“I run into guys like David Bowie at a nightclub, and he goes, ‘Hey, you want to do a record?’ And I go, Sure. I run into guys like Daft Punk, and they go, ‘Hey, you want to do a record?’ And I go, Sure. Or I run into Madonna, and she goes, ‘Hey, you want to do a record?’ And I go, Sure. My whole life has been like that.”
As Nile Rodgers runs down the Who’s Who of music mavens he’s worked with over the past 40 years, terms like unreal and ridiculous and WOW and areyoukiddingme come to mind. Yet there is no trace of hubris in his voice. There’s pride, to be sure, underlying the shopping-list matter-of-factness he uses when talking about the staggering—and, really, there’s no other word for it—list of musical accomplishments and collaborators. But more than anything else, there’s a genuine humility. “I’ve been lucky since the beginning of my career.”
It’s funny how luck tends to favor those with genius and drive, those like Rodgers, who cofounded the band Chic as the disco era was coming into its own and went on to create a catalogue of music that remains not only relevant but vital. Having celebrated his 60th birthday last September, he’d be forgiven if he wanted to slow down a bit. Instead, he keeps stepping on the gas. Playing nonstop at venues around the world, writing and producing, penning memoirs, blogging, taking up philanthropic pursuits…
“I only sleep three, sometimes four hours a night. That’s since I was about five years old,” he says. Instead of grabbing some shut-eye, he’s here on Long Island, he’s in London, he’s off to Birmingham, he’s headed for Paris and Belfast. It’s like a signal bouncing off a satellite. And everywhere he goes, the crowds are on their feet—young, old, every stop along the socioeconomic spectrum, he’s figured out the formula for reaching all types of audiences. “You try to take the spiritual pulse of people, you have to put your best foot forward, and do not let failure be daunting.”
And you do it with a genuine passion. You can’t fake that. Not that there would be any way to fake the kind of love Rodgers has for music, creating it, playing it, sharing it, and particularly when it’s for a charitable enterprise—whether working with All for the East End (AFTEE) here on Long Island or beyond with his own We Are Family Foundation, which arose from the tragedy of September 11.
“I had three friends that were in the first plane that crashed into the north tower,” he recounts. “And one of the friends was a dear, dear, old friend of mine, and that was devastating. So I did what musicians normally do. When it comes to disasters and tragedies and things like that, we usually figure the quickest way to raise money is to do a concert.”
Rodgers, a native New Yorker, gathered more than 200 artists, actors and famous personalities, plus firefighters, policemen and others affected by the tragedy, and rerecorded “We Are Family,” the 1979 hit he’d created for Sister Sledge. Spike Lee directed the video, and the message behind the song and the new collaboration was instantly one of hope and unity and building toward a better tomorrow.
That spirit still informs the work of his foundation and the feel of what he is bringing to the AFTEE dance party. As he looks forward to taking the stage at Martha Clara Vineyard with Chic and some special guests (see story, page 88), he’s hoping to raise plenty of money, of course, but also raise spirits and elevate a level of musical consciousness while he’s up there. “You may even expand people’s minds—they come to this event and they realize, Hey, I didn’t know how much I like this music!
“That’s the thing that I find with my own career—people don’t realize how many songs I’ve done, that I’ve been a part of,” he continues. “Usually when they show up, the best reaction I get from people is, “I didn’t know you did that song? I had no idea—that’s my favorite song!”
Maybe that song is one of his Chic hits like “Le Freak” or “Good Times,” or one like “I’m Coming Out” or “Upside Down” that he produced for Diana Ross. Could be a cut off of Madonna’s Like a Virgin album (yes, Rodgers again) or something from David Bowie’s Let’s Dance (yep, Rodgers). Maybe Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” (you guessed it—Rodgers) is your thing, or “Roam” by the B52s (okay, you know the drill by now).
Go ahead, name five of your favorite songs. There’s a good chance that at least one of them is tied to Rodgers, either directly or by many fewer degrees than it would take you to get to Kevin Bacon. And you don’t need to flash back to the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s to name that tune.
This summer of 2013 has belonged to Rodgers with not just the biggest song of the year, but one of the biggest of all time. Daft Punk’s smash single “Get Lucky” toppled one chart after another around the world, reaching number one in more than 70 countries. The riff that the song has ridden to the top is pure Rodgers, and it has finally made the man as recognized as his sounds…or at least close.
