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Nile Rodgers

Part VIII: The Hitmaker Rides Again

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In between Believer and CHIC-ism, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards each began new chapters as independent producers, working with the industry’s most in-demand musicians and producing rock legends and emerging artists alike. “Bernard produced my solo album (E.P.M.) back in ‘83,” says Eddie Martinez. “It was his first production after he and Nile parted ways for a bit.” Edwards also released his own debut Glad to Be Here (1983) that same year. It featured a stellar supporting cast that included Rodgers, Martinez, Ray Chew, Philip Bailey, Jocelyn Brown, Alfa Anderson, Fonzi Thornton, Luther Vandross, and other members from the extended family of New York session singers and players. In 1984, he reunited with Diana Ross for “Telephone” on her Swept Away (1984) album and formed Power Station, a supergroup named after CHIC’s studio home that featured Robert Palmer, Tony Thompson, and Duran Duran members Andy Taylor and John Taylor.


The following year, Edwards produced “A View to a Kill” for Duran Duran and The Heat (1985) for Nona Hendryx. “With me, Bernard was very laid back but also knew what he wanted to capture from both me and the musicians,” says Hendryx.  “Because he was a musician he understood the musician mentality and because CHIC included female lead vocals, he understood working with singers.  Bernard also wanted to serve the song more than anything and knew where the pocket was because he played bass.  Bass players are about space, at least Bernard was, not how many notes they can play.”


Later that year, Edwards produced Palmer’s Riptide (1985) album, arguably the most enduring of Edwards’ solo production work. “Up until that point, Robert was selling maybe 300,000 copies of a record if it was doing well but Riptide catapulted him into the multi-platinum realm,” says Martinez, who played guitar on the album. “Bernard created a dynamic that he knew when it was right: we’ve taken this thing where we need to take it and, if anything, we need to subtract instead of add.” Edwards rounded out the ‘80s by producing acts as diverse as Jody Watley, Joe Cocker, Rod Stewart, and another supergroup called Distance that featured him alongside Thompson, Martinez, Jeff Bova, and vocalist Robert Hart.


On 17 April 1996, Bernard Edwards reunited with Nile Rodgers onstage at Budokan in Japan. The occasion was a major concert that honored Rodgers as “Super Producer of the Year”. It was the last time Rodgers and Edwards ever played together. One of the saddest chapters in the CHIC story came to pass in the early morning hours of 18 April 1996. Bernard Edwards, the man who showed the world how bass lines could sing, passed away at age 43. Seven years later, Rodgers bid adieu to another friend and compatriot in CHIC—Tony Thompson. In their memory, Rodgers continues to keep the legacy of CHIC alive and honor the work he created with one of the most groundbreaking rhythm sections ever to set foot inside a studio.


Though CHIC disbanded in 1983, Rodgers was actually never too far from Bernard Edwards or Tony Thompson. He invited Edwards aboard his maiden solo release Adventures In the Land of the Good Groove (1983). Just like Edwards’ debut, it also featured CHIC alumni, including Thompson, Rob Sabino, Raymond Jones, and Fonzi Thornton. Of course, his first solo album was the first step towards an illustrious production career that’s shaped the terrain of popular music over the last 30 years. His earliest solo triumphs as a producer included re-energizing David Bowie on Let’s Dance (1983), producing “Original Sin” for INXS, and remixing tracks like “The Reflex” for Duran Duran and “Adult Education” for Hall & Oates. He helmed Like A Virgin (1984) for Madonna and Here’s to Future Days (1985) for the Thompson Twins, which made the producer as much of a presence on the pop charts in 1985 as he’d been in 1979. Throughout the ‘80s, Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, Peter Gabriel, Jeff Beck, Al Jarreau, Laurie Anderson, Philip Bailey, the B-52’s, and countless other artists all enlisted Rodgers to produce albums or key cuts while his distinctive guitar playing appeared on hits like “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood and “Change of Heart” by Cyndi Lauper. Rodgers closed his first decade of production victories by re-teaming with Diana Ross and producing her return to Motown, Workin’ Overtime (1989).


In more recent years, everyone from Cerrone to Bryan Ferry to Adam Lambert has called upon Rodgers’ peerless skills but no one could have predicted what would happen in April 2013. Exactly 30 years to the month that “Let’s Dance” held the number one position in the UK, Rodgers’ collaboration with Daft Punk and Pharrell on “Get Lucky” rocketed to the top spot of the U.K. singles chart. After reaching number one in more than half a dozen countries, the overwhelming success of “Get Lucky” signals that there are certainly more good times to be had for the “hitmaker”  ...


John Oates: You have to give credit where credit is due. If you listen to those records, Nile’s guitar parts are the signature musical element of those records. They’re just absolutely elegant.


André Cymone: I would describe Nile’s approach as rhythmic and foundational. His guitar licks were often the signature melodies to the songs. In the past, it was usually a horn riff or a vocal chant. CHIC made the funky guitar riff the signature sound. As soon as I heard that guitar stroke or funky melodic riff I knew Nile Rodgers was on it no matter what group it was.


Ava Cherry: You knew the minute you heard that guitar that it was Nile, in the same way that you would hear Jimi Hendrix and know that it was Jimi Hendrix and not anybody else. What he did with the guitar is that it wasn’t like anybody else’s guitar playing. It moved the song along in ways that a lot of guitar players did not do. It made you want to listen when you heard his guitar. He’s a phenomenal guitar player. I have the utmost respect and admiration for him.


