Anyone reading the forthcoming autobiography of Nile Rodgers – guitarist, co-writer of 1970s disco anthem “Le Freak” and super-producer – might wonder why an entire volume isn’t devoted just to his extraordinary upbringing. And that’s before he left home, became a hippie, jammed with Jimi Hendrix, joined the Black Panthers and played guitar on Sesame Street.
And all that before Rodgers was even 18, on the cusp of the 1970s. By the end of the 1980s he had written and recorded a string of hits and produced the first of a slew of top-selling albums for artists including Madonna, David Bowie, Grace Jones and Duran Duran. He then branched into soundtracks for films, advertisements and computer games. Today he is chief executive of Sumthing Else Music, the record label and music production company he founded in 1998.
When I met Rodgers in London last month he estimated that the total money generated from the music he helped create was “well over $3bn”. Fit-looking at 59, he talks about his life with the restless energy and eye for detail of someone whose work ethic is prodigious. On top of everything else, he heads a children’s charity, writes a daily blog about his prostate cancer and is producing a Broadway play.
Yet Rodgers remains a behind-the-scenes figure, best known as the guitarist with Chic. His writing partner was the band’s bassist, the late Bernard Edwards, and, besides “Le Freak”, the pair co-wrote other much-sampled disco-era classics such as “Good Times” and, under the banner of the Chic Organisation, Sister Sledge’s hit-laden album We Are Family.
Rodgers’ career grew out of family circumstances that fused arts, radical politics, heroin and crime. In both book and conversation the events he relates sound like background material for some weird marriage of Raymond Chandler and William Burroughs. The excesses he describes – first, those of his mother and stepfather; later, his own – are as astonishing for the matter-of-fact nature of their telling as for the detail.
Rodgers’ mother, Beverley, was 13 when Nile was conceived in New York in 1952. His biological father played percussion with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra but was a marginal and ultimately tragic figure who ended his days as a down-and-out. Beverley married Bobby Glanzrock, a white man described in the book as a “beatnik PhD, whose observations had angles that would make Miles Davis contemplate his cool”. Racial barriers were not the only taboos challenged, as the relationship was soon dominated by heroin addiction.
The young Rodgers was left to his own devices; he puts his survival down to his poor health. “The luckiest thing that happened to me was that I was born sickly,” he says. In a convalescent home he was taught alongside older children and ended up with reading skills beyond those of the average seven-year-old. “Life was not as sad as it somehow reads,” he says. “People think that, because I was a solitary and lonely child, things were sad. But you make the best of it.”
His parents were interested in music, art and current affairs. “They were beyond cool,” says Rodgers. “We would have people like Thelonious Monk come over to our house. Music was in my whole family. It was ubiquitous.”
School, he says, was “hell”. The only solace he found there was with the school orchestra and he became obsessed with the guitar. He left home when he was still of high-school age, supported himself by panhandling in Manhattan and became an active member of the Black Panthers. Yet he still found time to practise obsessively. At after-hours school clubs he hooked up with Jazzmobile, a jazz education charity. He formed a band, went to jam sessions and got pick-up gigs. “Music was around me everywhere and everybody was giving me tips,” he says. Along the way he met Jimi Hendrix jamming in a musician’s loft and stumbled into the guitar chair of the Sesame Street Theatrical Road Show.
The learning curve steepened precipitously when he joined the house band at the Harlem Apollo. Rodgers was now immersed in New York’s 24-hour music culture, criss-crossing between jazz, blues and funk. He formed a strong working friendship with bassist Bernard Edwards. By 1973 they were backing the vocal group New York City and touring with the Jackson 5, who had just released the hit single “Dancing Machine”. “It changed my life, when I heard those guys play that,” says Rodgers. “That’s when the funk-jazz mentality started to really sink in. I wanted to be a jazz instrumentalist that knows how to write pop songs.”
By then experienced backing musicians with an eye on the charts, Rodgers and Edwards surrounded themselves with brass, strings and rhythm and added two girls up front. “They looked like the stars,” he explains. “We were just the composers and the arrangers and the guys that do it.” To add a slight air of anonymity, they called their project the Chic Organisation.
Rodgers had hit on the idea when he saw Roxy Music play in London. He liked the way they combined electric rock with jazz and psychedelia but he was struck by the glamour and theatrical presentation. Another, somewhat unlikely, influence was the band Kiss. “We loved their anonymity and tried to fuse it with the sophistication of Roxy Music,” said Rodgers. “But we knew we weren’t Bryan Ferry, so we put the girls in that role.”
Rodgers and Edwards now had a formula and set about putting it to the test. Chic crossed into the mainstream just as disco-mania was reaching the height of popularity at fashionable clubs such as New York’s Studio 54. Asked where his office was at the time, Rodgers flashed back: “The women’s bathroom at Studio 54.”
The band’s success was phenomenal, with “Le Freak” becoming the only triple platinum single ever released by their label, Atlantic Records. Rodgers and Edwards were confident that Chic’s carefully planned concept could be applied elsewhere. “With our formula I can make your secretary a star,” Rodgers remembers telling the head of Atlantic.
The move to production was timely. Chic’s time at pop’s cutting edge was over but the Chic Organisation had one last big hit, Diana Ross’s Diana, in 1980, which included the hit single “Upside Down”. As Rodgers and Edwards began to drift apart, Rodgers’ next break came in 1982 when he met David Bowie in an after-hours club. Bowie asked him to collaborate on the album that would become 1983’s Let’s Dance. As with the Ross project, Rodgers crafted a product steeped in black American music that achieved mainstream success.
Rodgers’ formula continued with Madonna’s 1984 record, Like a Virgin, and for the next decade he produced dozens of successful albums for artists such as David Sanborn, Mick Jagger and Earth, Wind & Fire. He moved equally successfully into film soundtracks and performed at Live Aid in 1985. He also developed a cocaine habit and problems with alcohol – “I was doing far too much work,” he explains.
After the death of Edwards, in 1996, Rodgers moved from film to commercials and video game soundtracks, and in 1998 set up his own music production company, making commercials for Nike and producing Xbox game soundtracks, including the Halo series.
Chic revived when a Japanese promoter asked the band to return to Japan to celebrate (his word) the first anniversary of Edwards’ passing with a gig. Although he says Chic now play strictly for fun, they have recorded an album and play regularly at jazz festivals.
Despite it all, Rodgers has not forgotten his radical past. Immediately after 9/11 he set up the We Are Family Foundation to foster tolerance and respect through a mentoring programme. “So that’s my other big project,” he rounds off, “that and my video game label and distribution company, Chic, my book and ... ” – he throws in at the end – “Double Time, my Broadway show.”
‘Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny’ (Sphere/Spiegel & Grau). Chic play in London on November 10. www.nilerodgers.com