Have Fun: A Tribute to Diana Ross, Nile Rodgers, and the CHIC Groove of ‘diana’ (Parts 5-6)

[20 May 2013]

By Christian John Wikane

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Part V: diana: The Album

Read Parts 1 - 4
Read Parts 7 - 9

“In the 1960s, Berry Gordy found a way to take R&B music, which had been kind of a niche music, and make it be popular music at a time that transcended race and geography,” says Don Was. “I think Nile and Bernard came up with a way of doing the same thing in their time. It’s as original and as distinctive.” Perhaps it was inevitable that Rodgers and Edwards would eventually contribute to the empire that Gordy built. After all, many of the tracks that the Supremes recorded with Holland-Dozier-Holland were the club music of the mid-‘60s, whether “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” or “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart”. Rodgers and Edwards were well-equipped to build upon that lineage of danceable Motor City magic. With songs like “Le Freak”, “I Want Your Love”, “We Are Family”, and “Good Times” ruling the charts and the clubs, the producers had established a “hitsville” all their own.

Rodgers and Edwards relished an outlet to expound on the qualities that spun gold and platinum for CHIC. In the past, they’d been offered the chance to produce Atlantic acts like Bette Midler, the Rolling Stones, and Aretha Franklin, but they’d felt the timing wasn’t exactly right. “It was well thought out of who these guys wanted to produce,” says Kathy Sledge. “In our case, we were some oblivious act in the states but Diana Ross is Diana Ross!” It was a considerable jump from producing Sister Sledge, who’d previously only had hits in other territories and some minor chart action in the U.S., to producing an artist that Billboard had declared “Entertainer of the Century” three years earlier.

In his autobiography Le Freak (2011), Nile Rodgers vividly details how the diana project unfolded, from the producers’ first meeting with Suzanne de Passe to the initial conversations he and Edwards had with Diana Ross at her New York abode. Inspired by what they saw and heard, Rodgers and Edwards endeavored to paint a well-rounded musical portrait of the singer. Eight songs quickly geminated from visiting the singer at home and observing her new life on the east coast.  A new Diana Ross was about to “come out” from the CHIC cocoon. (Note, as it’s been well-documented in Rodgers’ book and in Universal’s 2003 re-issue of diana, Motown engineer Russ Terrana remixed the tracks that Rodgers and Edwards recorded with the singer. Henceforth, all commentary reflects Motown’s “remixed” version of diana as it was originally released to the public in May 1980.)

Recording at the Power Station in late-1979, the producers summoned the core unit of the CHIC organization: Tony Thompson on drums, keyboardists Rob Sabino, Raymond Jones, Andy Schwartz, and the CHIC Strings (Karen Milne, Cheryl Hong, and Valerie Heywood). Lead singers Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin shared background vocals with Fonzi Thornton and Michelle Cobbs. “Strangely enough, I heard Diana’s songs before she did,” says Anderson. “She wanted reference vocals. I think it was ‘Upside Down’ that I said, ‘Oh no. We got to have this one! Why are you giving this one away?’” (laughs).  Thornton continues, “They had given Diana songs with Alfa singing the lead on the reference vocals. Reportedly, Diana said that she didn’t want to hear a woman’s voice singing the song. They called me up and said, ‘Fonzi we want you to come to the studio’. The songs were all in keys that were too high for me but I could really sort of navigate that territory.”

“Upside Down” was a gripping gateway to diana. All it took were two sixteenth notes on the hi hat doubled by Rodgers’ guitar to trigger the groove. The rhythm was undeniably CHIC, but with a slight twist. “The way Nile and Bernard slipped those half measures and chromatic progressions in there was so creative,” notes Sandra St. Victor. Compared to “Good times / these are the good times”, the opening chant was a mouthful. The syllables accentuated the rhythm with a punchy gait. Thornton explains, “That staccato sound—‘upside down you’re turning me, you’re giving love instinctively’—became our signature through that time. I think that when Michelle and I started singing with Alfa and Luci, the style of the CHIC vocals changed a little bit so by the time we got to diana, it was a case of me as a male singer singing higher than I normally sing and the girls singing alto along with my voice. That staccato sound is what we lent to Diana on that vocal part.”

