Nile Rodgers: ‘David Bowie and I were kindred spirits’ – British GQ

Dialling in from his home studio in Connecticut, Nile Rodgers is wearing his signature Kangol beret, chunky hoop earrings and a large silver chain, tucked inside a black striped T-shirt. It defies all logic that the iconic musician could have turned 68 in September. And yet, behind him, more than 18 plaques are visible, celebrating records from Chic’s Risqué to Diana Ross’ seminal 1980 album Diana, offering platinum proof of one the most extraordinary careers in music history. 

Although his legacy began with Chic, the legendary funk band he founded with Bernard Edwards in the 70s, Rodgers’ reputation as a master collaborator is just as important, having cowritten hits for the likes of Sister Sledge, Madonna, Duran Duran, David Bowie and, more recently, Sam Smith, Lady Gaga and Pharrell Williams. In 2013, Rodgers’ already resurgent career was given a new boost by Daft Punk, who asked him to cowrite “Get Lucky”, introducing his groundbreaking back catalogue to a whole new generation of fans. 

Now, the three-time Grammy winner regularly tops festival bills around the world, and is enjoying one of the busiest professional periods of his life, even during the pandemic. Recently, he’s been working on music from home while promoting a new partnership with Fender, one that he actually pitched himself a couple of months ago, after a revelatory jamming session with its new American Acoustasonic Stratocaster guitar. 

For the campaign, Rodgers performs new track “Inside The Box”, specially created to highlight each of the instrument’s distinct voice pairings. “The basic musical motif of the track came to me via a great friend of mine who I work with a lot, Philippe Sais,” Rodger explains. “The name ‘Inside The Box’ refers to our situation of being literally stuck inside, unable to work together the way we usually would. I was using this Fender guitar, and, once my engineer had read the manual, we realised that it had all these different functions, so recreated the song using all of the techniques.” 

“Experimentation is the beauty of being any kind of artist,” he says, “So when people go ‘I wonder how much Fender paid him to do that?’ I’m like, ‘guys, it wasn’t anything like that, they sent me this guitar and then it was us trying to convince them that this was cool.” 

Here, the visionary musician recalls his formative firsts, from a childhood spent growing up in New York among beatniks and bohemians, to meeting Bowie, via the beginning of Chic.

The first time you realised you wanted to be a musician…

When I became self-aware, around five years old. My biological father was a terrific musician and music was always playing in our house; it was the soundtrack to our lives. My earliest heroes were musicians and composers, so I fancied myself as one of them. I played the flute from really young as it was the first instrument I was assigned, but my life’s dream when I was small was just to be part of a symphony orchestra.

The first record you owned…

I got Elvis Presley’s “Blue Suede Shoes” as a gift for my sixth birthday and my grandmother gave me a pair of blue suede shoes to go along with it. For a while I thought that every time you bought a record, you also got a piece of clothing.

The first time you and Bernard Edwards met…

In 1970 at a gig in New York, where he was the bass player and I was on guitar. We magically clicked right away. The band leader who had asked us to play was quite professional and both of us felt responsible for his show; we wanted him to hire us again. None of the musicians on stage really knew each other, but by pure instinct, Bernard and I started to direct the rest of the band together. Whatever song Bernard knew, he would call out the chord changes to the musicians, and whichever one I knew, I’d call them out. We’d both obviously noticed this, so when we were packing up to go home, I said to him, “Man, I don’t think I ever want to do another gig without you.” “Damn,” he said, ”I was thinking the exact same thing.” Every time we got called for a pick-up gig after that, he would get me on it and vice versa. That was the first time we laid eyes on each other – however, it wasn’t the first time we had spoken.

A few months prior, I was living with my then-girlfriend and her mother, who happened to work at the post office with Bernard. She told me about “this cat Bernard,” saying, “I’ve never heard him play but I just get a great vibe from him, I just feel it.” Now, at that time, I was a total hippy, like a “hey man, that acid we did last night was so great” kind of guy. Bernard was super R&B, never touched hallucinogenic drugs or anything like that. The mother got his phone number for me, so I called him and said, “Hey man, I’m putting together a band that’s like a cross between Fairport Convention, Country Joe And The Fish, a little bit of Hendrix.” He indulged me for a few minutes before simply saying, “Yo man, lose my number” and hung up the phone. A while afterwards, when Bernard and I had become the best of friends, we were riding the subway together and my girlfriend’s mum happened to get in the same car as us. She comes over, and I assume it’s to say hello to me because I live with her, but she goes straight to Bernard and says, “So, I see you cats finally hooked up.” He looks at me and goes, “That was you?!”