Kathy Sledge: When you pick up an instrument, it comes to life. When you hear Nile on the guitar, that guitar is Nile and you know it. Like B.B. King, you recognize his playing. It’s not just how they play it, their soul comes through that. That gives me goosebumps. To be able to carry through something that doesn’t have life and give it your life is pretty phenomenal. Nile does that with his instrument. It’s effortless and clean.


Eddie Martinez: You can hear Nile’s flavor whether he was playing on some of the Duran Duran stuff or the Thompson Twins or Debbie Harry’s solo album or Bowie. You listen to “Let’s Dance” and the way he’s voicing those minor 6th chords is so hip. I’ll never forget the first time I heard it in Studio C at the Power Station with Bob Clearmountain. I was just so blown away. I was working with Stanley Clarke and George Duke in those days. I had a break from the tour so I stopped by to say hello. When I met those guys again on the tour, I said, “Man I just heard this thing called ‘Let’s Dance’ from Bowie. It’s going to be the biggest thing. This is going to be huge.” It’s a classic piece of work.


Vincent Henry: I remember when I first heard “Let’s Dance”. I was working on a Broadway show that went to Paris. One night we went to a club and this song came on. Man, it just knocked my socks off. Oh my goodness! I couldn’t stop dancing.


Philip Bailey: Nile’s songwriting is very unpredictable. It’s not calculated. The way he moves is very unexpected. It’s not like just because he did something one way and it was a success that he’s going to go back to the drawing board and do it exactly the same way.  He just allows each project to unfold with the artist that he’s working with. That’s a cool way of looking at it.


Don Was: “Good Times” was a milestone R&B record. No one made a record quite like that before. It’s kind of like Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way (1969) where that music didn’t exist before they went into the studio that day and made that album. It’s kind of the same with “Good Times”. It sums up a lot that came before but takes it into the other in a very original and unique way that’s been part of the vocabulary of people making R&B records ever since. That record was incredibly influential to me but also Nile’s career as a whole. He was doing exactly what I aspired to do, the way he was able to take that signature thing and apply it to other artists, I just wanted to do that. Our first gig as Was (Not Was), which was a pivotal gig, was at the Mudd Club in 1981. Nile came to the show. That blew my mind. It was really significant for me to look out into the audience and see Nile. He might be six days younger than me but he’s a real hero.


Fonzi Thornton: The connection between Madonna and David Bowie and everybody is that thread that Nile brings, which is part of the thread that he and Bernard developed together. They had such a shared space. When they were wood-shedding together, they taught each other something that has lasted in this music and that is still underneath the music we’re listening to today. When I heard the Daft Punk song with Pharrell, I said, “This is amazing. This is classically a CHIC record”. It’s great to see Nile burn so bright doing that thing that he does so well that nobody else does.


Derek Bramble: The good ones are good for a reason. The new Daft Punk single is just made of that stuff! It’s a brilliant idea—Nile with Daft Punk. Nile can go anywhere and fill up a concert theater. People are going to love it and enjoy it and be taken back and, hopefully, taken forward. He’s that great of a musician.


John Oates: Nile has always been, and even to this day, one of my favorite guitarists. I don’t think he gets enough credit in the pantheon of guitar gods for the fact that he’s really more of a rhythm guitar player. In a way, I believe that Nile Rodgers defined modern R&B rhythm guitar playing. So many guitar players after him played in his style or tried to play in his style. He’s absolutely one of my favorite guitarists, without a doubt. He’s one of the great rhythm guitar players of all time.


Philip Bailey: It was an extreme honor for me to get a chance to work with Nile. There’s a lot of lessons to be learned from hanging around with Nile. He’s just as likely to stop and have a conversation on the street with somebody’s that’s off the radar as he is to talk with dignitaries or superstars, and with the same ease. He’s not one of those kind of pretentious people who’s full of himself and unapproachable. At the same time, he conserves his energy. He’s kind of like a funnel that a lot of musical genius flows through. He actually stays open in that way. The way he thinks, the way he moves and breathes, the way he handles life, adversity, and success. He’s made an indelible imprint on the world at large.


Nile Rodgers is probably the only producer who could put both Daft Punk and Diana Ross on top. While the world gets down to “Get Lucky” and delves into Random Access Memories, there’s a new audience primed to discover diana. As ubiquitous as songs like “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out” have become over the years, they’re part of a larger work that reflects one of Rodgers’ earliest successes as a songwriter, player, and producer. The only thing that really separates “Get Lucky” from a song like “Tenderness” is a calendar: the guitar riffs on both songs could have been recorded yesterday. Perhaps a Diana Ross/Daft Punk mash-up is next or maybe even a brand new Diana Ross-Nile Rodgers project. As recent events indicate, Diana Ross sure is having fun these days ...


 


Christian John Wikane is a NYC-based journalist and music essayist. He's a Contributing Editor for PopMatters, where he's interviewed artists ranging from Paul McCartney to Janelle Monae. For the past three years, he's penned liner notes for more than 100 CD re-issues by legends of R&B, rock, pop, dance, and jazz. Since 2008, he's produced and hosted Three of Hearts: A Benefit for The Family Center at Joe's Pub. He is the author of the five-part oral history Casablanca Records: Play It Again (PopMatters, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @CJWikaneNYC. 


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