Part IV: "Just Come on Down to 54"
American Bandstand,Top of the Pops, Soul Train ... the CHIC sound was all over television during early-spring 1978. In the mean time, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards produced Norma Jean Wright’s solo debut, Norma Jean (1978), which included first-class grooves on “Saturday”, “Sorcerer”, and “I Like Love”. Following Wright’s departure from the group, Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin fronted lead vocals on C’est CHIC (1978), while Luther Vandross, David Lasley, and Diva Gray returned on backgrounds. Beginning with Risqué (1979), Fonzi Thornton and Michelle Cobbs became vital figures in shaping the group’s background vocal sound even more. In between number one hits like “Le Freak” and “Good Times”, Rodgers and Edwards scored career-defining hits for Sister Sledge with “We Are Family” and “He’s the Greatest Dancer” via the blockbuster We Are Family (1979) album. Rodgers and Edwards were not only fueling the pulse of New York’s nightlife, but the entire world.
Nona Hendryx: The New York club scene was very vibrant with a mix of disco, rock, punk, new wave, and even old-school clubs like the Copacabana, the Rainbow Room at Radio City, and loads of small bars and clubs from downtown—Reno Sweeney’s (Bette Midler’s home), Sweetwater’s—to uptown clubs in Harlem. There was Studio 54, Paradise Garage, and other disco/dance clubs catering to the late-night rat pack—the maestros Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Calvin and Kelly Klein, Bianca and Mick, Elton—while the downtown live music scene was very much centered around CBGBs, the Mudd Club, Pyramid Club, Jim Fouratt’s Danceteria. Uptown there was Hurrah and a little later China Club on 75th St. featuring live rock, punk, or new wave bands. They were the progeny of Max’s Kansas City.
Ava Cherry: Studio 54 was obviously the place at that point in time. You knew that when you went there you’d have an incredible adventure of some sort. I used to go up to the door and I’d be dressed to kill. I’d have some sort of headdress on like Cher, or be decked out in some incredible outfit that was totally right for Studio 54. They’d look at me and say, “Let her in!” The lights on the dance floor would move around and do all sorts of things when certain parts of the song would play. People would be out there just really enjoying themselves.
Irene Cara: New York really laid the groundwork. We, meaning us New Yorkers, were the pioneers of so much that was going on all through the ‘70s and the ‘80s. By the time it crossed the country and ended up on the west coast, then all of a sudden it’s mainstream. The west coast loves to claim everything but it was happening on the streets everywhere: uptown, downtown, all through the boroughs. It was just a fusion of sounds and thoughts and ideas that the whole country was experiencing.
André Cymone: I think I heard CHIC for the first time at the Milwaukee Bud fest. Prince’s brother Duane was going to college there and we drove up. It was kind of a big deal back in those days. I remember hearing Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” and “Le Freak” by CHIC. The CHIC song stood out to me because I had never heard any bands doing guitar, bass, and drums like that.
Sandra St. Victor: “Le Freak” was a revelation for me! I was too young to be in the clubs, experiencing what it all really meant on the dance floor. But I was enamored with the imagery of all that hedonistic self-indulgence, backed with fierce beats and pumping bass lines. You could not help but move when you heard it.
Tomi Jenkins: CHIC led the disco charge in a very profound way. Back then, musicians were creating music, not sampling. There were so many different groups, but you could tell who you were listening too. No one sounded like CHIC. Nile’s guitar, Bernard’s bass, and Tony on drums was a perfect blend of funk and dance. The addition of strings on certain tunes, like my favorite “I Want Your Love”, was a plus. That song still gives me chills when the chorus comes in.
Derek Bramble: When I heard “I Want Your Love”, it was over. For me, I got the same feeling from “I Want Your Love” that I would have gotten from a great ABBA song because there was a believable, authentic arrangement factor within the melody and the track. It had the taste of New York streets on it but it also had the elegance and the sophistication of Europe, especially the string arrangements and the orchestrations.
Eddie Martinez: I think that what CHIC was doing was something uniquely built in the headspace of where Nile and Bernard were at the time. The songs were written within a particular style, in terms of their chord progressions, in terms of how they approached their harmonies with the singers. They used a lot of obtuse octaves and a lot of unison in terms of their parts. They approached their harmony in an economical sense relative to vocal harmonies. All of the lush stuff was happening with the strings, you had a real funky rhythm section, and the vocals were very much unison or octaves. That’s what made them stand out.
Nona Hendryx: It was fresh, unique, and booty-movin’ music. There were a zillion disco and dance records but CHIC stood out because of Nile’s guitar and Bernard’s solid bass, and songs whose verse, chorus, and bridge were all “hooks”!
André Cymone: One of the things that made CHIC different from some of the other R&B groups that were out at the time was that they had a definite focus on guitar, bass, and drums that, in my opinion, gave birth to the funk rock foundation that became a staple in R&B music throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s, and even today.
Ray Chew: There were a couple of different rhythm sections in New York. We had one that did all of the different Ashford & Simpson records. We did Diana Ross and Teddy Pendergrass and all of these other groups. Some of the same players would be mixed and matched. Nile and Bernard kept exactly that one group of guys that they used on everything.
Alfa Anderson: Nile and Bernard were very clear about what they wanted. I think they’re a lot more in-the-moment than anybody else. We never heard the song or saw the lyrics before we went into the studio. Usually Bernard would pull you to the side and he’d play the track and he’d say, “This is how it goes. Now go out there and do it”. It wasn’t until years later that I understood that’s how you get sort of an organic emotional response to the music rather than rehearsing and perfecting it so much that it can lose the groove and lose that spontaneity.
