Part III: A New Kind of New York Groove
Philip Bailey remembers the moment he first heard CHIC. It was late 1978. “Earth, Wind & Fire was in the middle of perhaps our most successful time in our career,” he recalls. “It was like a whirlwind. That was the time when Studio 54 was kicking. Along with us jet setting and doing our stadiums, in comes ‘Ahhhh, freak out!’ (laughs) It was like, Aw shoot! It had swagger and sex appeal. It had quintessential hit value, from the beat to the hooks to the way Nile and Bernard meshed like hand in glove.”
Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards introduced a sleek yet funky style to the diverse musical spectrum that distinguished mid-‘70s dance music. Amidst Eurodisco, orchestral Philly soul, the “Sunshine Sound” of Miami, and an endless array of pop-disco singles geared towards the Hot 100, the DNA of CHIC was infused with both the grit and the sophistication of New York City. In fact, the group’s original name was “the Big Apple Band” but the success of Walter Murphy & the Big Apple Band’s “A Fifth of Beethoven” hastened a new appellation.
The first incarnation of the newly christened CHIC included former Labelle drummer Tony Thompson and lead singer Norma Jean Wright, as well as background vocalists Luther Vandross, Alfa Anderson, David Lasley, Robin Clark, and Diva Gray. The group’s first single, “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” backed with “São Paulo”, had a short run on Buddah (sic) before Atlantic signed the producers to an album deal. Replete with Roxy Music-inspired artwork, CHIC debuted in 1977. “Dance, Dance, Dance” galloped into the Top 10 of the Hot 100 while the follow-up single “Everybody Dance” helped the burgeoning CHIC sound travel from the taste-making circles of New York to millions of record buyers across the country.
However, before the producers toasted the “good times” at Studio 54, before they papered their walls with gold and platinum albums, and before “Le Freak” became the best-selling single in the history of Atlantic Records, Rodgers and Edwards each cut their teeth throughout New York’s manifold music scenes. From the South Bronx to the Apollo Theater to Greenwich Village, they absorbed influences in every pocket of the city.
Eddie Martinez: Nile used to live around the corner from me in the Bronx. I met him in my junior year of high school at William Howard Taft. I was a guitarist but I was really playing bass in a band in those days. Nile was a rhythm guitarist in a band called the Tom Murray Blues Band. I would hang out and see them perform. I think I sat in with them once when they needed a bass player. We became fast friends. We were listening to Hendrix and Led Zeppelin and Albert King and all the stuff that was happening around 1970. It was a great time. We’ve been friends ever since.
Aziza: I remember Nile at Jazzmobile, which was an organization that taught inner city youth how to play jazz, how to read charts, and how to improvise and play in a big band setting. We were taught by some of the best people. I became Natalie Cole’s MD shortly thereafter—I was “Linda Williams” at the time—and I remember Nile took another path but he was a very good musician. He was very serious about what he was doing.
Fonzi Thornton: Nile and I met when we were on a summer tour for Sesame Street. I was in a revue that worked out of the Apollo Theater called Listen My Brother. It was a topical revue about being young and black that was started by Peter Long, who was one of the managers at the Apollo Theater. Peter’s wife, Loretta Long, was Susan on Sesame Street. For the first few years of Sesame Street, myself, Luther, Robin Clark, and Carlos Alomar went on and did some performances. Maybe about a year and a half later, they decided that they were going to do some touring with the characters, with Oscar the Grouch and this one and that one. I was on the tour and Carlos Alomar was the guitar player. He left and Nile came on as the guitar player. That’s how we met. It started with Sesame Street.
Vincent Henry: I met Nile in the early ‘70s. I used to play with a percussionist named Gordon Jones and my cousin. We did a couple of rehearsals and gigs together. At that time, Nile was a very jazz-oriented player and writer. I remember some of the tunes, that’s how good they were. I knew Bernard’s name through other friends that knew him. If musicians are not playing or trying to create something, they’re talking about whatever is going on so I’d always hear his name. It was like one name: “Nileandbernard” (laughs).
Ava Cherry: New York was fantastic in the ‘70s. It was brimming with all kinds of great artists. We used to go to Max’s Kansas City, which is where everybody used to hang out, drinking magnums of champagne and just having a great time. Some really great artists came through. It was a real hot spot for everybody who was in town who was a rocker or a music celebrity. In those days, people were doing all kinds of genres in music. You just respected them for whatever genre they were in. You just enjoyed whatever it was. People didn’t put it all in one category. You just wore that flag of “I’m an artist. I’m a musician. I’m not in a special slot or anything”.
Eddie Martinez: I met Bernard when Nile and Bernard had a band called the Big Apple Band, pre-CHIC. Bernard lived up the block from me on Anthony Avenue in the Bronx. It was 1818 Anthony Avenue and I lived at 1755. I didn’t know this until years later. I remember walking up the street and hearing a bass guitar. It was probably Bernard! I’d met Tony Thompson at a Stevie Wonder audition. That had to have been 1974. He got the gig with Labelle after I had gotten the gig with Labelle. I remember Nile asking if I knew of any drummers and I gave him Tony Thompson’s number. After Labelle, Tony worked with Nile and Bernard in the Big Apple Band, and then with CHIC.