Those only familiar with the singer’s biggest solo hits might have been taken aback by her close-miked vocals. The languid sensuality of her voice on “Love Hangover” or the polished cadences of “Touch Me in the Morning” were replaced by something sassier and spunkier. “There was no riffing,” says Martha Redbone. “That’s hard to do. To have a singer with as much discipline to just sing, ‘Up-side down / boy you turn me / in-side out, and / round and round’ ...  I remember admiring her because I realized how difficult it is to sing that way and how much self control that she has.” An air of suspense shrouded the verses as the singer spelled out the situation with her lover. She’s no pushover—she knows the guy is fooling around—but she can’t resist his “instinctive” kind of love. This was real talk from Miss Ross.

Rodgers doubled the melody underneath the vocals on the closing vamp. His signature was immediately identifiable. “Nile’s guitar is very distinct,” says Ray Chew. “He calls it ‘the hitmaker’. It’s the one guitar that he’s played on every song. Nobody else plays like that.” Rodgers carried out the melody after the last round of vocals. Philip Bailey notes how his guitar solos complement, rather than upstage, the track. “He’s not jammin’ all over the doggone track, playing stuff to impress him and a lot of other musicians. He’s not trying to see how fast and how slick he can play ... and in doing that, he ends up impressing the musicians.” John Oates concurs, adding, “For Nile, it’s not about the flashy solos or how many notes per measure that he can play. Nile is really like a harmonic drummer. Human beings have the ability to play on the beat, ahead of the beat, or behind the beat. Nile has the unique ability to play perfectly in time slightly behind the beat.” Parsing Rodgers’ style even further, Vincent Henry ties it back to the guitarist’s New York roots. “I hear the Bronx when he’s playing. That Bronx is in there. It’s that boogie that just makes you jump.”

Tony Thompson launched a spry and spirited rhythm on “Tenderness”. Rodgers introduced the melody while the strings mimicked his notes with sharp accents. Addressing a lover, Ross exhibited a range of feelings, coy one moment, vulnerable the next. She wants to overcome her inhibitions but softly implores, “Will you be please be gentle”. She’s assertive even in her vulnerability.

The background vocalists added nuances to the emotional thrust of the scene.  Whereas Ross was more delicate in her approach, they’re insistent and direct—“Come on love me”. They’re like the inner voice of the singer, reflecting her fervent desire even as she played it cool. The call and response of “tenderness / is the best” was sung in perfect unison—the hallmark of CHIC vocals. Anderson explains how the background parts for a song like “Tenderness” would have been constructed:

“Bernard would play the track and then he would phrase the background part for us. We would sing in the control room until it had a groove and it was what we felt it should be. We would listen to see who among us got the inflection and got the essence of the song the quickest. We would all move to that person and then the inflections would all be like that person. We’d go out in the studio and get around the microphone. Usually, we’d start with the vamp because that would give you an opportunity to work it out. The inflection is the same but you still infuse it with your own personality. I would always try to bring the breath because I didn’t have the deep power of Fonzi or Michelle. I would add the highs to the whole thing.”

As flawless as the background parts sounded on “Tenderness”, Anderson emphasizes how exacting the recording process was in the studio. “The inflection has to fit in the pocket,” she says. “In order to do that kind of singing, you have to know each other.” Eddie Martinez continues, “Singing in unison is really difficult because all of your pivot points, in terms of breath and phrasing, have to blend. Then the pitch comes into play too. There was no Autotune back then, let’s put it that way. There were no easy outs. You had to get it right and create a blend and all be singing in pitch. That’s not easy.” The interplay between Ross and the backing vocalists, plus the interlocking rhythms of Rodgers, Edwards, and Thompson, made “Tenderness” a deceptively complex successor to the more obviously intricate grooves of “Upside Down”. 

At first glance, “Friend to Friend” seemed beamed from an entirely different album. However, Rodgers and Edwards also specialized in writing ballads, whether “At Last I Am Free”, “Somebody Loves Me”, or “You Can’t Do It Alone”. Even among those ballads ,“Friend to Friend” was unique. “The melody and the cadence of it was so specifically Nile,” says Thornton. “The way ‘When I gave all my love to you’ was expressed was very much the way Nile wrote.” The song was a valentine to Diana Ross, a way to spotlight the clear, crystalline qualities of her voice in a softly compelling way. “‘Friend to Friend’ gave her an opportunity to just shine,” says Alfa Anderson. “That’s when you really appreciate her articulation, her tonality.”

