CHIC: NILE RODGERS
A first-rate guitarist and half of the premier production team that was the heart and soul of Chic.
On September 19, 1952, was born Nile Rodgers; guitarist, producer and co-leader of Chic.
Nile Rodgers' contribution to popular music has been extremely significant, whether it be penning some of the most influential and popular songs of the disco era with Chic, or producing countless hits for a wide variety of other artists. Born September 19, 1952 in New York, New York, it was clear that Rodgers possessed exceptional musical talent early on, and by the age of 19, was playing guitar as part of the house band for the world famous Apollo Theatre (playing alongside the likes of Aretha Franklin, Funkadelic, etc.). Rodgers soon grew tired of his status as a backup musician, however, and sought to put together a band of his own. He found a like-minded musician in another New York City resident, bassist Bernard Edwards, during the early '70s. For the next few years, Rodgers and Edwards collaborated together, while playing in such obscure bands as the jazz fusion-based Big Apple Band, and the new wave-based Allah & the Knife Wielding Punks. But the duo's love remained in dance music, and their next musical project would put them on the map, as they formed Chic. With exceptional drummer Tony Thompson plus singers Norma Jean Wright and Alfa Anderson rounding out the lineup, Chic quickly grabbed a record deal with Atlantic.
Almost immediately, Chic became the kings (and queens) of the dance/disco domain, scoring such hit albums as 1977's Chic, 1978's C'est Chic, and 1979's Risqué. But it was Chic's up-tempo, infectious hit singles that became dancefloor standards, including "Dance Dance Dance (Yowsah Yowsah Yowsah)," and especially a pair of chart-toppers, "Le Freak" and "Good Times." With the dawn of the '80s came the infamous, massive disco backlash, which Chic got caught up in, as their albums sold less and less, resulting in the group's split in 1983. But Rodgers' music career was just beginning. Towards the end of his tenure in Chic, he had begun producing (and writing for) other artists, including hits for Sister Sledge ("We Are Family") and Diana Ross ("I'm Coming Out"). So with Chic no longer occupying most of his time, Rodgers was free to focus solely on working with others. What followed was an amazing string of some of the '80s biggest albums and singles. First up was David Bowie, who was looking for a musical makeover. Rodgers sure did deliver with 1983's Let's Dance, which remains Bowie's all-time best-selling album. From there, offers from others flooded in, as Rodgers scored further hits -- Duran Duran's Arena, Madonna's Like a Virgin, Mick Jagger's She's the Boss, Jeff Beck's Flash, The B-52's' Roam, and the Vaughan Brothers' Family Style, among countless others.
Additionally, Rodgers found the time during this hectic period to issue a pair of solo albums, 1983's Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove and 1985's B-Movie Matinee, although they failed to match the success of his work with others. Rodgers and Edwards put together a reunited version of Chic in the early '90s (with an all-new supporting cast), which toured and even issued an album, 1992's Chic-Ism. Rodgers was saluted with his own 'tribute' show in Japan on April 18, 1996, which saw Rodgers joined on-stage by his old pal Edwards, as well as Sister Sledge, Steve Winwood, Simon LeBon, and Slash. Despite it being an evening of celebration, Edwards tragically passed away from pneumonia later that same night. Rodgers continued to be active, including as the founder of the We Are Family Foundation, and produced Duran Duran's "comeback" album, which featured all their original members. Rodgers also owns his own national music distribution company, Sumthing Distribution, which specializes in video game soundtracks.
There can be little argument that Chic was disco's greatest band; and, working in a heavily producer-dominated field, they were most definitely a band. By the time Chic appeared in the late '70s, disco was already slipping into the excess that eventually caused its downfall. Chic bucked the trend by stripping disco's sound down to its basic elements; their funky, stylish grooves had an organic sense of interplay that was missing from many of their overproduced competitors. Chic's sound was anchored by the scratchy, James Brown-style rhythm guitar of Nile Rodgers and the indelible, widely imitated (sometimes outright stolen) bass lines of Bernard Edwards; as producers, they used keyboard and string embellishments economically, which kept the emphasis on rhythm. Chic's distinctive approach not only resulted in some of the finest dance singles of their time, but also helped create a template for urban funk, dance-pop, and even hip-hop in the post-disco era. Not coincidentally, Rodgers and Edwards wound up as two of the most successful producers of the '80s.
