The music legend talks to Janet Christie about a life dedicated to getting people dancing, working with Bowie and Madonna and the return of good times ahead of Chic’s Glasgow gig
Music legend Nile Rodgers has his guitar strapped to his back. He’s about to get on a plane but the worn white Fender Stratocaster with the maple fingerboard, on which he wrote best selling hits with his band Chic and produced some of the biggest-selling albums of all time with David Bowie, Madonna and Diana Ross, won’t be shoved in the hold. The Hitmaker, as he calls it, and which is integral to his funky ‘chucking’ style, won’t be out of his sight. He left it on a train once, luckily got it back, but yes, he did freak out...
The Grammy Award-winning musician, composer, arranger, guitarist and co-founder of Chic says, “I have a replica, and a plexiglass one and they sound really great live and on record, real close, but it’s not the same.”
Rodgers is about to fly out of Toronto when we speak, heading for London in his trademark dreadlocks and beret to put the funk into the X Factor, replacing the touring Robbie Williams as a judge. He’s also collecting a humanitarian award from the Global Gift charity for his work with his We Are Family Foundation, named for his Sister Sledge anthem.
Career-wise he’s flying high too, after releasing the first Chic album
for more than two decades this summer featuring Elton John, Emeli Sandé and Lady Gaga, with another album due out in February and about to kick off a 12-date European and UK tour with the band that’ll make Glasgow Dance, Dance, Dance in December.
He’s the newly elected Chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame and as the recently-appointed inaugural Chief Creative Advisor for Abbey Road Studios, it’s time to celebrate Good Times.
Rodgers is responsible for decades of floorfillers, after starting out as a musician on Sesame Street, playing clubs and bars before co-founding Chic in 1976 with bassist Bernard Edwards. There were Chic disco hits: Dance, Dance, Dance, Everybody Dance, I Want Your Love, Le Freak and Good Times, and hits he produced for others: He’s The Greatest Dancer, We Are Family, (Sister Sledge), I’m Coming Out, Upside Down, (Diana Ross), Like A Virgin, (Madonna), Let’s Dance (David Bowie). Then there are his collaborations, with Daft Punk on the Random Access Memories album and single Get Lucky, global hits that won him three Grammys, with Avicii, Sigala Disclosure and Sam Smith, plus the genre crossing talent that saw Good Times spark the advent of hip-hop when it was picked up as the base for Sugarhill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight. In all, his work has sold more than 500 million albums and 75 million singles, but it’s been 26 years since Nile Rodgers and Chic released a studio album. Hence the title It’s About Time.
“Yes,” he laughs. “For one thing there’s the obvious – it was about time I did this stuff and got it back out.”
It would have been earlier, but as Rodgers was working on the album the deaths of his friends and previous collaborators Prince, David Bowie, George Michael and Chris Cornell hit him hard.
“What happened was I had got a large tape drop from Warner Brothers of masters that I thought were gone for ever and that made me feel so happy and nostalgic and I was about to release an album. But then people started passing away that I had written tribute songs about, and it made me feel like I’d be capitalising on Bowie and Prince’s passing, and it was just so wrong.”
The time is right now, however, and at 66, Rodgers has been thinking about mortality. He’s beaten prostate cancer once in 2013 and last year had a lump removed from his kidney. Today he declares himself fit and healthy, if a little tired from last night’s Toronto gig, but he’s determined to fulfil his mission to get everyone dancing to feelgood music.
“I know that our time on this planet is finite,” he says “and you know what, I want to spend the rest of my life making really great dance music. When I was producing Eric Clapton one day he came out of the studio and said to me that he was gonna play blues for the rest of his life. I said ‘Eric, you mean to tell me if I come see a Clapton show I’m not gonna hear Sunshine of Your Love? Or any of those Cream and Blind Faith cool songs?’ And he said ‘no, you’re not gonna get that again, because I’m not going to play it again.’ I went home and thought about it for a bit and I said, ‘well, hell, if Eric Clapton is gonna play blues for the rest of his life, I’m gonna play dance music for the rest of my life. Right! I just wanna play music for ever.