“Even though it’s Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams and Nile Rogers, it shows my face in that little video clip. Daft Punk, they have the robot thing going on,” he says, reference the group’s famous masks, “so you don’t see their faces, and people are going, “Who’s that guy with the dreadlocks?” And then they learn he’s the guy who did “We Are Family” and “Good Times” and “I’m Coming Out” and “China Girl” and “The Reflex.”
All these years after conquering the musical record books with “Le Freak,” Rodgers is certainly enjoying his time back on top. It’s clear in the smile on his face every time he mentions “Get Lucky.” But the enjoyment doesn’t come from the place you might think. “I don’t have an emotional reaction to it, it doesn’t hit me like that,” he says. “But what I do respond to is the happiness I feel for Daft Punk. If we didn’t sell any records, Daft Punk’s record would still be a massive success to me because, boy, did we have fun. We had so much fun. They asked me to come down and play on a song, and the next thing you know, I wound up co-writing three with them, because we were having so much fun, we didn’t want it to end. But three songs is all I had time to do.”
Time is not something Rodgers takes lightly, nothing he squanders. In early 2011, Rodgers revealed that he had been diagnosed with a very aggressive form of prostate cancer. True to form, he would not let it take him down. “Part of the therapy was that I was going to play this music that makes me really, really, really, really happy and if I was going to die from cancer, if it was going to take out, at least I was going to die living. There’s nothing else I could do. I did what the doctors told me to do, and I said, but I have to be some part of my therapy, I can’t be passive. So the one thing I could do was make myself feel better, and when I’m playing music, I feel great.”
Such a notion is hardly surprising coming from a man who says the most special moment in his life was not touring with Michael Jackson or learning to ski with Oprah or hanging platinum records on the wall or cashing all those checks, but the first time he played a tuned guitar. “I had only been playing classical music, and I didn’t realize how a guitar was tuned, I just thought it was like a violin or something. So when I was playing I could play double steps and get harmonies and figure out baselines and things like that, but I was trying to follow this Beatles songbook with the wacky tuning that I had come up with, and it was sounding almost like the song but not quite. But then my mother’s boyfriend came in and tuned the guitar for me, and I played the positions I had so diligently practiced, and all of a sudden, it was like magic!”
Rodgers was “16 or 17” at the time, the uncertainty about his own age based on the fact that “my parents were heroin addicts, so they didn’t really live on a clock. I based everything on being in school or out of school, and that summer I don’t now if the school year had started yet and I just hadn’t gone yet, or it was still summertime.” Born to a teenage mother in 1952, Rodgers spent his youth in Manhattan, the Bronx and Los Angeles, his family including an African-American mom, a white Jewish stepfather, and grandmothers from both sides. There was his time with the Harlem branch of the Black Panthers (his lifelong friend Professor Jamal Joseph was part of the historic Panther 21 Trial), there were the hard-living sex, drugs and rock n’ roll days, which he ended after a particularly unsettling night at a Madonna birthday party in Miami beach nearly two decades ago. Through it all, a natural musical inclination was always his refuge and motivation.
Two years after picking up the guitar, Rodgers landed a gig with the Sesame Street band. He went on to play in the house band at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem. Fate soon teamed him with bass player Bernard Edwards, with whom he created Chic in 1976. By 1979, “we had ‘Le Freak,’ ‘Good Times,’ ‘We Are Family,’ ‘He’s the Greatest Dancer,’ ‘Lost in Music,’ ‘Dance, Dance, Dance,’ ‘I Want Your Love’—we had all those records in that short period of time,” Rodgers says. ‘Le Freak’ alone sold some 6 million–plus copies, the biggest seller ever for Atlantic Records, going triple platinum. “And in those days, the numbers are double what they are now,” he reminds us. “To go platinum, we had to sell 2 million, not 1 million.”
The moment he knew he had something special with Chic came “the first time I heard ‘Everybody Dance’ at a nightclub,” he says of the 1978 hit. “‘Everybody Dance’ cost the whopping sum of $10 to make. It has Luther Vandross on it, because I was employed by Luther at the time and we were playing at Radio City, and we cut the record during intermission. The guy who recorded us happened to be a DJ at a New York City hot spot, and he made two [copies] unbeknownst to us, and he went down and started playing it at his club. He invited me down, and I saw all these people singing this song that I had written, screaming and freaking out and going crazy, and I though, Oh my God, I’ve never seen anything like this. And this was something I’d written in my girlfriend’s living room—I didn’t even have money for rent, thank God I had a girlfriend.”
