Nile Rodgers is best known as the lead guitarist and coleader, along with bassist Bernard Edwards, of Chic, one of the most successful disco groups of the late 1970s. Rodgers, who considers himself first and foremost a jazz guitarist, has also released three recordings under his own name; but Rodgers’s talents extend into other creative realms. In 1986 Ted Fox wrote in his book In the Groove that Rodgers “may be the hottest producer on the pop music scene today.” Though Rodgers started out as a guitarist and remains in demand as a session musician, he is firmly entrenched in other aspects of the music industry and has significantly expanded the creative horizons of the dance music form.
A native of New York City, Rodgers grew up in a musical family. His father had played percussion for Sam Cooke and Harry Belafonte, and an uncle taught the teenaged Nile the art of orchestration. At age 16, Rodgers talked his way into a band on the strength of his then-nonexistent ability to play the guitar. “Then I was so embarrassed about not being able to play that I got very, very serious about it,” he recalled to Gene Santoro of Down Beat.
Rodgers’s devotion to the guitar coincided with the expansion of that instrument’s potentialities in the rock music scene of the late 1960s. Moving rapidly through folk guitar styles, Rodgers came into contact with the music of such pioneers of the electric guitar as Steve Miller and Jimmy Page and has cited Jimi Hendrix as a major influence. “I still have every record, still know every song of his,” Rodgers told Santoro. Continuing explorations led him to the formal study of jazz and classical guitar.
Professional success first came with acceptance into the house band of Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater. Rodgers backed such notables as Aretha Franklin and Nancy Wilson and soon began to rise through the ranks of New York City’s session musicians. The repetitive but somehow irresistible guitar riffs he contributed to Betty Wright’s 1972 hit, “Clean Up Woman,” showcased Rodgers’s quintessential guitar style, soon to become Chic’s trademark.
Rodgers had been introduced to Bernard Edwards in 1970, and the two were active in various nightclub ensembles. The duo, along with drummer Tony Thompson, attempted to land a recording contract with jazz-rock fusion material of a type extremely popular in the mid-1970s, but found that as an African-American band their efforts were blocked. “The labels weren’t
For the Record…
Born September 19, 1952, in New York, NY.
Member of house band, Apollo Theater, New York City, early 1970s; session and nightclub musician, New York City, c. 1971-77; coleader of group Chic, 1977-83; producer of recordings by numerous artists, 1979—; released solo recordings, mid-1980s; formed group Outloud, 1987; coleader of reunited Chic, 1992—.
Selected awards: Named number one pop singles producer, Billboard, 1985; named top singles producer, Music Week, 1985; Grammy Award for guitarist Jeff Beck’s record Flash, 1986.
Addresses: Record company —Warner Bros. Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019. Management —Borman Entertainment, 9220 Sunset Blvd., Ste. 320, Los Angeles, CA 90060.
interested in a black fusion band. Unless you had a [reputation] in the industry by playing with a Miles Davis or Chick Corea, you couldn’t break through,” Rodgers told Nelson George in Musician.
The popularity of lush, mechanical dance music, or disco, was on the rise when Rodgers and Edwards next set out to land a record deal. Atlantic Records released “Dance, Dance, Dance” as Chic’s debut single in 1977. Uncomplicated, yet imaginative and varied in a supremely entertaining way, the track synthesized several elements of Rodgers’s long apprenticeship and set the tone for hundreds of forthcoming disco records. As Nelson George assessed, the record was “a wonderfully calculated piece of disco marketing. It had funky hand claps and slinky guitar riffs to galvanize black dancers, while its swirling strings and campy cheer of ‘Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah,‘ recalling the dance marathons of yore, captured the gay audience.” “Dance, Dance, Dance” reached the Number Six position on Billboard’ s pop charts in 1977.
The follow-up Chic single, “Everybody Dance,” also cracked the pop Top 40 and entered the rhythm and blues Top 15, establishing the band as a major presence on the disco scene. Then, in 1978, Rodgers and Edwards unveiled “Le Freak” to an assemblage of Atlantic Records department heads. Leaner and more economical than “Dance, Dance, Dance,” the record juxtaposed explosive chants of “Freak out! Le freak, c’est chic!” with spare, intense dialogue between Rodgers’s guitar and Edwards’s bass. The Atlantic executives were mystified, Rodgers recalled in an interview with Musician contributor Baird: “By the time the song was finished playing, everybody had left, because they couldn’t figure out what to say to us.” But the duo’s judgment was vindicated when the single sold 8 million copies. “Le Freak” remains the best selling single in the history of the Warner Bros, conglomerate and propelled the second Chic album, “C’est Chic,” to platinum status.
