Have Fun: A Tribute to Diana Ross, Nile Rodgers, and the CHIC Groove of ‘diana’ (Parts 1-4)

[19 May 2013]

By Christian John Wikane

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Introduction

Read Parts 5 - 6
Read Parts 7 - 9

Diana Ross truly reigned supreme on 21 July 1983. That was the day she stood before an audience of 400,000 New Yorkers in Central Park and emerged as a formidable force against thunder, lightning, wind gales, and sheets of rain. When she resumed the concert less than 24 hours later, the only elements soaking the stage were rays of sun.

Only one song could herald her triumphant return on 22 July 1983. A spectacle of glittering fuchsia, Diana Ross captivated nearly half a million sun-kissed Gothamites with the words “I’m coming out!” It was a gift-wrapped anthem, one that was penned by two New Yorkers who’d channeled their influences in funk, jazz, and glam rock into a fusion of R&B, disco, and pop called CHIC. Indeed, it was Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards who’d given Diana Ross the soundtrack to a defining moment in her career.

Three years earlier, “I’m Coming Out” had accompanied the boldest, most unexpected musical statement Diana Ross had made in her first decade as a solo artist. Working with Rodgers and Edwards on diana (1980), she fulfilled both her and the CHIC producers’ desire to grow artistically. The result was 35 minutes of streamlined grooves that yielded commercial success and unanimous praise from the rock press. diana also evidenced that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards could tailor their talents to an artist who, as James Ingram declares, is “the epitome of pop music to the world”.

In 2013, both Diana Ross and Nile Rodgers are having fun again, to paraphrase a line from diana. Currently, the singer’s story as both a solo artist and lead singer of the Supremes is the backbone of the Tony-nominated Broadway play Motown: the Musical, while Rodgers has collaborated with Daft Punk on the group’s long-awaited Random Access Memories (2013) album. Both projects underscore how Diana Ross and Nile Rodgers are pioneers whose past and present contributions remain relevant to the world of pop music and beyond. In the following pages, 25 artists and producers explore the legacies of Diana Ross and Nile Rodgers, and attest how diana laid a musical foundation from which the world’s most innovative musicians still derive inspiration.

 

Part I: “The Supremes Were Everything

The Supremes released 25 albums between 1962 and 1970. More importantly, Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard became trailblazing icons who bridged audiences across racial, musical, and generational lines. Recorded at Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A in Detroit, the songs of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland provided the ideal vehicle for the Supremes to introduce “The Sound of Young America” everywhere from Harlem to Tokyo. Show business royalty like Gene Kelly, Carol Channing, and Sammy Davis, Jr. wrote glowing tributes on the back covers of the group’s albums. Between the trio’s original incarnation as “The Supremes” and their refurbished line-up with Cindy Birdsong as “Diana Ross & the Supremes”, the group scored twelve number one hits on the Hot 100, including five consecutive chart-toppers. Future generations of renowned singers and vocal groups memorized every inflection the Supremes sang above the Funk Brothers’ infectious rhythms. When the Supremes raised their hands and cried “stop!”—a gesture orchestrated by legendary choreographer Cholly Atkins—everyone listened.

Melba Moore: The Supremes entered my life through The Ed Sullivan Show. I was sitting around the TV saying, “Oh my God. Look at this! Look at these gorgeous people!”

Brenda Russell: When they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, it was a very big deal, especially for young black girls at the time because we didn’t have any role models on television or anywhere in the media. We couldn’t look up to anybody except maybe someone that they allowed to play a maid on some show. The Supremes became a major idol for black girls who wanted something more than what they were seeing.

Ruth Pointer: We saw the Supremes on the variety shows. I was in high school and I remember going to my mom’s friend’s house just listening to 45s because we weren’t allowed to play the records at our house. I would sit there all day playing the Supremes.

Alfa Anderson: The Supremes were my favorite female group. I remember playing 45s until they were so scratched that the stylus skipped across the vinyl. When I heard that the Supremes were going to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, I was ecstatic. We gathered around the television at eight o’clock, anxiously awaiting their appearance. They sang “Come See About Me”. I loved their look and their choreography. Miss Diana was fabulous even then—self assured and glamorous.