The first time you fell properly in love…

It was 1963 and I was head over heels for a girl at my elementary school. She turned me on to The Beatles and we both commiserated when President Kennedy got shot. I walked her home from school that day.

The first time you put together a stage outfit…

It used to be that I’d wear whatever we happened to have on, but that concept changed when I came to the UK on the first really big touring opportunity with The Big Apple Band, that would lead to the rest of my career. Just after we played our last gig, someone stole my luggage, with my passport and all my earnings, so the band left me and I was stuck in London. I had a really cool girlfriend at the time, thank god, who let me stay with her while I waited to go to the embassy, and she took me to see her favourite band, Roxy Music. I had never heard of them before, but after the show I remember calling Bernard to say, “You will not believe what I just saw.” It was a totally immersive, artistic experience in music. I was about 21 and it was the first time I’d ever seen a band dressed up in couture clothing, they looked like models in a fashion ad and the audience was almost a reflection of them and the music they were playing. It was this whole fashion-orientated, avant-garde but still catchy thing. I was like, “Man, we gotta do the black version of that” – hence the beginning of Chic. We even patterned the name after Roxy, the four letters.

The first time you were starstruck…

My parents had lots of friends who were stars, mainly jazz stars, and I was starstruck almost every day walking home from school. I grew up in Greenwich Village, so you’d walk down the street and you’d see Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Miles Davis or Lenny Bruce. An apartment I lived in for a bit as a kid was lived in by Cliff Robinson before us – at that time, really famous people would live in close proximity to people like my family, who were poor but cool.

The best piece of advice you’ve been given…

The first and greatest piece of advice I’ve had came from my jazz guitar tutor. I’m always a really upbeat person, but one day I went for a jazz lesson and he noticed I was depressed. Now that I look back on the situation, and I’ve never admitted this part of the story, I think that I was feigning depression because I wanted to be such a “jazz guy”. So I went in there, forlorn, and he said, “Hey, brother Nile, what’s wrong?” I told him that I’d seen the setlist for my gig tonight and I was going to have to play “Sugar Sugar” by The Archies. He says, “And, what’s the problem?” “Well,” I replied, forlorn, “I’ve got to play this BS bubblegum pop music.” Ted, this jazz musician who has never had a hit record in his life and was totally amazing, goes, “Let me understand what you’re saying. You know that “Sugar Sugar” has been No1 for at least four weeks now? So, those millions of people that love that record, they’re wrong. But you, Nile Rodgers, you’re the one who is right?” I knew I was getting schooled, and said, “But Ted, you think playing ‘Sugar Sugar’ is something that’s respectful?” His answer was so profound that it totally changed my life: ‘“Any record that is in the top 40 is a great composition, because it speaks to the souls of a million strangers.” Even saying that now almost makes me want to cry, because I realise what he was talking about. That was so artistically beautiful and so loving to me, something I wanted to aspire to, I wanted to be able to be heard.

The first time you met David Bowie…

The first time we met we talked about avant-garde jazz and I was mega impressed with his knowledge, like blown away. And he was impressed with mine too, he didn’t know I was such a jazz fanatic, and that’s perhaps what sealed the bond between us. On some level we were kindred spirits and that allowed him to say, in our next meeting, that he wanted a hit album. It was one of the greatest moments of my entire career. I’d had quite a number of hit records before I met Bowie and he hadn’t really had any, then, not what I called a hit, anyway – millions of songs. At that point I was running from hit albums because I wanted credibility, I wanted artistic approval, for somebody to say, “Wow, this guy who wrote ‘We Are Family’, ‘Good Times’ or ‘Freak Out’ is cool enough to work with David Bowie.” I thought we’d do some spacey cool jazz, prog-rock record, but when he basically commissioned me, he said, “This is why I’m hiring you. I want to work with you because I want a hit and not just a single but a whole album.” At that moment I felt I was charged with that responsibility.

The first time you felt like you’d made it…

When we got our first record deal. It was only a singles deal, so in those days two songs, which meant our first release had to be a hit or we wouldn’t get an album. It was a colosseum moment, but “Dance Dance Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” was a huge hit. It was eight minutes, which is really long for a single – we’d been inspired by the dance marathons of the Great Depression after watching They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? with Jane Fonda – and so we put it on a twelve-inch record as they had just been invented. It spoke to the souls of a million strangers!

The Fender American Acoustasonic Stratocaster is available from £1,749.

Head to GQ’s Vero channel to see Nile Rodgers’ TV, book, film and music recommendations. Follow GQ on Vero for exclusive music content and commentary, all the latest music lifestyle news and insider access into the GQ world, from behind-the-scenes insight to recommendations from our editors and high-profile talent.

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