Nile Rodgers dishes dirt on Madonna, drugs and a missing Bowie credit
The legendary producer doesn't get why Elton John and Paul Simon are retiring when the end of Nile seems nowhere near
“I grew up being the outcast. I was the only black kid in an all-white school, my parents were heroin addicts, I had an incredibly inconsistent childhood, so I was a loner ... I was shy. Drugs gave me confidence.”
Nile Rodgers, the genius behind some of the greatest dance music of all time – Chic’s Le Freak, Sister Sledge’s We Are Family, Daft Punk’s Get Lucky – is sitting beside a mixing desk at London’s Abbey Road studios talking about his new album and his life.
This is the man who left home at 15 and slept on New York subway trains, who worked security for the militant Black Panthers party at the end of the 60s, who was so heavily into cocaine that he would spend the whole night in the women’s toilets at Studio 54, taking and dispensing his wares; whom doctors were ready to declare dead in 1991 after his heart stopped eight times. (His heart started again by itself, after they’d “called it”.) Oh, and he’s survived cancer, too, twice in the past decade.
He’s also the man who produced Madonna’s Like a Virgin, David Bowie’s Let's Dance, Duran Duran’s Wild Boys and Diana Ross’s Upside Down, and who plays a guitar he calls “The Hitmaker” that is so precious to him, he once chased a train about 320km by car after leaving it behind in a carriage. He turned 66 on Wednesday. I’ll try to wish him happy birthday in print, I tell him. “I don't celebrate my birthday,” he says. Why not? “Because I'm a rock’n’roller! I’m getting old.”
He doesn’t drink or take drugs these days, and woke up this morning “feeling like a million bucks”; he’s radiating warmth and playfulness. In the photoshoot, he sits cross-legged and sings the hippy-trippy verse to the Beatles’ Within You Without You from Sgt Pepper’s (Abbey Road, of course, is where it was recorded); and when he shows me a video of the title track from the new Chic album, he plays the notes of his own solo on air guitar.
The album, It’s About Time, is the first Chic record in 26 years, and features a startling roll call of guest artists old and new that ranges from Elton John to Lady Gaga to Janelle Monáe. It’s an updating of the Chic sound – although still built on Rodgers’s perfect choppy disco riffs. Gaga sings the only cover version on the record – the Chic song I Want Your Love, which Rodgers wrote in 1978 after hearing it in a dream.
I wonder if there were any similarities between working with Lady Gaga and Madonna. (Rodgers was crucial to the singer’s early career, as well as a close friend on the 80s New York club scene.) “Gaga’s a different kind of animal,” he says.
“[Before recording] she said: ‘Nile, I want to know what’s in your mind.’ She was incredibly respectful. That right there is a huge difference in personality.”
Is Rodgers saying that Madonna was not respectful? In his 2012 memoir Le Freak, the musician recalled a failed attempt to persuade Madonna to record her hit Material Girl in a different key, which he felt would suit her voice better: “I’d worked with so many international superstars, but I’d never come across such an iron will before.” Rodgers, though, insists he likes that aspect of Madonna’s personality.
“She knew what she wanted,” he says now. “I love that about her because if you’re that much of a believer I’d rather go with you ... until it sucks. If it sucks, I go: ‘Er, you really don't want to do it like that’.”
Are there big hit records where his songwriting contribution is greater than has ever been acknowledged?
“Let's Dance!” he says. “You make a record with someone like Bowie, who has got this mega-talent, this super-persona, but has never sold more than a couple of million records [for an individual album], then you come in and sell 11 million records, and everybody starts asking: ‘What did Nile do?’ All of a sudden you see Nile’s name get smaller and smaller.”
He points out Bowie was on the front cover of Time Magazine after the album was a hit (with a 4,500-word piece inside) – “Try and find my name in that article,” he says.
As a producer at the time, he would write all the arrangements, conduct, play on recordings, “do everything” – “If any of those records were done nowadays, I would be 50% writer of all that stuff, but I didn’t know, it was just me being naive.”
Rodgers was born in New York, the son of a jazz percussionist who became an alcoholic and died young; his mother Beverley was just 13 when she fell pregnant with him. She later married a beatnik whom Rodgers describes as “an unrepentant Jewish junkie from the Bronx” – not only was their mixed-race marriage unconventional for the time but, he wrote: “My parents stabbed themselves with needles every day and seemed to enjoy it.”
Rodgers was shuttled between grandmothers, an aunt and Beverley, who relocated repeatedly between New York and LA, and who, at one point, was the object of a contract killer’s romantic obsession. The young Rodgers was forced to find his way in tough neighbourhoods, where his speed as a runner came in useful. He was musically gifted; he originally played the clarinet, and taught himself the guitar at 15. By the age of 19, he was playing in the house band of the Apollo theatre in Harlem.
He was, of course, originally only one half of Chic, which he formed with the brilliant bassist Bernard Edwards, coming up with the concept of adding sophisticated glamour to disco. They had been playing together as musicians in the Big Apple Band, pawning their instruments between gigs. I wonder if the story is true about them making a last-ditch bid to make it or they would jump off New York’s George Washington Bridge together.
“Our death pact? I'm not so sure we would have gone through with it. We were pretty simple guys.”
Edwards, however, would die tragically in 1996, after a concert in Japan. He had passed out on stage during the performance but carried on. When Rodgers found him dead in his room, he says, he “started crying like a baby”. Does he have any regrets about Edwards going on stage that night? “No,” he says. “I thought it was really romantic that he died doing what we do.”
It’s more than 40 years since the first Chic album, but Rodgers continues to tour the world. I ask him why he thinks artists such as Paul Simon and Elton John have been announcing their retirement from performing, and if it represents the death of an era. “I don’t know why they’re doing it. Maybe Elton feels like his children will never have that quality time with their dad again. He’s already done the music thing on every level, what else can he do? Play on the moon?”
What about Rodgers, who lives with his long-term girlfriend Nancy Hunt, but has never had children. Could he see himself retiring? He mimes choking. “Only if I physically couldn’t do it or mentally couldn't do it,” he says. “The answer is a big fat no.”
It’s About Time by Chic is released on September 28.
– © The Daily Telegraph