Fonzi Thornton: Everything in my house stopped every time the Supremes were on Ed Sullivan. The first time they were on Ed Sullivan they did “Come See About Me”. I remember seeing these three girls in these ruffled dresses. At that time, we had a black-and-white TV.  I never really knew until many years later that those dresses were pink. I met Luther (Vandross) around that time. Our friendship began largely because we were into the Supremes and the Temptations. When our mothers would let us talk on the phone, we would remind each other that the Supremes were going to be on Ed Sullivan on Sunday. After the Supremes were on, and after everyone in my house had gone to sleep, I would be sitting next to the phone. It would ring quickly and it would be Luther. We’d say, “Did you see Florence miss that step?” (laughs) That kind of stuff.

Kathy Sledge: My older sister Carol, who Dick Clark used to refer to as “the closet sister”, was the one who kind of introduced me to Motown and all of the Supremes’ hits. We used to line up in the mirror and we would be the Supremes to her Diana. Because my mom’s name was Flo, my favorite song was “Back In My Arms Again”—“Flo, she don’t know, ‘cause the boy she loves is a romeo”. I love that song!

Gloria Gaynor: There were female groups before that, of course, but the Supremes’ sound was more sophisticated. Their sound was more pop than R&B, which is what you were used to hearing from black female groups. Theirs was a mixture of pop and R&B. It really transcended all of the different areas of music.

Melba Moore: Of course, the music is so magnetic—that rhythm, something about the Motown drum beat. You’re just in awe and mesmerized the first time you hear it. Many sounds that were R&B were more rough and bluesy and gutbucket. The Supremes were sweet and smooth and classy.

Brenda Russell: The massive hits the Supremes had back in the day influenced a lot of people, subliminally sometimes. Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland were some of my heroes as a writer. The combination was devastating. The Supremes and Holland-Dozier-Holland? Whoa!

Aziza: Motown was like breath. It really shaped our lives in ways that are unforgettable. I got introduced to the Motown sound through seeing shows at the Apollo. I saw Stevie Wonder when he was Little Stevie Wonder and I remember seeing Diana Ross & the Supremes there. I just fell madly in love with the Motown sound.

Irene Cara: Motown was huge when I was a child. It was pretty amazing in the ‘60s for a black-owned company and their entire glittering roster of stars to be the pop label. Motown became mainstream American black pop music that was in everybody’s household. “Love Child” is very meaningful for me. I was from the South Bronx so I lived around people who were living that song. There were so many young girls that I knew who were dealing with teenage pregnancy. That song made an impact.

Ruth Pointer: When we first started off, of course, the Supremes were our idols. It was not so much that we wanted to be like them but we just admired them so much. Their fashion, their poise, their dedication, everything about them. We wanted to sing a different type of music but we definitely wanted that presence that they had.

Brenda Jones: We were living in Detroit. It meant so much to have Motown around us because when you live in it, you really have hope. I must have been about eight or nine and I was just crazy about the Supremes. It was their classiness, their look, their choreography. Diana’s whole demeanor, her movement, everything about her was so wonderful. The Supremes were just divine. They were everything.

Part II: A Solo Star Ascends

It was only a matter of time before the lead singer of the Supremes ventured solo. Diana Ross & the Supremes gave their farewell performance on 14 January 1970 at the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. Three months later, Diana Ross debuted with “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” and a legendary solo career was born. Produced by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Diana Ross (1970) soared to number one on the R&B albums chart and included the singer’s epic, chart-topping interpretation of the duo’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. Between her Diana! (1971) television special, another stellar full-length release with Ashford & Simpson (Surrender, 1971), her star turns on the silver screen, and trans-Atlantic number one hits like “I’m Still Waiting”, “Touch Me in the Morning”, “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)”, and “Love Hangover”, Diana Ross earned a whole new legion of admirers as the 1970s progressed.

Kathy Sledge: I think it was a very wise move for Diana to go with Ashford & Simpson. I think they added a different flavor from what we were used to with the early Motown stuff. Because they were Motown writers, it was a smooth transition for the listener. It wasn’t like Diana Ross jumped to Curtis Mayfield, which would have been different and probably very cool. Certain producers bring their own influences to the artist and the really good ones, like Ashford & Simpson, bring out the artist as well. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”—it doesn’t get any better than that!