Contrasting with the glowing, high-pitched tones of the keyboard, the singer called upon the deeper part of her register. Like a siren luring a sailor out to sea, she’s a magnetizing presence as Edwards’ bass cushioned the rich and resonant tone of her voice. “I have often thought that I / had no love to give / But it’s yours for the asking”, she sings. It’s the most intimate sequence on the album. During his solo, Rodgers became the instrumental counterpart to the singer, merging seamlessly with Ross as her voice returned to the foreground. Her exquisite harmonies on the last line captured the hushed poignancy of the song. The slow dissolve of the strings connoted anticipation, as if something dramatic was about to happen ... and not three seconds later, something did.

I’m—com-ing—out”, the singer shouted. Within mere moments, Diana Ross went from confiding intimacies on “Friend to Friend” to making a grand proclamation. “The way ‘I’m Coming Out’ opens was so great,” enthuses Brenda Russell. “I mean, you’re already in. By the time the intro’s over, you are in.” Rodgers whipped up the rhythm like a turbine while Tony Thompson announced his arrival with the fanfare of a one-man band marching down the street. “Tony hit those drums so hard, I’m surprised they stayed up,” Derek Bramble laughs. “He was a smasher but he had a great groove.” Alfa Anderson adds, “Tony’s drum playing was excellent. He brought that pizazz to that. We used to call him ‘Dark Gable’ because he was so handsome and had such a flair.” Milking the moment, Thompson teased and taunted with drum fills for half a minute before setting the main rhythm into motion.

Of the eight songs on diana, “I’m Coming Out” was the one that evinced a major shift in the singer’s personal and professional life. It foreshadowed her imminent departure from Motown in 1981 and her determination to forge ahead away from the powerful entity that had directed her career for nearly 20 years. “I’ve got to show the world all that I want to be and all of my abilities / There’s so much more to me”, she sang. Within the musical context of diana, “I’m Coming Out” provided a dazzling climax to the album’s first half. The effect was like a New York block party.  After a trombone solo by Meco Monardo, the marching band motif from the introduction reappeared. Every instrument sewed its own pattern into the groove while Ross ad libbed. Thompson redirected the beat back to the chorus rhythm before Ross unleashed a victorious cry, “I’m, I’m coming OUT!!” She’d crossed the finish line in the race towards her independence.

The singer harnessed the ebullience of “I’m Coming Out” for the first track on Side Two. “Hey everybody!”, she exclaimed before the groove kicked in on “Have Fun (Again)”. The background singers intoned the song title with a clipped and precise manner while Ross sang “I want you to” like a one-way dialogue between her and the listener. The playful spirit of the song manifested in a number of ways: from the singsong “just like little children” hook, to how “have fun, have fun, have fun” crescendos through a wall of reverb, to the way the track drops out and suddenly fades back in.

“Have Fun (Again)” was like the album’s unofficial manifesto, the guiding principle for why Diana Ross was working with Rodgers and Edwards in the first place. “The lyrics were brilliant,” states Tomi Jenkins. Beneath the frivolity, the producers were writing words based on their candid conversations with the singer. “Money won’t be enough, when the going gets tough it’s rough”, she sang over the verse’s jagged rhythm. The lyrics were based on the very real dynamics she experienced between fame, love, fortune, and happiness. In a more global sense, “Have Fun (Again)” entreated the listener to seek a respite from troubles through a carefree kind of play.

The concept of play continued in more literal terms on “My Old Piano”. Inspired by the actual baby grand that held court in the singer’s apartment, the song cleverly anthropomorphized the piano into a living, breathing object with an “88-key smile”. There’s a palpable joy in Ross’ performance. “I like ‘My Old Piano’ because it was so different,” says Alfa Anderson. “It seemed different for Diana than anything else she had done. You just wouldn’t have expected it.”

In each verse, Rodgers’ guitar is an omnipresent force underneath the singer’s breathless lead vocal. “Within the funk realm or the pop realm, Nile has the innate ability to make the guitar be a focal point relative to his style because it’s so unique,” says Martinez. “Prior to CHIC, Nile was playing in jazz groups and things like that so his knowledge of chords is coming from someone who’s a jazz guitarist but he breaks it down for a funk idiom rather than a blues guitarist who’s playing a funk line.” Leaving no part of the fret untouched, Rodgers revealed even more of his multi-faceted guitar skills as he and pianist Rob Sabino faced off in a friendly duel for the singer’s affection.

