Tuesday, December 05, 2023

New York Times: A Hit Maker's Life and Lyrics

Nile Rodgers's new memoir, “Le Freak,” recounts his days as a successful record producer and musician
Photo Credit: Chang W. Lee / The New York Times

The venerable musician and record producer Nile Rodgers, wearing a bandanna tied around his dreadlocks, fade-out sunglasses and a charcoal-gray pinstripe jacket, arrived at Cafe Luxembourg right on schedule one morning last week.

The original idea was to have breakfast and then walk around the Upper West Side, revisiting landmarks represented in his new memoir, “Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny” (Spiegel & Grau). We could have started at the former site of Ungano’s, next door on West 70th Street, where Mr. Rodgers played guitar in 1970 with a jazz-rock band called New World Rising. He was a teenager then, organizing for the Black Panthers and unofficially attending Stuyvesant High School. (He wasn’t enrolled, he explained; he just sat in on classes with teachers he found interesting.)

Then we might have gone down to the site of Studio 54, which inspired his first No. 1 hit, “Le Freak,” in 1978, as the songwriter, guitarist and producer of the funk band Chic, a group that transcended the clichés of the disco era and became influential across styles. You can hear its imprint on hits by Queen, the Clash and Notorious B.I.G., as well as in piles of postpunk bands that sloppily emulated Mr. Rodgers’s rhythm guitar style, cleanly chopping in perfect time.

We’d continue past the Power Station recording studio, now Avatar Studios, at West 53rd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues, where he spent many days producing hit records for Sister Sledge (“We Are Family”), David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”), Madonna (“Like a Virgin”), Diana Ross (“I’m Coming Out”) and Duran Duran (“The Wild Boys”).

But we stayed put. Mr. Rodgers, 59, is a serious talker; leaving the table would have disrupted the flow. Chic valorized the notion of the breakdown — the process whereby instruments strip away from the track one by one, leaving pure rhythm, then pile back in — and like a breakdown in a song he makes his life transparent.

Photo Credit: Chang W. Lee / The New York Times

Nile Rodgers spends time at his home on the Upper West Side,above, and also lives with his girlfriend in Connecticut.

Breakfast became a discourse on a history that has never been well documented: the post-’60s, pre-D.J., nonrock nightclub scene in New York that fed Chic and Mr. Rodgers’s entire conception of music. “We weren’t a disco band,” he said, without rancor. “We’d always have a ballad, always have an instrumental, just like any other R&B band.”

Anyway, he was soon due back at the same location for his next appointment, lunch with Chris Blackwell, the founder of Island Records, now a hotelier, philanthropist and rum producer. “Chris and I used to be really good,” Mr. Rodgers said, a little regretfully. “I don’t know if I tell it clearly in the book, but the last day I did drugs, I was in Chris Blackwell’s hotel, in his suite. I went to Madonna’s birthday party, and that was the first time I had cocaine psychosis.”

Yes, the freakout is in the book — the bender leading up to the party in Miami in 1994; the paranoia; the procuring of a samurai sword for self-protection; etc., etc. — but not the Chris Blackwell part. “This will be the first time I’ve laid eyes on him since I was in that room,” Mr. Rodgers said. “Wow, that’s weird.”

What’s weirder is how Mr. Rodgers went from a chaotic and frequently dangerous childhood to making such gorgeously ordered music. Along with showcasing his rhythm guitar, Chic and its spacious sound also featured the virtuosic bass lines of Bernard Edwards, Mr. Rodgers’s songwriting partner. Chic was also characterized by lush string arrangements and glamorous lyrics sung by five vocalists, including Luther Vandross.

Yet the first third of “Le Freak,” set partly in Los Angeles but mostly in New York, involves severe asthma, a heroin-addicted mother and stepfather nodding off in the living room, a convalescent home with a child-molesting caretaker, and a three-month truancy during second grade spent in movie theaters around Skid Row in Los Angeles. At 8 he spotted his biological father naked and deranged on the roof of a Bleecker Street flophouse in Greenwich Village; at 15 he was sleeping in the New York subways. (At that time his mother was not yet 30.)