Irene Cara: I think Nick and Valerie definitely brought her to a certain maturity and a certain depth in her voice with the kinds of songs she was singing. “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is a masterpiece of a record and a song. When you have both going like that—a great song and a great record—then you can’t miss.

Melba Moore: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was a departure from everything that Diana and Motown had ever done. It was like a movie soundtrack rather than a record. I’ve always thought that Ashford & Simpson were geniuses. When you hear some of their songs on the radio, they’re beautiful and funky, but because it’s pop music, you don’t understand how sophisticated they are. When you heard “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for the first time ... how could anybody, regardless of what your taste in music is, resist that?

Ruth Pointer: I love her version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, especially when she does that little scream at the end. I just wait for that. Ashford & Simpson? They are so wonderful. They’re incredible. The love of what they do exudes in the lyrics to their songs.

Brenda Russell: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” sort of capsulizes Diana’s full potential as a performer. That song just captures all of it. She gets to be exactly who she is, as big as she likes. Her voice had a unique style to it that was recognizable. Not a lot of singers have that, where you instantly know who it is.

Fonzi Thornton: When Nick and Val got their hands on Diana, they added that gospel fire up underneath her. They made her sing. “Reach Out and Touch” was a waltz and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” was a huge skyscraper of a ballad. They brought her to another level. They challenged her to do something that she had not been doing before. She turned it out.

Aziza: Nick and Val showed another side of her. They could really write about life. They brought a realness from the perspective of telling a story where people can relate to the pleasure, they can relate to the pain. It’s adult as opposed to just a catchy, cutesy kind of song.

Patrick Adams: Nick and Valerie were always among my favorite producers. I love every thing they did. They were always careful to tailor their choice of material to the artist they were working with. They knew Diana’s voice and were consistent on all the records they produced for her. As songwriters, their melodies and chord progressions always moved your spirit. Lyrically, they were great story tellers. Only a handful of writers ever rose to that level of greatness and consistency.

Alfa Anderson: There was the Aretha Franklin camp, there was the Diana Ross camp, there was the Gladys Knight camp, and there was the Dionne Warwick camp. I loved Dionne and Diana because I felt they were closer to my voice. Aretha is amazing but that “Queen of Soul” voice has just never been my gift. My gift has always been a soprano kind of voice, soft and sweet. For me to hear somebody else who had that gift and was making it made me appreciate my gift.

Brenda Jones: Diana was amazing in Lady Sings the Blues (1972). When you see the movie, you didn’t think about the fact that Billie Holiday weighed more or that they were different complexions. She was just Billie Holiday. I thought she did a superb job. I must have seen that movie 14 or 15 times!

Irene Cara: The chemistry between Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams was just magnificent. It was Richard Pryor’s big debut. It was well-written. It was well-acted. It was well-photographed. I remember that it had a beautiful look to it. The cinematography of it really caught me right away.

Fonzi Thornton: She didn’t copy Billie Holiday. She got into the essence of that little sort of twang and sultry thing that Billie Holiday had. She knocked that thing out of the park.  You could not take your eyes off of her in Lady Sings the Blues. Her interpretation of the songs was stellar. She should have won that Oscar.

Brenda Russell: I always thought she should have won an Academy Award for her performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues. When you think about her in that bathroom ... that was some serious acting. I always thought that she deserved to have that Oscar. I mean Liza deserved it too—I love both those ladies. It was just one of those years, I guess. Still, it was a struggle for black women to step into that place of receiving an Oscar. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, that common an affair.

Martha Redbone: My earliest memory of Diana Ross would have to be Mahogany (1975). I remember the scene where she’s walking on the runway with this fabulous kind of Japanese outfit and people were laughing at her. I was a kid then so I didn’t understand why they were laughing and then the guy says, “20 million lire!” I thought she looked amazing. I thought she was the most fabulous thing I’d ever seen!

