posted on November 10, 2011 15:38
Nile Rodgers is a lucky man. Not in terms of his successful musical career as a songwriter and producer, or the long list of people he’s worked with, but lucky in fact that he’s lived to tell the tale, and what a story it is.
The man that we all know invented disco with Chic, and who went on to work with Bowie, Madonna, and Diana Ross (to name but three) has lived an extraordinary life, which is well documented in his autobiography, ‘Le Freak’.
From the age of seven this New York native witnessed his parents injecting themselves on a daily basis, had constant asthma attacks, plus the fact that his mother was always leaving him with another relative, as he said himself “I felt I wasn’t good enough to keep”.
Add to this the fact that his grandmother was raped and became pregnant as a result, while the school caretaker was abusing the children around him. To be a survivor he would have to look after himself, so he skipped school and befriended a wino who’d write sick notes for him. His father had been left at the altar by his mother, turning his dad into a bum on the streets - ironically, Nile would run into him, as he says “not once, but twice, 10 years apart in a city of 8 million people”.
Moving back to California, Nile started glue-sniffing and lost his virginity, while his mother would be raped by an obsessed admirer.
Despite all this, it was music he wanted to pursue, and getting that first guitar for Christmas changed everything. Once his mother's boyfriend tuned it that he could play 'A Day In The Life', he never looked back. As he says himself: “I strummed and a perfect G-major chord rang out... then strummed an E minor and dropped to the seventh. There are no words to accurately describe what this felt like”.
This is why he ran away from home at 14 with his guitar, eventually joining the Sesame Street theatrical road show (a '70s version of Glee, perhaps). Not long after his dad died, Nile turned professional. He jammed with Hendrix and found the last chord (their musical nirvana), played coffee commercials, and performed on stage with Screaming Jay Hawkins at the Apollo (a funny story).
While working as a session musician he would meet his soul-mate Bernard Edwards, and the rest as they say is CHIC-tory. Replicating Kiss’s anonymity and Roxy Music’s musical diversity, and ensuring every one of their songs had that D.H.M. (deep hidden meaning) they cleverly got studio time by paying an elevator operator 10 bucks to let them in when everyone was gone home.
But it’s fascinating to hear their story from New Year’s Eve 1977 when they failed to gain entry to a Grace Jones party. They went home pissed off, wrote their biggest hit ‘Le Freak’, and 12 million copies and 30 years later the doorman would Facebook Nile to apologise for not letting him in. Who’s laughing now?
On the success of that, Edwards would walk into a car showroom and asked “which one of these cars goes with a brown tie” before eventually buying two, as Nile says “unbalancing their carefully styled showroom”.
There are tonnes of these stories sprinkled between the cocaine habits that almost cost him his life on many occasions. There’s the time he ended up in the same emergency room as Andy Warhol, how he saw a famous female movie star being shagged in the balcony of Studio 54, Sister Sledge asking him to change the lyrics of ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer’, Diana Ross blaming them for trying to ruin her career (only months before that song would top the charts), what tattoo Bowie has on his lower leg, how Duran Duran’s record company didn’t like ‘The Reflex’ or why he walked out on Madonna, and wouldn’t shag her.
Bowie wanted “hits” and Nile provided them, provoking Bowie to later credit him in a speech “Nile Rodgers, the only man who could make me start a song with a chorus” (Let’s Dance).
While success was everywhere for him, over 100 of his friends and associated were dying and in February 1991 he would have died himself, only for he accidently pushed the wrong floor number in the lift.
He’s certainly used up most of those nine lives, and would go on to work with Michael Jackson (who revealed to him a year in advance that his marriage to Lisa-Marie was heading for the divorce courts long before the media had a clue of it).
Thankfully he would be there when his great friend Edwards died in a Tokyo hotel, but Nile insists that his family sit down every year for Thanksgiving and thrash out all these stories. This year it’s Nile turn to discuss his recent cancer scare, and hopefully he’ll be around for many years to come. This book is a fascinating and absorbing read from start to finish. Good times.