“Now That You’re Gone” swung the pendulum away from the jouissance of “My Old Piano”. It’s the only track on diana that contains even a hint of melancholy. For her part, Ross communicated the resigned acceptance of a fizzled love affair through crisp, robotic phrasing. Musically, Rodgers and Edwards veered from anything predictable. Rather than render the story line as a ballad, they shaded it with exotic accoutrements like percussion and reggae-tinged rhythms. Never before had CHIC grooved quite this way on a record. “Nile and Bernard had always been avant garde in their thinking,” notes Anderson. “This allowed them an opportunity to express all of the other things that they had inside of them. They might have been Living Colour had they been allowed to do that.”

Edwards’ bass lines were especially pronounced on “Now That You’re Gone”, giving the groove an interesting kind of elasticity. “He was kind of like James Jamerson,” says Don Was. “You could sing the bass lines. They’re melodic. They’re lyrical.” Derek Bramble was awestruck by Edwards’ style. “It was like Bernard walked on water,” he says. “He was one of those bass players that just spoke to you directly. He was just incredibly nimble but he laid it down.” Near the song’s conclusion, Edwards deftly snuck some unscripted moves into the groove.

Shifting into a different gear, Edwards sent “Give Up” into orbit with his agile moves on the bass. Diana Ross screamed “ow!” over the song’s sudden burst of bass and drums. It was a suitable exclamation given the track’s exuberance.  Alfa Anderson recalls how the background vocalists also enjoyed laying down their vocal parts on the song. “I remember being in the studio and looking over at Michelle Cobbs. She had this smile on her face. She got ‘Give Up’ on a very visceral level. You could just see all the joy and passion in her face as she was singing it.”

Thematically, “Give Up” mirrored “Upside Down” but with a different reflection. This time, Ross demanded that her lover surrender his love to her. “Although your heart’s locked up, my love will assist me so that you can’t resist me”, she sang. The cool composure of “Upside Down” was supplanted by an insatiable ardor. The singer’s performance contained a strength, stridency, and improvisational quality that was unlike any of her other vocals on the album. Clearly, these were her “good times”.

Part VI: diana: The Impact

Anyone walking into a record store in June 1980 might have been a tad shocked. Under a layer of shrink wrap, diana depicted Diana Ross casually attired in jeans and a white short-sleeve shirt. It looked like the woman from The Boss album cover had gone for a dip in the pool. What Francesco Scavullo caught from behind his lens perfectly corresponded to the music. His photograph defined diana even before the listener dropped the needle on the vinyl.

MC Lyte: I just remember the cover saying a lot with a little. It didn’t need a lot of color. It was just black and white and it was her. It was beautiful.

Dionne Farris: I love when Diana diva’ed down! This choice of style was a welcome shift after seeing her in gowns and fancy dresses for so many years. This cover evokes a natural state of being much like the cover of her eating the apple, looking like a little kid (Diana Ross, 1970). She’s got that fresh out-of-the shower feel. The simple styling made her seem like one of “the people” and more approachable.

Tomi Jenkins: Diana looked fresh, young, and new. It fit what was inside that album jacket to a tee.

Aziza: This is one of my favorite pictures. It’s naturally her and you still see the confidence, love, and beauty. It’s an aura.

Alfa Anderson: I think it’s one of her best covers. This is a stripped-down Diana. That’s what they wanted this album to be for her. Just a white T-shirt and jeans. Not the big “La Ross” hair, which I love. To me, it was so incredibly brave of her to do that. It shows a side of her and a vulnerability that “I’m ready to let my fans really see me and see my heart”. That really speaks directly to her having fun and really wanting to do something different.

Brenda Jones: It looked like she’d gotten to a place of contentment and comfort. “I’m free and confident and happy. I’m comfortable.”

Patrick Adams: I see a very confidant yet vulnerable artist telling the world, “I’m just gettin’ started. I’ll let the music speak for me.”

Martha Redbone: It’s stunning. I love the simplicity of it. It’s a beautiful, powerful picture. I like that they chose this one. Simple, black and white, in the moment. I thought, I wanna be her when I grow up! That’s who I want to be.

Sandra St. Victor: I see all the possibilities of young black womanhood. This particular cover was like Diana’s “unplugged” look. Even in a tee and jeans, she embodied this searing beauty, almost a woman-child. She showed us she was “down”, she was you.  It said, “I have nothing to prove. I am.” In a way, this visual declaration of “I am” helped us all say, “Yes, we are.” We are serious yet sexy. We are independent yet alluring. We are beauty, unhindered by forced conceptions of glamour.

diana was the summer album of 1980. The singer’s new groove echoed from penthouses and playgrounds alike. “Nile and Bernard brought ‘da funk and a cool NY edge to Diana’s music,” says Nona Hendryx. On the airwaves, Diana Ross turned listeners “inside out” with “Upside Down” while Stephanie Mills sang “Never Knew Love Like This Before”, Chaka Khan wailed “it’s gonna rain” on Ashford & Simpson’s “Clouds”, and Mary Davis chanted “Take Your Time (Do It Right)” with the S.O.S. Band. Everyone from a young MC Lyte to recent Grammy winner Gloria Gaynor was digging the tune.

