lot of the disco today, it’s very melodic and almost has classical elements. Do you think there is finally some respect for what all of you did back then?
Nile Rodgers: No question. We typically play around the world at festivals. We can play with Green Day, Sting, or Earth, Wind and Fire, and it is accepted as pop music.
A turning point
EDGE: I love the story of how "Le Freak" came about. You were denied entry to Studio 54 and you and Bernard went back to a friend’s apartment and wrote, "Aww, fuck off-fuck Studio 54-fuck off!" There seemed to be a lot of stories where a door was slammed in your face and it became a turning point. What’s the lesson for succeeding?
Nile Rodgers: In a strange way, that’s what keeps me going. We just came off a great tour in Australia. We had seven #1 songs in Australia and yet we’d never been booked there because they didn’t know how to sell us. When we do our shows, everyone knows our songs. If they don’t know it as a big hit, they know it as a song that was later sampled. Even my mother told me after a recent show that she had forgotten I did certain songs. If I used the Top Ten as a criteria for our set list, I couldn’t do them all in one show.
EDGE: You’ve worked with some of the biggest stars of all time: Diana Ross, David Bowie, and Madonna, just to name a few. Is there anybody you wish you had worked with?
Nile Rodgers: Miles Davis was always after me to write him a pop/dance record. We became really close after we did a fashion shoot together. I tried to write him a jazz fusion song, and he said to me, "I can do that, but write me a motherfucking ’Good Times’!" He was telling me the same thing David Bowie had told me, but I was able to bond with David on the idea once I realized he was serious. But Miles kept trying to have that R&B funk hit.
My repertoire, as varied as it is, comes from the Chic organization. They’re cut from the same DNA but none of the songs sound alike.
Pulls no punches
EDGE: In the book, you pulled no punches documenting your own drug abuse and sexual escapades. After a binge on night when you went home with a friend’s wife, you wrote, "My moral compass had been reset, and not in a good way, and I started doing things that before that night I never would have done." That’s a rather stunning admission. Those who have survived those days rarely if ever talk about regrets and apologies for their behavior.
Nile Rodgers: It was a sign of the times. This was this beautiful "it" couple of the time. I was as much his friend as I was hers. She put Ecstasy in my mouth and asked me to trust her, and then we went back to a friend’s apartment and had a wonderful night. She and I never spoke of that night again. It was not cool, but that’s where I started to think that even a couple like that could be so frivolous. It was normal for that society. These were celebratory times. The Vietnam War had ended and all of the rights-civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights-were converging. It becomes blurry; you don’t know which thing to celebrate. It wasn’t even a politically liberal time. Everyone was indulging. It was social and spiritual and artistic, but people didn’t talk about it, they just did it.
EDGE: I was surprised that you hardly mentioned AIDS in your book, a disease that decimated the club, art and music scenes. Did you fear getting the disease or at the time was it thought to be a strictly gay disease?
Nile Rodgers: I did not fear getting AIDS. I was a condom user for a long time because I didn’t want to have kids. My mother was pregnant after her first sexual encounter at age thirteen. And I know so many musicians who have kids all over the place and they can’t support them. I didn’t want that. If a woman asked me not to wear one, that made me uncomfortable.
I do remember hearing about the first woman from Studio 54 who got AIDS, probably from a bisexual partner. That gave me pause, but I was terminally heterosexual and didn’t fear it too much. A lot of things that happened in my family shaped who I was. I moved out at fifteen and never came back. My mother knew I could handle myself, because I had been pretty independent since I was seven or eight.
Likes being sober
EDGE: After Whitney Houston’s death, some people didn’t understand the hold that addiction can take. They’d say, "She had everything and threw it all away." As one who’s been there, how would you respond to that?
Nile Rodgers: There but for the grace of God go I. When I went into rehab 17 years ago, most people were shocked that I wasn’t broke-that’s usually the thing that motivates people to get help. But when I realized I couldn’t play anymore, I knew I was losing my mind. Someone had shown me a tape the day after a concert that I thought was great. The evidence showed something else!
That was the description of being insane. I have never had a drink or drug since then. I still have to be ever vigilant. After rehab, when I first went to a restaurant, I could smell the drinks across the room and know what people were drinking. Or I’d see the green signs on the highway and think of a Heineken bottle. But I like being sober. I can play the guitar better at 59 than I did at 29-or at least as well. I never have a bad show. If something goes wrong, I just stop the band and we start again. The audience loves it!
EDGE: You really opened my eyes when you pointed out that there are no black male equivalents to top-grossing older white male acts like Elton John, Springsteen, Paul McCartney, James Taylor and others. That was reflected at the end of the Grammys this year as well. Is there a built-in racism in the industry or is that still an American problem in general?
Nile Rodgers: It’s the world in general. At this point in my life, I try to make the best of it and play the cards I’ve been dealt. The most difficult record I ever made was the one I did for the black label, Motown-Diana Ross.
Wearing many hats
EDGE: You wear so many hats. Do you prefer writing, producing, or performing?
Nile Rodgers: The truth is, I always prefer what I’m not doing at the time. I’ve been working on a couple of big musicals and now that the tour is over, I can’t wait to get back to them.
EDGE: What is your role with the Legends of Disco event at Hammerstein Ballroom on March 31st?
Nile Rodgers: It is going to be amazing because New York is my hometown and we rarely do shows here. The festival circuit is more lucrative for us. A lot of people never knew what we did because we didn’t have a reputation as a live band. We could only tour for a couple weeks and then we’d be back working on studio projects. The Hammerstein Ballroom is almost like my home because I’ve used it for my We Are Family Foundation, so I know everyone there. I have to give it my all!
I’ll also throw in my expertise as a producer. How could I not? I’m a team player. The show is going to be fantastic. There’s not one song we’ll play where you won’t say, "Oh my God!" It’s going to be hit after hit after hit. You’ll be acting like you’re twenty years old again. You can’t help but dance!
EDGE: On the last page of the book, you reveal that a doctor called you as you were leaving for Rome to tell you that you had an aggressive form of cancer. You went on the gig anyway. Can you tell us more about the diagnosis and how you are doing now?
Nile Rodgers: I’m doing great. I’m alive. When they finally found the cancer, they thought it was metastatic. They told me I was going to have to make arrangements. I’m a musician, so I said, "What key?" Sometimes there is pain. I was in the ER in Australia a couple weeks ago, but I did a book-signing and a concert that night. The press said it was the best concert of the year. I fight with it and deal with it and write a daily blog. I don’t want to succumb to it and I want to help people. Many musician friends have reached out to me and told me their stories. The thing that keeps me going is the music.
Niles Rodgers performs with Legends of Disco Live at the Hammerstein Ballroom on Saturday, March 31, 2012 at the Hammerstein Ballroom, 311 West 34th Street, New York, NY. Also appearing are The Trammps Featuring Earl Young.