Nona Hendryx: Tony was a tall, dark, good-looking young man with great timing on the drums. He totally integrated and mastered R&B, rock, and funk drumming. He was a joy to watch for his looks and his drumming.
Tomi Jenkins: I grew up in New Jersey and came to New York in my early twenties. Back then in New York City, there was Luther Vandross, Fonzi Thornton ... a lot of musicians. Larry (Blackmon) probably ran across Nile and Bernard in the city. Of course, after they became CHIC, that happened almost on a regular basis. Cameo and CHIC toured together and ran into each other in various studios around New York.
Irene Cara: I felt grateful to have been taken in by the whole New York musician-singer scene. The brilliant background vocalists worked a lot with Nile and CHIC. I met Luther maybe a year after Sparkle (1976) so we’re talking barely 16-years-old. He always brought his signature sound to everybody he worked for and made the sound of their records better for it. I think Nile and Bernard were very smart in recognizing that about Luther and allowing him to be the featured kind of vocal sound on their records.
Fonzi Thornton: I would really say that the lush CHIC vocal sound was basically designed by Luther. I think he taught Nile and Bernard how to put together a vocal sound. That sound became very famous.
Alfa Anderson: During that time, Luther and I had become really good friends. He was fast becoming the jingle and background session singer king. He would often take me with him. He came to me one day and he said that he had a session for us to do. He said, “I have this friend named Nile Rodgers who has just put this group together called CHIC. They want some background vocals. It’s disco.” I went, “Disco? Luther, are you crazy? We don’t do disco, we do R&B.” He said, “Oh come on. It’s going to be fun. They’re nice guys.” We went to the session. The first song we did was either “Dance, Dance, Dance” or “Everybody Dance”. I listened to that music and I was hooked. I thought, This is not your everyday disco. These are really wonderful songs. At that moment I said, “I would love to be a part of this experience.” It was a major turning point in my life.
Ray Chew: My first record of note was playing on Ashford & Simpson’s Send It (1977) record. There was a song called “Don’t Cost You Nothin’”. Originally, they brought in Nile and Bernard who were then unknown producers. They hadn’t produced anything of any kind of notoriety. They brought them in, both of them together, and they did their rendition of it. Ultimately, they didn’t use their version but that’s when we first met. When they hit big, I was like, Those are the dudes from that session!
Vincent Henry: I hadn’t heard Nile’s name in years and then “Dance, Dance, Dance” hit the radio. That’s the same guy? I wasn’t surprised because I knew he was great but I was amazed that he was so diverse, that he could be that jazzy and then that danceable. “São Paulo” was amazing too. It’s totally different. I took it for what it was: a great single with both sides being amazing. Then when the album was put together, it just got bigger.
Patrick Adams: I actually made a bid for the “Dance, Dance, Dance” record. I heard it because Nile’s lawyer and my lawyer were in the same law firm. I was an instant fan.
Martha Redbone: My mom was a freelance writer for Billboard and she wrote the review of “Dance, Dance, Dance”. They came into our home at that time. I remember that because she had to go to the label. She got her picture with them.
Eddie Martinez: It was an exciting time. I was playing with Nona Hendryx. She put her own band together after Labelle and made an LP on Epic Records in 1977. That’s when Nile and Bernard were just exploding with CHIC. You had these different spheres of music that were kind of exploding in their own way, within the same time. There was a vibrant punk scene and there was still a vibrant rock scene. We were doing more of a rock thing with Nona that was kind of groundbreaking. CBGBs was screaming back then in ‘77 and you had Blondie exploding as well. Nile and Bernard were just having huge success in the disco camp. I was thrilled for them because I noticed the significance of what they were doing at the time.
Nona Hendryx: Artists of the ‘70s grew up with the artists of the ‘60s as influences. They were the reason why they wanted to be artists to begin with, to play guitar, play piano, sing, write, perform, make records, live on the road. Some artists, like myself, cross-pollinated because we lived in a city that could encompass every kind of music and people. There were so many choices because music was evolving as it always does, from the huge influence of the Beatles and the British Invasion, West Coast rock, the Village People to Talking Heads to the Sex Pistols to artists still very much at the height of their careers like Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald, and … Elvis!
Patrick Adams: During that period, there was a total commitment at Atlantic Records to make things happen, from Izzy Sanchez in promotion, Jim Delehant in A&R, right up to Jerry Greenberg the president. Their doors were always open. They were supportive of producers’ whims and often stopped by studios without interfering with the creative process. For me, disco was very liberating. I could be as adventurous as I wanted to be. I worked on 22 projects between 1977 and 1980.
Ava Cherry: Everybody was really into disco music at that time. All of the songs said different things. They were all meant to be positive. They were all meant to enhance your dancing pleasure and your listening pleasure when you were out in the clubs. Everybody totally embraced the music in every way, in the same way that they did when the Beatles came.
Vincent Henry: It was a dark time in New York. You had Son of Sam. You had the urban blight of the South Bronx. You had drugs. The city almost went into default. All of these things were happening. Then you get some guys that have this exciting music. They picked you up. They really made you feel good.