Photo Credit: Kevin Cummins/Getty Images

Mr. Rodgers, with guitar at left, and the bassist Bernard Edwards performing with Chic at the Apollo Manchester in England in 1979.

“I think that childhood forced me to be a real taskmaster, to be completely organized,” Mr. Rodgers said. “My house is the same way.” He’s not lying: you can see it on his blog, at nilerodgers.com, on which, among other things, he has detailed his recent treatment for prostate cancer.

By his late teens Mr. Rodgers studied the guitar with intensity, playing stints in African, Persian, Latin, jazz and boogaloo bands. One story he left out of the book, strangely enough, was his first encounter with the serious dance-music world, in a nightclub called the Hadar, on Staten Island, around 1974. He was astonished by the crowd’s dedication to dance, and to dressing up. “It was like my mom: beautiful, elegant, organized and disorganized,” he said of the scene.

By 1977, influenced by Mr. Edwards’s songwriting economy with melody and rhythm, as well as by largely instrumental, protodisco records like Hamilton Bohannon’s “Foot Stompin’ Music” and El Coco’s “Let’s Get It Together,” Mr. Rodgers, a former hippie, had become attached to another subculture.

“The cat was a free spirit, and that’s probably a result of the life he had,” the singer Fonzi Thornton said of Mr. Rodgers. Mr. Thornton, a mainstay on Chic records and many of Mr. Rodgers’s later productions, added, “When you grow up having to look out for yourself, you go through a lot of scenes, and you meet a lot of different kinds of people.”

At the point in the book in which Mr. Rodgers’s income soars, you learn much about piloting speedboats with powerful sound systems, party-induced heart stoppage and sexual practices in the women’s bathroom at Studio 54. (And later, recovery, at a rehab center in Connecticut. Mr. Rodgers, who lives with his girlfriend Nancy Hunt in Westport, Conn., and on the Upper West Side, said he has been drug and alcohol free since that Madonna party 17 years ago.)

Photo Credit: Toby Wales

Mr. Rodgers with Sylver Logan Sharp of Chic playing at Tramps in New York in 1998.

In and around and between there is much about the science and business of music. Mr. Rodgers is equally interested in harmonic theory, groove and coldblooded hit making. He is a composer-arranger first, and a jazz musician deep down. But he is fascinated by the marketplace and formulas for pop, even if his own golden touch began to fade in the ’90s. (Among his recent productions are soundtracks for video games, including Halo.)

In 2004, inspired by what the musical “Mamma Mia!” did for Abba’s back catalog, Mr. Rodgers imagined a Broadway show featuring his own songs, and those he produced, as the backbone, a kind of index of pop in the second half of the 20th century, moving through various cultural movements, cutting across race and class and sexual identity. It didn’t happen, but Mr. Rodgers had already framed the narrative and found the connective threads to his own story, which became the memoir.

In a typical scene from “Le Freak” he finds himself in the men’s room of a Hell’s Kitchen bar, surrounded by transvestite Diana Ross look-alikes; he wonders about the possibilities of a song that capitalizes on Ms. Ross’s gay audience. That song would become “I’m Coming Out.”

Asked whether writing the book forced him to seize on moments that he might otherwise have passed over he looked incredulous. “Man, ‘I’m Coming Out’ is one of the best songs I’ve ever written,” he said. “You don’t forget how you thought of that.”

He reflected a bit. “Now here’s the only part of the story I don’t know for sure,” he said. “I thought there were at least five Diana Ross impersonators in the bathroom, which seems like a large number, unless they were having a special theme night there.”


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A version of this article appeared in print on October 20, 2011, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Hit Maker’s Life and Lyrics.

Category: PRESS