Rolling Stone: Nile Rodgers - C'est CHIC

Producer tells wild, star-studded stories in new book, 'Le Freak'

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Nile Rodgers might be the quintessential Zelig of popular music. His band, Chic, defined the disco era, and its grooves laid the foundation for hip-hop. As an up-and-comer, Rodgers jammed with Jimi Hendrix (and dropped acid with Timothy Leary). As a producer and session guitarist, he helped mold the young Madonna, remade David Bowie’s career with Let's Dance, confided with Michael Jackson and recorded with Diana Ross, Duran Duran, Mick Jagger, Robert Plant and the B-52s, to name a (very) few. On top of all that, his work has appeared in ads for Nike and Budweiser and all over video games such as Halo. "I’ve had an amazing life," says the guitarist, whose memoir, Le Freak, was released October 18th, 2011.

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With massive crossover hits such as "Le Freak," "Good Times" and "I Want Your Love," Chic was one of the hottest acts in the business in the late 1970s. "Le Freak" was the biggest-selling single in Atlantic Records history and the first song ever to top the Billboard Hot 100 three separate times. The song, says Rodgers, was originally an angry rant aimed at Studio 54 – "Fuck off!" – after he and his musical partner, bassist Bernard Edwards, were turned away at the door of the famous nightclub. The bouncer recently apologized to Rodgers on Facebook, he tells Rolling Stone.

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Rodgers grew up in Greenwich Village and southern California in a highly unorthodox family, with a beautiful mother who was pregnant at age 13 and a stepfather who was a "Beatnik Ph.D.," as he writes in the book.

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As a teenage hippie in the 1960s, Rodgers took his first acid trip at a Hollywood party with Timothy Leary in attendance. "I hadn't a clue who the hell he was," writes Rodgers. Twenty years later, he sat next to Leary at a party, where the LSD guru proceeded to tell the story of two young black kids who took their first trip at a party with him. Um, that was me, Rodgers said.

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Rodgers spent the early 1970s playing in various bands – the Apollo Theater house band, a touring production for Sesame Street, and a club band called the Big Apple Band, which backed the group New York City ("I'm Doin' Fine Now"). He and Bernard Edwards co-founded Chic when another group calling themselves the Big Apple Band scored a huge hit with Walter Murphy's disco novelty "A Fifth of Beethoven." Starting from scratch, the partners created Chic. "Our roots went back to 1972," Rodgers says. Had they kept the name Big Apple Band, "we would have been an R&B band that finally got our break." As it happened, they'd be forever linked with disco.

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A young Rodgers once found himself immersed in a mind-blowing studio jam with Jimi Hendrix. "Jimi was a fixture in our little community in those days," Rodgers says. "He was building Electric Lady [Studios]. It was not uncommon to run into him at Steve Paul's Scene and have conversations with him. Hendrix was not this mysterious figure. I was in the Black Panthers – we stood security for him on Randall's Island." The impromptu studio session "felt like it was earth-shattering," recalls Rodgers, "like Beethoven's Ninth. It felt like music was different after we did that. And Jimi looked up and said, 'Anybody record that, man?'"

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As a New York scenester who'd played Max's Kansas City and other hip clubs since the early 1970s, Rodgers became close friends with many Manhattan celebrities, such as Debbie Harry.

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Believe it or not, Rodgers and Edwards took some of their inspiration for Chic from KISS, fellow products of the New York City club scene. If KISS were "faceless" in their elaborate costumes, Chic could be a "faceless" band in stylish eveningwear – a look Rodgers settled on after seeing Roxy Music.

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His work on Let's Dance, a smash comeback for David Bowie in 1983, confirmed Rodgers as one of the most in-demand producers in the business. "There was some unexplainable voodoo" on the album, he writes, which featured a young guitarist named Stevie Ray Vaughan.

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Rodgers scored another major success with his production for Duran Duran. The guitarist was always a huge fan of the "chanking" rhythmic style of James Brown's longtime guitarist, Jimmy Nolen. "I mean, come on," he says with a laugh. "Listen to me stealing from Jimmy on 'Notorious.'"

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Robert Plant was "maybe the coolest, most sensitive, most wonderful person I ever met in the rock and roll business," says Rodgers, who worked with the Led Zeppelin frontman on his throwback side project, the Honeydrippers. It was Rodgers who brought Jeff Beck into the group, he tells Rolling Stone: "Nobody really knows that."

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Rodgers' gregarious nature helped make him an uncommonly effective producer. "My job is not only making records, it's also somewhat a psychologist," he says. "You need the artist to feel they can trust you. I have their best interests at heart."

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While working on records for a young Madonna and the Thompson Twins, Rodgers became an instrumental figure in the production of Live Aid.

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After 9/11, Rodgers called together friends from across the entertainment world to record a new all-star version of "We Are Family," the Sister Sledge hit he produced in 1979.

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One hero Rodgers never worked with was James Brown, though the two got to know each other well. Dan Hartman's "Living in America," a comeback hit for Brown in 1985, was "a perfect homage to a genius," says Rodgers. "He nailed it – he made James Brown James Brown again. I didn't think I had the ability to do that."

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Rodgers' longtime recording partner, Bernard Edwards, died suddenly of pneumonia while the two were in Japan recording a television special in 1996. Rodgers was recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer, though at his last checkup his doctor pronounced him "clean." "Most days I'm at peace with it," he says. "If I somehow don't make it through this, that's just the balance, the payback for all the great stuff I've had in my life."


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