Kathy Sledge: One thing I learned very quickly with Nile and Bernard was that they were geniuses in what they did. They had a formula that worked and they knew it worked. I remember back then I would follow Nile around the studio and say, “Is it going to be a hit, Nile?” He’d look at me and go, “Trust me. It’s cool. It’s gonna be fine, babe.” Those words ring so true because he knew what he was doing. He was so sure that it was going to be at least double platinum and it was. He was so sure that this record was going to be that good. I was just happy to get airplay in the United States!
Irene Cara: I loved “We Are Family”. It’s one of my favorite Nile and Bernard anthem-type songs. I was raised into the whole feminist movement. There was a sisterhood among us that we all felt. We were all into women determining their destiny themselves. I was trying to live that life in New York City, being a strong independent young woman doing what I wanted. I’m not saying that I was Coco but there was a lot of Coco in me (laughs).
Ava Cherry: Nile’s guitar part on “He’s the Greatest Dancer’’ is incredible. That is one of my favorite, favorite, favorite songs! I remember being out there in the clubs with all of the hot men with their shirts off. They’d come over and dance with you. You’d have this wonderful night with this person dancing around you.
Patrick Adams: My favorites are “He’s Greatest Dancer” and “I Want Your Love”. The syncopations are brilliant. The arrangements are amazing. The productions are sharp and uncluttered. I love their work.
Fonzi Thornton: Alfa and Luci were singing vocals onstage. I think Nile and Bernard decided that they wanted the stage performances to sound more like the records. The previous records, of course, had been Luther and David Lasley and Alfa and Diva Gray doing all the background vocals. Alfa and I were acquainted. I remember her saying to me, “We’re thinking about getting some singers to accompany us on stage”. Bernard called me and asked me to come down. At that point, Michelle Cobbs and I learned every song and we went down and sang with them. Having already known Nile was the shoo-in because Nile said, “Of course I know Fonzi. Fonzi’s great.” Next thing we knew, we were on the road with them, singing with Alfa and Luci.
Derek Bramble: The week before I joined Heatwave, I was in a record store in England somewhere and “Good Times” came on. I was like, What the hell is this? It just stopped you in your tracks, just the energy of the bass and the guitar and the drums. I toured with CHIC when I was in Heatwave. It was CHIC and the Brothers Johnson. At the time I was 14 and those guys were grown-ups but just being on the road and watching these guys play every night was awe-inspiring. It was incredible.
Alfa Anderson: I called my mom and I said, “You know we have a number one record.” She said, “A number one record?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “Hmm. It must not be a number one record ‘cause it’s not in Jet!” Isn’t that precious? I mean we were number one in Billboard but it was not in Jet so we had not arrived! (laughs)
Don Was: Nile and I were born six days apart in the same year. I was back in Detroit just struggling to figure out how to make records and he was making hit records. “Good Times” was the record that grabbed me by the gut. It’s extremely funky. It’s got a very deep groove. The grid that Nile plays is kind of straight up and down, whereas on a James Brown record, it would be a little more syncopated. It wasn’t that syncopated. He’s hitting on the beats but he had this triplet thing going on. I’d never heard anyone quite approach that rhythm and I think that’s because he’s got equal parts funk and rock and roll ... and so do I. It’s a very Detroit thing, going back to Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, to have this blend of R&B and rock and roll. Even the Stooges had a funky groove going on. When I heard that phrasing, I felt an immediate kinship with what he was doing. I’m just shocked that he doesn’t come from Detroit! I studied that record, man. I tore it apart. I recreated it. It’s a genius record. It’s just perfectly arranged. It’s arranged by someone who understands music, probably someone who studied some classical music. I think it’s one of the greatest records anybody has ever made. It just grabs you, like “Like a Rolling Stone” with that drum crack and then the organ kicks in. It’s got you from the first second and with “Good Times” it’s the same thing. It sounds great on the radio, it sounds great everywhere.
Vincent Henry: I think it’s just that (sings bass line) “one-two-three”. That one-two-three comes back on so many records but the first time you hear it is on “Good Times”. It was a real signature thing. It took disco deeper into the radio. It put more funk back into disco.
Ava Cherry: “Good Times” is timeless. When you think about it, “Good Times” is anytime, any place, any age, any year, any millennium, any thing. That song will be classic forever.
Fonzi Thornton: I remember the first time I heard the track and heard that bass line on “Good Times”. I said, “Wait a minute, what is this? This is something really important going on here.” We recorded the background parts. The next day, Bernard said, “Come to the studio with Alfa and Luci.” When it was time to sing, “Happy days are here again”, it was myself, Alfa, and Luci. I don’t even think people realized that there was a male voice in there with the women but I think my voice added whatever that extra tension was and the depth that people love about that sound. You had a tenor voice, an alto voice, and a soprano voice singing that melody: that’s what made that CHIC sound work.
Alfa Anderson: It was absolutely incredible to be in CHIC at that moment. I just felt like we ruled the world. It’s a natural high to stand on a stage and hear 60,000 screaming fans just freaking out. We loved touring, we spent a lot of time laughing and joking and we were really beginning to bond as a family. It was just a wonderful, wonderful time.
Motown executive Suzanne de Passe knew talent—she’d shepherded groups like the Jackson Five and the Commodores to Motown and delivered “Don’t Leave Me This Way” to Thelma Houston. She also knew CHIC’s music just might bring Diana Ross back to the top of the pop charts. The Boss was on its way to gold certification by the time the title track shot to the summit of Billboard‘s Disco Top 80 for the week ending 25 August 1979. One week earlier, CHIC had been the number one band in the U.S. when “Good Times” held the top spot on the Hot 100. de Passe was about to pair the industry’s new wünderkinds with a Motown legend.