Interview with Nile Rodgers (producer, musician, songwriter)

He may initially have gained fame as guitarist with Funk band Chic but Nile Rodgers’ Rock credentials are impeccable. Mick Burgess spent time chatting with Nile about his work with Robert Plant, David Lee Roth, etc.

You’re very busy with a variety of projects. Is it important for you to still make the time to perform live on stage every now and then?

When you write and produce a lot of records sometimes the only chance you get to go out and play them is in the studio. If I work with Slash, David Bowie or Steve Vai we work on the piece that day and I never get the chance to play the music in front of an audience. I did Let’s Dance with David Bowie in ’82 and I’ve only ever played that song once in the studio and maybe a total of 6 or 7 times since then so it’s just great to be able to play these songs on stage.

Did you play “Let’s Dance” live with Bowie at any time?

No, straight after recording Let’s Dance I did The Reflex with Duran Duran and then after that I worked with INXS, Paul Simon and Madonna so there was no chance for me to play at all with Bowie.

How many shows do you do on average in a year?

Not many. I just don’t have the time. As well as production work I run a video game music label and I have a charity which is a huge job. I just play gigs for fun. I don’t need to do that to make a living otherwise I’d be dead, I don’t play enough gigs to make a living…Ha!!

Back in the early days before Chic you had a Rock band, The Boys, with Bernard Edwards. You got to the stage of producing some demos have you ever thought about releasing some of that material in some form?

My first bands were very hard Punk bands and then we took on Blues and Fusion and my partner at the time was an incredible speed guitar player and between the two of us we used to work out these insane parts so we got this reputation as THAT guitar duo. In fact we were the first electric band to play at Max’s Kansas City. So when people say it’s the Velvet Underground or Bruce Springsteen ahh, ahh, it was us. Max’s Kansas City used to be a Folk club where they played nothing but acoustic music. My band was called New World Rising and we were the opening act for The Stooges and Alice Cooper and were the first electric band to play there.

Did you ever cross paths with the likes of The Dictators in your club days?

Oh yeah, Ross The Boss!! We knew all those bands; they were our peers except that they were more famous than we were at that time.

Will you ever release those early Rock demos?

Right now, I’m archiving everything in my basement at the moment. It’s like the Library of Congress of Nile Rodgers. Things that I could never imagine that I’d ever find are still there. I don’t think that I’d release that stuff as it was never quite up to snuff. We did record some great demos though and now that I come to think of it….maybe!!! We went back and listened to some old reel to reel quarter inch recordings and it sounded fantastic sonically compared to a lot of stuff around today. We couldn’t believe how good it sounded.

I recall you once said how much you loved Kiss and growing up in New York it would have been hard to miss them in the ’70’s. Were you influenced by them musically or was it more of the show and spectacle?

What we loved about Kiss is that they wrote great Rock ‘n’ Roll ditties, their anonymity was fantastic and their show was incredible. Back then our keyboard player Rob Sabino, was best friends with Ace Frehley. We used to hang out with Ace and with the rest of Kiss when they played at places like The Diplomat, Coventry and clubs like that. When they came off stage nobody knew who they were even when they became big. I could walk down the street with Ace or Gene and nobody recognised them and you know, Gene is a tall guy.

Do you remember that moment on MTV when they finally took the makeup off?

I remember that, everybody said “put it back on !!” Sorry Ace…Ha!

You didn’t fancy the face paint or platform boots though?

We loved the make up and the costumes, we really dug it, except that it wouldn’t have worked for Chic. Our band Chic was actually a mash up between Kiss and Roxy Music. We used to look at the covers of Roxy Music albums and they had beautiful girls and Playboy models and what we wanted was the anonymity of Kiss and the chicks from Roxy Music. Actually, if you look at the Chic logo and put it next to the Kiss logo they are very similar. That used to make Gene laugh and he used to say “I can’t believe that these guys used to hang about with us and the next minute they became Chic!!”.

When you first started Chic did you envision taking them down a more Rock orientated route?

If our first record deal had been our Rock record deal the thing that we know as Chic wouldn’t have existed. It would have been The Boys or something like that. We would have been a Rock band. We’d have still been tight guys and we’d still do what we do but our songs would have been different. It was the opportunity of the Disco era that gave us our chance so that the Disco movement afforded us Jazz and Rock guys the ability to infiltrate the Pop charts. When we came up with the concept for Chic we were Kiss meets Roxy Music. If you look at the likes of Kool and The Gang these were Jazz guys who thought “Hey!! We can get on the charts.” These are guys who can play and we are guys that can play. I ‘m a studio musician and have played with some of the best musicians in the world. We’ve played with Herbie Hancock, George Duke and John McLaughlin. We have something to offer and they wouldn’t play with us if we didn’t bring something to the table. We hopefully bring something a little different to the mix. When I worked with The Stray Cats I brought in Herbie Hancock to play and most people thought “What the hell is wrong with Nile!!” but he fit perfectly. Brian Setzer is such an exceptional guitarist.

As a guitarist it’s pretty hard to develop a style that’s instantly recognisable but you can tell right away when you are playing on someone else’s record from Duran Duran (The Reflex), Diana Ross (I’m Coming Out) Cyndi Lauper (Change of Heart) amongst many others. Can you explain how you get your signature sound or is that top secret stuff?