The good times of the disco era were short-lived. In the wake of harsh anti-disco backlash that swept through America, Chic broke up, leaving behind unrecorded tracks and unfinished work. Rodgers continued working on solo recordings, soundtracks, and some things he admittedly was “just too afraid to put out. Then thankfully I met David Bowie and we did Let’s Dance, but then I forgot about doing that other stuff.”
The recording studio where the tapes were stored was sold, Rodgers recounts, “and everything I’d worked on was just labeled CHIC and went to the Warner Bros tape library… I didn’t know where it was until one diligent person at the tape library called me and said, I don’t think this stuff belongs to us.”
Soon it will be given to his fans. On July 1 he released The Chic Organization Up All Night (The Greatest Hits), but whatever comes out of these “lost Chic tapes” will be something like we’ve never heard. It’s just a matter of time. “It will definitely see the light of day,” Rodgers promises. “Not as soon as I would like, because I am so busy working on other things. But everything happens for a reason—a lot of the people I’m collaborating with now listen to this stuff and say, ‘Wow, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard!’ And I go, ‘Really? Well, maybe you should finish it.’ There may be some great collaborations coming. But I am being careful.
“This stuff is sacred to me,” he continues, more serious now. “This is the last stuff that I will ever play with my partners, my old guys. It’s like a ghost story, the ghost right here next to me, and he’s jamming with me, but you can’t see them. It’s a gift that I get to play with these guys and finish this record. So I don’t want to necessarily throw it out to someone else before I get to spiritually and artistically digest it first.”
Regardless of whether he finishes it himself or collaborates, the result will be distinctly Nile Rodgers. There’s no way around that. “One thing I’m very proud of—and I say this with humility and knowing that this is the blessing and the curse of my life that I don’t sleep much—is that I have a million musical ideas. None of my records copy another record. They all are uniquely their own record, but they all have the Nile Rogers sound, if there is something we can call that. And I’m really proud of that—that they all sound like unique, original compositions.”
Much of that sound can be attributed to a single instrument—the 1959 Fender Stratocaster that never leaves his side, affectionately named “The Hitmaker” by Rodgers himself. “That’s what I call it. Whenever I was playing a song and somehow things weren’t going right, I’d say, Just bring out the Hitmaker. Let’s stop fooling around and go right to the real deal.”
It’s been estimated that this single guitar has been responsible for some $2 billion worth of music. Add up the money that Like a Virgin and Let’s Dance and his own Chic smashes have brought in and you’ll get to that $2 billion quickly enough, but when Rodgers brings up the other work he’s done, the video game soundtracks and the commercial work (“People don’t realize I’ve done 40 or 50 Nike commercials—I’m almost certain I did the first “Just Do It” commercial.”), he has a realization even more staggering. “That $2 billion is probably a low number.”
And, incredibly, an irrelevant number in some ways to Rodgers. When used as a yardstick by which to measure the joy his music has brought millions of listeners, it makes Rodgers happy. It’s about the creation, not the cash.
After nearly four decades, inspiration clearly is not a problem. “I have this strange affliction, I don’t know what it is,” Rodgers admits. “When I look at the world, I sort of hear music. Which is why I think I never run out of ideas. It’s a strange type of schizophrenia—I just see music when I look at stuff. When I was a child, they called me a daydreamer. I have some of my early report cards, and they’d say, ‘Nile is a daydreamer and he doesn’t play well with others.’ And I was like, what are you talking about? I play great with others, they’re just all in my head.”
And there they remain. “I have constant noise. I can’t sleep without the television blaring—and it has to be loud, to drown out the music in my head. If I turn off the television, the sound of life is just so loud to me, it’s deafening. I walk down the street, I look out the window, I look down at my feet. Even talking to you now, while I’m explaining the process to you, music is coming into my head. That’s where I get my inspiration from, just life.”
The AFTEE Nile Rodgers Dance Party East End is Monday, August 19. Visit aftee.org for more information.