MC Lyte: I used to run around with my mother’s wig on, singing Diana Ross songs. My mom was home during the day and then in the evening she worked at a local bar and I would go in after school and play the jukebox. I became a huge fan. My mother fueled that entire thing.

Sandra St. Victor: The first image I have of Ms. Ross is on a TV program. She was draped in some magnificent royal gown with carefully tousled, long flowing hair, sporting an expression of pure elation in the moment. Confident. In control. She had everyone in the palm of her hand, including a seven or eight-year-old girl in Dallas, Texas.

Dionne Farris: The earliest memory I have of Diana Ross is from the age of six. My Uncle Ronnie took my aunt Karen and I to a Diana Ross concert in NYC for my aunt’s 12th birthday. We watched the show from the balcony and it was absolutely fabulous. There were costume changes galore and it was just beautiful. Ms. Ross told her three daughters to go to bed via video recording as the concert was coming to an end. The show was just about over, and we headed down to the lobby to go home. Instead, my uncle took a detour to the stage. We got to the front of the stage and all of a sudden I felt myself getting picked up and put on the stage by my uncle! At that moment, Ms. Ross was singing “Reach Out And Touch”, so she came over to me and knelt down beside me. She hugged me and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I started to cry! I could not believe it. I felt as if I were in a dream. What I remember most were her eyelashes looking so big to me as a child! We drove home and I put my hand on my cheek, leaned my head up against the window, and said those famous words, “I’ll never wash my face again.” At the time, I meant every word! It’s something I’ll never forget and I’ll always have in my heart.

When Diana Ross graced the cover of Rolling Stone in 1977, it was a particularly fertile time in the singer’s career. The magazine documented her recording Baby It’s Me (1977) with Richard Perry, preparing for the lead role in the screen version of The Wiz (1978), and raising her daughters Rhonda, Tracee, and Chudney. That same year, she won a special Tony Award for An Evening With Diana Ross, her one-woman show that was also refashioned for a double LP and a television special on NBC entitled The Big Event. “She was able to tap into areas that hadn’t been tapped into,” says MC Lyte. “It all stems from pure talent. She’s someone who’d started off as a singer and then was able to do all of these other things.” In the discotheques, DJs were spinning 12” Diana Ross singles alongside the funkiest, most cutting edge dance music. “Love Hangover” had crowned the pop, R&B, and disco charts in 1976 and tracks like “Your Love Is So Good For Me”, “Lovin’ Livin’ Givin’”, and “A Brand New Day” from The Wiz proved that Diana Ross could pack a dance floor as effortlessly as a Broadway theater.

Closing the 1970s, Diana Ross re-teamed with Ashford & Simpson to record The Boss (1979), an album that featured some of the most vigorous singing she’d ever done in the studio. “The type of songwriters that Nick and Val are, they’re going to construct a melody and put it in a range where they would challenge Diana vocally,” says Ray Chew, whose rhythm arrangements anchored The Boss and many other Ashford & Simpson productions. The singer’s opening wail on “No One Gets the Prize” exhibited a vocal prowess that had been honed on the Broadway stage and during The Wiz. Alfa Anderson recalls her reaction to the title track, “I listened to that and I said, ‘Look at what they did!’ They said, ‘Girl, you are going to do some singing!’”

Once again, the Diana Ross-Nick Ashford-Valerie Simpson triumvirate prevailed. The soft coos of “baby baby” were a distant memory. So were the towering wigs. The album cover of The Boss depicted Diana Ross in a natural, outdoor setting. A sexy goddess at play in the backyard. Powered by a fresh and fortified production style, “The Boss” shot to the top of the disco charts while tracks like “No One Gets the Prize”, “It’s My House”, and “I Ain’t Been Licked” were extended for 12” release. How would Diana Ross follow up The Boss? The answer could be found in the very same DJ set lists that made “The Boss” an essential club staple. One of the most glamorous artists on the planet was about to get remodeled by producers who imbued a cosmopolitan attitude into everything they touched.

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.

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.

CHIC

CHIC

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.

Alfa Anderson

Alfa Anderson

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)

Sister Sledge

Sister Sledge

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.

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. 


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/171654-have-fun-a-tribute-to-diana-ross-nile-rodgers-and-the-chic-groove-of/