When guitarist Nile Rodgers plays with Prince Friday at the Essence Music Festival, it will be one of the high points of a career renaissance.
For one generation, Rodgers is best known as part of the great band of the disco era, Chic. Others know him for producing hit-laden albums in the 1980s including David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance,” Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” and The B-52s’ “Cosmic Thing.” Earlier this year he won a Grammy for co-writing Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” which features his guitar and sensibility so prominently that the song sounds like a Chic tribute. Since then, he has also recorded with electronic dance music artists Avicii and Disclosure, each featuring his trademark melodic guitar scratch.
“That’s a cool thing,” he said, reflecting on the sound that has endured musical and personal ups and downs. “My wonderful partner Bernard Edwards (Chic’s bassist) said, ‘Nile, with your jazz knowledge, with your classical knowledge, you could turn that into a unique style.’ One day I got the message.”
Rodgers and Bernard started Chic in 1977, and they didn’t think of it as disco. For them it was an extension of a band that they had played in since 1970, but it also had a conceptual dimension that came to Rodgers after seeing British art rock band Roxy Music perform in London. Visually, the band was fashion conscious; musically, the combination of Rodgers’ rhythmic touch and Edwards’ percolating bass gave the band’s hits “Good Times,” “Le Freak,” and “I Want Your Love” a bedrock melodicism that was its calling card as much as singers Luci Martin and Alfa Anderson.
Chic hit a wall when a Disco Demolition Night promotion during a Chicago White Sox game in 1979 turned into a riot that ended the game. The moment helped an anti-disco backlash become as much of a craze as disco had been, and almost overnight disco was done.
“It completely derailed our forward momentum,” Rodgers said. “Good Times” still went to number one, but nothing did after that. He felt helpless as his musical life seemed to be slipping away. It didn’t, but he believes the lingering “disco sucks” attitude has kept Chic from being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame though it has been nominated nine times.
“Absolutely,” Rodgers said. “When you look at the other people who are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and what they’ve done and compare us pound for pound, I’m not saying that we’re better than anybody but we’re certainly equal. There are people who have not had nearly as many hit records as we have, and haven’t had the same influence on pop culture.”
Chic’s importance is readily acknowledged by modern dance music artists, and Rodgers’ classic style and the grooves he helped create have been appreciated by his peers. He has played with members of Earth, Wind and Fire on occasion, and he recently had the opportunity to play with George Clinton, the mastermind behind Parliament-Funkadelic for the second time, the first coming in the 1960s when Rodgers was part of the house band at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He has also played with Prince once before.
“I played with him a gazillion years ago at one of his after-parties,” Rodgers said. “I didn’t go to play. He was playing guitar when I walked into this nightclub. He saw me and stopped the band. ‘Ladies and gentlemen—Nile Rodgers. This man has the funk.’ He gave me the guitar and proceeded to play piano and sang. He and I have never played guitar together.”
Unfortunately, when Chic performs Friday, it will be without Edwards, who passed away in 1996. The band broke up in the early 1980s, played a reunion tour in 1989, and the two started performing together again in 1996 before Edwards died of pneumonia. Rodgers wasn’t sure he could play Chic songs without him, but the first shows were in Japan, where Edwards died.
“The promoter told me I came back to pay tribute to my partner, and once I accepted that frame of mind, it became wonderful,” Rodgers said. “Instead of being sad, I thought, ‘Let me make my boy proud and show him how good we still are.’”