“Not that I think I’m Eric Clapton, but you know, if you’ve put in all this time, you have the right to decide what you want to do and I decided that I like to make music that makes people happy, makes people want to dance. It really feels good to me to see people express themselves through motion.”
Speaking of dancing, as a legendary exponent of dance music, what does Rodgers consider to be his hottest move? How would he wow one night in a disco on the outskirts of Frisco? Rumba and Tango, Latin Hustle, too, Yowsah, Yowsah…?
“I have no idea,” he says and laughs. “I don’t consider myself a good dancer any more, because I was actually a serious dancer. I was actually a ballet dancer in another life. Not many people know that, but it’s true. Around the time I was working with Sesame Street when I was 19 or 20, and I took it very seriously for a while. Then I just started gigging a lot more and I didn’t have time to practise and ballet you gotta practise just as seriously as you practise music.”
As for the upcoming tour, Chic fans can expect to hear the old favourites alongside some of the new album because Rodgers knows his crowd and after playing the festival circuit with Glastonbury and Coachella last year, he’s also conscious a lot of the audience will be hearing them for the first time.
“At our shows I ask people to raise their hands if they’re seeing Chic for the first time, and we’re averaging about 70 per cent first timers. This is amazing to me! Especially since we’ve played the UK so much. I’m like Jesus, everybody has seen us! But no, more than half the crowd will raise their hands and that’s cool.”
Rodgers may have four decades in the business but he’s still an innovator and already at Abbey Road has been the first to shoot a video there and has more plans to move and shake the legendary studio.
“Abbey Road’s amazing,” he says. “They’re allowing me to do everything there, matter of fact, ha! I might re-invigorate my ballet career, have a dance recital there! It’s just incredible. It’s probably one of the most artistic, creative environments I’ve ever been in. I’m making films, doing concerts, even Paul McCartney wound up having a concert there after I came.”
Born in New York in 1952 Rodgers didn’t have the easiest start in life. His mother was 13 when she got pregnant with him and his biological father, Nile Rodgers Senior, a travelling percussionist, moved on. With his mother and step-father both being heroin addicts, Rodgers learned young to be self-reliant. The last time I interviewed him he spoke about how once as a five-year-old he got wedged down the back of the sofa when his parents were out of it and he had to wait for his grandmother to come round to the house and retrieve him.
If he could, what would he say to that little boy stuck amid soft furnishings, waiting for someone to realise he was missing?
“I’d say, buckle up, it’s going to be a hell of a ride!” He laughs.
After learning to play the guitar at 16 Rodgers figured he could pay rent and landed his first professional job in the Sesame Street band at 17. But despite their struggles, he’s very close to his family, especially his mother, and is grateful for the legacy of music bequeathed him by his parents. It’s in his bones and has been all his life.
“I have music in me, around me, it just swirls in my head all the time. I can’t turn it off as a matter of fact. Oh yeah, I always hear music, all day long. I heard it as a child, and I hear it now,” he says.
In was almost inevitable he would make his name in music, from the beginning playing and practising every day.
“I wish I could do that now,” he says, “I would give my left arm to be able to do that. Oh, no… you know what I mean.” He laughs.
“I just think practising makes me play better, and he quotes the violinist Jascha Heifetz, who once said ‘if I don’t practise one day, I know it; two days, the critics know it; three days, the public knows it.’
His insecure formative years necessitated a work ethic that spurred Rodgers on and brought financial rewards such as the house by the shore in Westport, Connecticut, with the boat moored at the jetty, where he lives today. Apparently alone, but then Rodgers never talks about his relationships. “Yeah, I’m pretty discreet,” he says. And just out of nosiness, because he’s divulged this to me before, and he is the child of a pair of beatnik hippies, does he still like to hang out there naked when he doesn’t have guests?
He laughs. “Yeah, of course, why would I change? Old dog new tricks? No.”
With his colourful life story, Nile Rodgers The Musical, should be worth the wait, but his much anticipated autobiographical show is still being written and may be another couple of years in the pipeline. Right now he’s got his hands full with the musical he wrote with Jean-Paul Gaultier, entitled Fashion Freak Show, currently wowing the Folies Bergeres in Paris, as well as another musical bound for Las Vegas and provisionally London’s West End.