“Upside Down” debuted on the Hot 100 in July 1980 and capped the chart on 6 September, awarding the singer her fifth solo number one pop single. It completed a triple victory when it also crowned the R&B singles chart and the dance chart. “Let me tell you when I heard ‘Upside Down’ I was done,” says Sandra St. Victor. “To have that level of musicality at the top of the charts was inspiring.” As “Upside Down” commenced the first of four weeks at number one, “I’m Coming Out” marched onto the pop chart, eventually peaking at #5. Across the Atlantic, “My Old Piano” charmed UK audiences and spawned another Top 5 single from the album. The album itself shot to #2 on the Billboard 200 and followed Cameo’s Cameosis (1980) to the top of the R&B albums chart, where it owned the number one spot for eight consecutive weeks from July through September 1980.

In newspapers and music trades, critics applauded the pairing of CHIC with Diana Ross. “Mr. Edwards and Mr. Rodgers have seen fit to stretch their formulas in interesting ways for her,” wrote John Rockwell in The New York Times. Highlighting “I’m Coming Out”, he continued, “The familiar symmetries of the pop-disco song are varied and displaced in most refreshing ways. There are sudden interruptions of the flow, rhythmic displacements and dynamic irregularities” (6 June 1980). Writing in his “Consumer Guide” column, Village Voice critic Robert Christgau noted, “Her perky angularity and fit-to-burst verve could have been designed for Rodgers and Edwards’ synergy. And Nile is showing off more axemanship than any rhythm guitarist in history”. Rolling Stone was similarly effusive: “Ross’ reedy soprano conveys the spirit of child’s play with amazing ease as she converts the emotion of The Boss into pure rhythmic energy” (2 October 1980).

As 1980 yielded to 1981, Diana Ross placed a gold single for “Upside Down” on her wall while diana rewarded the singer with her first platinum album. During the star-studded awards season of winter 1981, “Upside Down” picked up a Grammy nomination for “Best R&B Vocal Performance, Female” and won Diana Ross an American Music Award for “Favorite Soul/R&B Single”. Sitting with Michael Jackson at the 30 January 1981 AMA ceremony, the artist also took home the prize for “Favorite Soul/R&B Artist”, a category that included Chaka Khan and Stephanie Mills.


Diana Ross was back on television in March 1981 with Diana, a one-hour, Emmy-nominated special that combined footage from her concert at The Forum in Los Angeles with taped vignettes that featured Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Larry Hagman, and The Joffrey Ballet. Whether singing “It’s My Turn” in a photographer’s dark room suffused with pink light or singing “Ease on Down the Road” with Jackson, the singer was a beguiling force of nature. The Forum footage showed a sold-out audience charged with excitement as Ross sang her latest hits from diana. When she asked “Are you ready for the record that you made number one for me?”, the crowd knew what was coming. Performing “Upside Down”, the singer strutted, flirted, cavorted, and got down right funky. Watching her hold the audience rapt with “Upside Down” left little doubt that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had helped ignite a whole new movement in the singer’s career.

Philip Bailey: Diana Ross is a superstar par excellence, no question about it. Nile and Bernard gave her some swag and some hipness for that time. They were able to fit her into the New York scene and the club scene and all that was going on at that time without her having to become somebody else.

Brenda Russell: Nile and Bernard nailed it for her. They didn’t make her sound like she was trying to be someone she wasn’t. She still was Diana but with this whole funky sound that was just the sound of the day, of the moment, with those guys. It was very, very musical and soulful.

Eddie Martinez: What they really brought to the fore was a currency that was going on. Diana was a real bonafide superstar. Nile and Bernard were at the helm in terms of charting a course for her. It’s a combination that can’t be beat. My God, those are some iconic songs! Those songs stand out. What I love about it is how stripped down it is compared to what was being done before with Diana and her productions.