Rodgers and Edwards first met in 1970, when both were jazz-trained musicians fresh out of high school. Edwards had attended New York's High School for the Performing Arts and was working in a Bronx post office at the time, while Rodgers' early career also included stints in the folk group New World Rising and the Apollo Theater house orchestra. Around 1972, Rodgers and Edwards formed a jazz-rock fusion group called the Big Apple Band. This outfit moonlighted as a backup band, touring behind smooth soul vocal group New York City in the wake of their 1973 hit "I'm Doin' Fine Now." After New York City broke up, the Big Apple Band hit the road with Carol Douglas for a few months, and Rodgers and Edwards decided to make a go of it on their own toward the end of 1976. At first they switched their aspirations from fusion to new wave, briefly performing as Allah & the Knife Wielding Punks, but quickly settled into dance music. They enlisted onetime LaBelle drummer Tony Thompson and female vocalists Norma Jean Wright and Alfa Anderson, and changed their name to Chic in summer 1977 so as to avoid confusion with Walter Murphy & the Big Apple Band (who'd just hit big with "A Fifth of Beethoven").
Augmented in the studio by keyboardists Raymond Jones and Rob Sabino, Chic recorded the demo single "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)" and shopped it around to several major record companies, all of which declined it. The small Buddah label finally released it as a 12" in late 1977, and as its club popularity exploded, Atlantic stepped in, signed the group, and re-released the single on a wider basis. "Dance, Dance, Dance" hit the Top Ten, peaking at number six, and made Chic one of the hottest new groups in disco. Chic scrambled to put together their self-titled first album, which spawned a minor follow-up hit, "Everybody Dance," in early 1978. At this point, Wright left to try her hand at a solo career (with assistance from Rodgers and Edwards), and was replaced by Luci Martin. It was a good time to come onboard; "Le Freak," the first single from sophomore album C'est Chic, was an out-of-the-box smash, spending five weeks on top of the charts toward the end of 1978 and selling over four-million copies (which made it the biggest-selling single in Atlantic's history). Follow-up "I Want Your Love" reached number seven, cementing the group's new star status, and C'est Chic became one of the rare disco albums to go platinum.
1979's Risqué was another solidly constructed LP that also went platinum, partly on the strength of Chic's second number one pop hit, "Good Times." "Good Times" may not have equaled the blockbuster sales figures of "Le Freak," but it was the band's most imitated track: Queen's number one hit "Another One Bites the Dust" was a clear rewrite, and the Sugarhill Gang lifted the instrumental backing track wholesale for the first commercial rap single, "Rapper's Delight," marking the first of many times that Chic grooves would be recycled into hip-hop records. Also in 1979, Rodgers and Edwards took on their first major outside production assignment, producing and writing the Sister Sledge smashes "We Are Family" and the oft-sampled "He's the Greatest Dancer." This success, in turn, landed them the chance to work with Diana Ross on 1980's Diana album, and they wrote and produced "Upside Down," her first number one hit in years, as well as "I'm Coming Out."
The disco fad was fading rapidly by that point, however, and 1980's Real People failed to go gold despite another solid performance by the band. Changing tastes put an end to Chic's heyday, as Rodgers and Edwards' outside production work soon grew far more lucrative, even despite aborted projects with Aretha Franklin and Johnny Mathis. Several more Chic LPs followed in the early '80s, with diminishing creative and commercial returns, and Rodgers and Edwards disbanded the group after completing the lackluster Believer in 1983. Later that year, both recorded solo LPs that sank without a trace. Hungry for acceptance and respect in the rock mainstream (especially after accusations that they had ripped off Queen instead of the other way around), both Rodgers and Edwards sought out high-profile production and session work over the rest of the decade. Rodgers produced blockbuster albums like David Bowie's Let's Dance, Madonna's Like a Virgin, and Mick Jagger's She's the Boss. Edwards wasn't as prolific as a producer, but did join the one-off supergroup the Power Station along with Tony Thompson as well as Robert Palmer and members of avowed Chic fans Duran Duran; he later produced Palmer's commercial breakthrough, Riptide. Edwards also worked with Rod Stewart (Out of Order), Jody Watley, and Tina Turner, while Rodgers' other credits include the Thompson Twins, the Vaughan Brothers, INXS, and the B-52's' comeback Cosmic Thing.
Rodgers and Edwards re-formed Chic in 1992 with new vocalists Sylver Logan Sharp and Jenn Thomas, and an assortment of session drummers in Thompson's place; they toured and released a new album, Chic-ism. In 1996, the reconstituted Chic embarked on a tour of Japan; sadly, on April 18, Edwards passed away in his Tokyo hotel room due to a severe bout of pneumonia. Rodgers continued to tour occasionally with a version of Chic, and, in 1999, his Sumthing Else label issued a recording of Edwards' final performance with the band, Live at the Budokan.
"Honor the past, don't just remember it." Dizzie Gillespie
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