“The Paris show is doing great and the other one is loosely based on disco lifestyle stuff and it’s being done by [Steven Hoggett] the choreographer from the Harry Potter show that’s in the West End now.”
As to who would play Rodgers in the musical of his life, he’s at a complete loss, sounding surprised at the question.
“Oh, I don’t know… I wouldn’t even… I don’t even know,” he says. “That person would have to be a hell of a lot more talented than myself, because they’d have to do a lot of things at an early age that I couldn’t do when I was that age!” He laughs.
Compose, perform, produce, act, oh and they’d have to add ballet to the long list of talents now too, know their ballotté from their boogie.
“Yes, they would.” He laughs. And no, he wouldn’t consider playing himself.
Today Rodgers’ mother Beverly has Alzheimer’s, but the two find common love in music and when he visited her last week, as usual they revisited their playlist for life.
“She loves everything. My mom is a be-bop junkie... and loves everything from Charlie Mingus to Nina Simone to Miles to The Beatles. The other day we were singing Hey Jude and she knows every single word, even sings the ad libs…” He lifts his voice and does his mother doing McCartney’s scat, “Ju-Judy Judy Judy Judy Judy.
Rodgers’ own playlist of significant songs would contain primarily jazz and some of his own tracks, not out of narcissism, but because he rarely gets to hear them.
“I only hear my music when I’m playing it and there’s a huge difference between the recorded and performance versions. In performance there’s a lot of improvisation whereas recorded is exactly the same every time. Sometime when I hear the recorded version I go ‘oh my god, I forgot I wrote that part too’. The other day I heard Let’s Dance and forgot how intricate the horn voicings were. I listened to the whole album and thought wow, this is cool.“
Let’s Dance was part of Rodgers’ reinvention as a producer, the album that turned his career around after punk kicked in and left disco apparently for dead. Boogie was busted as punk gobbed in its face and Chic, with their soul, R&B, funk, glitter and groove were out in the cold.
“Durin’ the disco sucks era,” he says, “we couldn’t get anything, no buzz, no one would listen to us. We were just persona non grata. It’s not that the music was bad, it was just we were not flavour of the month. People didn’t like us.”
The collaboration with Bowie was to reinvigorate his career and satisfy his love for discovering new sounds.
“Up until David’s record I had six failures in a row. I was known for producing disco. But after David I probably had six successes in a row: David Bowie, INXS, Duran Duran, Madonna, then Duran Duran again, then Mick Jagger and David Bowie with Dancing in the Street... yeah I had a clutch.
“And collaborating is fun! Not only have you got your own energy to vibe off, but you have other people’s. I love being in Chic but for the last 25 years I’ve been mainly in the room with brand new people, in other people’s bands.”
Looking back over his career Rodgers is hard pushed to nominate an event or song of which he is most proud.
“I’m not more proud of Let’s Dance than We Are Family, Get Lucky, I Want Your Love, Dance, Dance, Dance, Everybody Dance or Rapper’s Delight.”
As he lists the titles, it prompts a muscle memory, the beginnings of a hustle in the hips, a shimmy in the shoulders, so perhaps it’s the longevity of his sound that’s most impressive. Rodgers, however, can’t explain his success.
“If I knew the answer to that question, don’t you think every record I’ve put out would be a hit?” he says. “Most of my records are not hits. Most of my records are flops. Only a handful are hits. Well, actually, a big handful....”
A very big handful...
“Well, yeah, anyway...” he trails off, modest and mellow.
Holding his Hitmaker, it’s time for Rodgers to board his flight, with a final word about how much he’s looking forward to the tour.
“You know, I really love composing, I love making records, and when we know from the charts that people are listening, there is a joy that we get.
“But when you can actually see people having a good time, that feels pretty damn good. There’s nothing like that. It’s wonderful. So... see you in Glasgow for Good Times.”
Nile Rodgers & Chic kick off their UK arena tour at The SSE Hydro Glasgow on 13 December. Tickets available at LiveNation.co.uk