A later album, Risque, also went platinum in 1979, spawning the monster hit “Good Times,” the foundation for several early compositions in the emerging rap music style. Other successful singles followed, held together by Rodgers’s hypnotic guitar, always prominent in the mix. But things began to turn sour for Chic around 1980. Later Chic albums sold poorly, creative tensions flared between Rodgers and Edwards, and the two parted ways in 1983. The biggest factor was simply that the disco phenomenon had run its course. Another cause was Rodgers’s and Edwards’s desire to infuse the dance medium with greater lyric seriousness. “I remember walking into a store and a girl saying to me, ‘l don’t understand why you stopped writing songs about dancing and making love,’” Rodgers recounted to Musician’ s Baird.
Rodgers soon found himself in great demand as a solo producer. He, in partnership with Edwards, had already supervised Sister Sledge’s anthemic “We Are Family” and one of Diana Ross’s most successful solo LPs, 1980’s Diana. Although Rodgers admitted to Fox that he believes in electronic musical technology “to the highest order,” his productions have varied widely according to the musical styles and personalities of the artists he has supervised, including Jeff Beck, Duran Duran, Al Jarreau, Mick Jagger, and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Rodgers’s metronome-like guitar style proved perfect for the dance-rock of the 1980s. In 1983 he helped transform David Bowie into a contemporary dance-rocker on Let’s Dance; more significant still was his production of Madonna’s Like a Virgin in 1984, to which Rodgers contributed a spare but punchy backdrop. Both albums went multiplatinum.
Rodgers recorded two solo albums over the course of the 1980s and briefly formed a group known as Outloud, which released a self-titled album in 1987. Each of the three works was a complex dance-music production, often united by some overarching lyrical theme. All the recordings failed commercially, but attracted critical attention; Chuck Eddy of the Village Voice called the LPs “conceptual coups like Chic never pulled off.”
Chic’s 1992 reunion came about as a result of a birthday party for Rodgers that Edwards attended. Along with late-night TV musicians Paul Shaffer and Anton Fig, they performed “Le Freak” and “Good Times” and were rewarded with wild applause. A new album, Chicism, took a year to record and went through several creative transformations, as Rodgers and Edwards largely discarded the rap-and-sample techniques of early 1990s dance music in favor of the classic Chic style. The decision may have been a wise one in view of the backward-looking mania for disco that was gaining strength in early 1992.
Looking back on the origins of the sound that characterized Chic’s best records, Rodgers credited the complex guitar and bass interplay with the group’s attempt to cover intricate pop arrangements within a small group context. His own importance in creating the multilayered texture for which disco’s best productions are remembered—strings and a heavy bass line enlivened by hand claps and complex guitar syncopations— cannot be understated. Nile Rodgers’s contributions seem likely to continue influencing pop music’s mainstream.
Chic (includes “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Everybody Dance”), Atlantic, 1977.
C’est Chic (includes “Le Freak”), Atlantic, 1978.
Risque (includes “Good Times”), Atlantic, 1979.
Real People, Atlantic, 1980.
Take It Off, Atlantic, 1981.
Soup for One (motion picture soundtrack), Atlantic, 1982.
Tongue in Chic, Atlantic, 1982.
Believer, Atlantic, 1983.
Chicism, Warner Bros., 1992.
Dance, Dance, Dance: The Best of Chic, Atlantic, 1992.
Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove, Mirage, 1983.
B-Movie Matinee, Warner Bros., 1985.
(With Outloud) Out Loud, Warner Bros., 1987.
Sister Sledge, We Are Family, Cotillion, 1979.
Diana Ross, Diana, Motown, 1980.
Debbie Harry, Koo Koo, 1981.
David Bowie, Let’s Dance, EMI America, 1983.
Madonna, Like a Virgin, Sire, 1984.
Jeff Beck, Flash, CBS, 1985.
The Power Station, The Power Station, Capitol, 1985.
Thompson Twins, Here’s to Future Days, 1985.
Duran Duran, Notorious, Capitol, 1986.
Grace Jones, Inside Story, 1986.
The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing, Reprise, 1989.
Vaughan Brothers, Family Style, CBS, 1990.
Also producer of singles and albums by numerous other recording artists, including Al Jarreau’s “Moonlighting,” Hall & Oates’s “Adult Education,” Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” and David Bowie’s “Real Cool World” from the motion picture soundtrack Cool World, Warner Bros., 1992.
Fox, Ted, In the Groove, St. Martin’s, 1986.
Billboard, July 14, 1990.
Down Beat, September 1985.
Musician, November 1980; April 1992.
Rolling Stone, March 19, 1992.
Village Voice, December 29, 1987.
—James M. Manheim
"Rodgers, Nile." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (February 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/rodgers-nile
"Rodgers, Nile." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved February 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/rodgers-nile
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