Fonzi Thornton: They brought a modern sound to diana. It was so different. It was so angular. It was written from such a different point of view. They catapulted her into the future, musically. I think it opened up Diana’s whole world. The album is not just about her singing. It’s really more about presenting her a different way.

Kathy Sledge: It’s Mozart that said simplicity is genius. If you think about all of Nile and Bernard’s hits, they’re pretty simple—chants that we sing along to. They had a formula. It was always simple. You had that formula with Diana Ross and it was massive.

Don Was: They brought simplicity to Diana Ross’ music. You certainly didn’t lose the essence of Diana, even though it had the CHIC stamp on it. It grooves more than some of her other records. It’s a raw groove. It doesn’t have layers. It does but ... It’s like a Beatles record. I don’t think people can keep track of more than three or four things going on behind the vocal. The Beatles were masters of that, I don’t mean “I Am the Walrus” but Rubber Soul (1965) or those kind of records where there’s just a few things going on but they’re major events. If you’re going to make a record like that, every part’s got to be really major and distinctive.

Irene Cara: They brought their vibe to her and when it was combined with hers ... it was crazy in the clubs. It was a smart move. The fact that both Diana and Berry Gordy agreed to go in that direction really spoke to a lot of people of my background who were from the projects.

Gloria Gaynor: They made her music bigger, they made it stronger, and they helped her to really stay with a black audience but also cross over into pop. She reinvented herself.

Alfa Anderson: Diana reinvented herself with simplicity. At this point in her career, she needed to relate to a younger crowd. She was not afraid to do that. She knew who she was and she was able to maintain her sense of identity in the middle of all that.

Dionne Farris: They brought the elements of disco, funk, fat bass lines, and fun to her sound. Her evolution gave me valuable insight. For longevity, a recording artist will have to reinvent themselves and keep up with the times. She seemed willing to be open-minded in order to pull off a sound that was not traditionally her own. I loved when Ms. Ross was in this era. The music gave a new generation, who may have been too young to experience her in the Supremes days, an opportunity to be exposed to her artistry.

Sandra St. Victor: They brought her back squarely into the sights of forward-thinking youth. This was not your momma’s Diana Ross.

André Cymone: I think CHIC exemplified that sort of funk rock foundation. They projected that new sound in Diana’s music, which updated her and her music and in turn opened her up to a new demographic.

Derek Bramble: They gave her a fresh lick of paint. I think she’s earned her stripes just by the nature of who she is. Nile and Bernard came along at just the right time. She was able to re-catch her wave at a time where however long you’d been around didn’t matter.

MC Lyte: They brought this surge of energy. You hear those songs and ooh, it is time to get busy! With a talent like hers, everybody wants to work with her. The producers have fabulous ideas of what it is that they want to bring to you as an artist to help you shine. They were able to bring out those qualities that everyone wants to hear from her and present them in a different fashion.

Tomi Jenkins: When I heard “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out”, I knew who was behind the production. No one else could groove like that, but listening to the record, there were so many wonderful songs on it. “Now That You’re Gone”, for instance. Great changes. That album defied categorization. There were so many levels to it—musically, sonically, emotionally.

Fonzi Thornton: “Upside Down” reminds me so much of Nile and “I’m Coming Out” reminds me so much of Bernard. Both of them were funky guys but Bernard was sort of a “hominy grits” guy. He always brought the hot sauce and the black pepper. Nile had lots of rock influences and bohemian influences. You could always tell Bernard’s language as opposed to Nile’s language. “I say to thee respectfully” reminds me so much of Nile in the way that Nile writes lyrics and “I want the world to know, got to let it show” reminds me of Bernard. You could hear their signatures in the music.

Vincent Henry: You can hear the polish that they have but by the same token, there’s another kind of freedom on “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down”.

Alfa Anderson: I sang ‘I’m Coming Out’ and Luci sang ‘Upside Down’ on tour. We loved those songs. We did a medley. When I would hit that first note—“I’m”—I would hear everybody go, “Wooooo!” Everybody would just sashay down to the front. It was such a powerful song: just “do you” and speak your truth.

Martha Redbone: I remember being really thrilled that “I’m Coming Out” ended up being a gay anthem. I think for her, it was coming out of her shell but I love that the gay community embraced that as their anthem and I love that she embraced them as well. To me, that was really special and helped iconize her even more than Mahogany, more than the Supremes, more than the big wigs. The idea of “I’m Coming Out” is really a progressive message for anyone who wants to come out, to break free and turn over a new leaf. I think that song helped change the world.

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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