No, it’s no secret. I want to move on and pass on what I’ve learned. When I first learned the guitar I didn’t learn Funk, I was a classical guitar player and I moved from Classical to Jazz, and that’s when I met Bernard Edwards. I played Funky but it was more from a Jazz perspective. Bernard used to play guitar before he played bass and he used to constantly tell me that the key to Funk was playing 3 strings at a time and I used to play Jazz using 3 strings at a time using a technique called the George Van Eps technique so I understood that. Bernard picked up my guitar and played an A minor chord in the 5th position without moving and I heard melody and I thought, how the Hell is he doing that without moving his hand? It’s a combination of muting your left hand and playing different groups of 3 with your right hand, the inner groups and the outer groups and I thought “Holy shit!!”, you can write a whole song without moving your hand !!. I took my George Van Eps technique and superimposed it over that and the next thing you know it became Nile Rodgers.

Didn’t you once say that the most important aspect of music was silence?

Absolutely. Miles Davis actually once said, actually I hate to quote a genius such as Miles Davis so poorly so I’ll paraphrase him “It ain’t the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.” That’s just so right. When I hear someone playing one of my guitar parts I laugh and go “So that’s what you think I’m playing?”. It’s because of the notes that I don’t play is how I get my sound. It’s an implied thing and that implied rhythm to me is what Funk is all about. It’s easy to understand when you listen to Funk players but you want to listen to someone like Frank Zappa. I used to listen to the early Mothers of Invention albums and study Frank Zappa’s technique. A lot of what was going on with Frank Zappa was his rhythm and what he wasn’t playing. He was a great, great composer but he had a way of taking a triplet and leaving the second note out which gave it the rhythm. It was clever stuff.

As a unit yourself, Bernard on bass and Tony Thompson were just about the tightest rhythm section around. What was it about you that just seemed to gel so well musically?

I guess we were all guys who were frustrated Rock instrumentalists as that’s what we are, we’re instrumentalists and we wrote songs as an excuse to play. The Chic model was that a song was an excuse to get to a chorus and a chorus was an excuse to go to the breakdown. That’s all we wanted to do was show you what we could do and the three of us just all felt the same and that’s why we worked so well together.

After Chic split you focused more on production work including Like A Virgin by Madonna and Let’s Dance by David Bowie being two of your most successful pieces of work. In fact Let’s Dance is Bowie’s biggest selling album. What did you bring to these artists as a producer?

My concept at the time was to make the music as Funky and commercial as possible. It was interesting that the dynamic between myself and Madonna was very different than between myself and Bowie. Madonna knew that she had a formula, she was very clear. What I had to do with Madonna was to make her a little more organic sounding. Everything was produced and electric for the most part on her first record and don’t get me wrong, that was a great album but I knew musicians who were good enough to copy sequence stuff but you get the benefit of her interpretation. I tried to explain to Madonna that when you make a great record with great musicians like Steve Lukather you don’t just get a great song, you get their interpretation of the musicians playing the song. When you get to the end of a track you get that wonderful journey from a musician who’s a performer as well and it just adds to the music. Madonna didn’t believe it at first and we played one song and she said “OK, I get it!!” and she then did the whole of the album that way with musicians.

Did you have to vary your approach when working with someone like Madonna when she was a relatively new artist compared to the more experienced David Bowie?

I think I’m a pretty consistent person when producing stars after Dianna Ross. Dianna Ross was the biggest learning experience of my life as before that we had at least 5 or 6 gold singles and 3 or 4 multi-platinum singles and by the time we met Diana we’d already written “Le Freak” which is the only triple platinum record in Atlantic Records history. It is also the only song in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 chart to go to Number 1 three times, even Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind” did that!! By the time we met Diana we had never worked with a star before everything we’d done before were all artists that we’d created like Sister Sledge, although they existed before us, we were involved with “We Are Family”, “He’s The Greatest Dancer”, “Thinking of You” and “Lost in Music”. Pound for pound that’s the best record we’d ever written in our lives. By the time I went through the ordeal of Diana where I treated Diana exactly like I’d treated Sister Sledge in that she had to do exactly what I said and I had to figure out how to tell her this, which was really hard to do and whether you’ve met Diana or not you can imagine how hard this was!!

You’ve no doubt worked with some difficult characters over the years surely Diana Ross can’t have been more grumpy than Oscar The Grouch from Sesame Street?

Ummmmmmm!!! Yeah, except Oscar never paid my cheque !! Ha!!

While working on Bowie’s album, you worked alongside Stevie Ray Vaughan before he made his initial breakthrough. What did you make of him at that early stage in his career?

Stevie and I became instant friends. I went on to produce his last record. From the first moment we met, he picked up a guitar and I picked up a guitar and we both started playing and he went “Damn, Nile, how did you do that?” and I went “Damn, Stevie, how did you do THAT?” We both loved each other’s style and when he and I played together it was fantastic. If you listen to the record Family Style it breaks my heart and no-one knows this but that was not the record I was going to make. I was just trying to get Stevie and Jimmie Vaughan comfortable with each other so we could make the record. When I first met Stevie, as great a player as he was, he was so nervous at playing with The Isley Brothers. That was Stevie for you, he had so much humility. He’s one of these people who died too early and his best stuff was yet to come. Some people have already peaked when their time comes but with Stevie, he hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface and that’s no bullshit.

Like I said before Family Style was just demos to get the guys comfortable at playing together. We were going to form a band together with me, Stevie Ray and Jimmie Vaughan, three guitar players in one band, it would’ve been great. The three of us playing together was fantastic and three of us as people were like three brothers. At Stevie’s funeral his Mom asked me to speak for the family and Jimmie said that he felt like we were brothers and he asked me to talk. Of course I never expected Stevie to pass away so we had to wrap with what we had and that was called the record and it totally destroyed me. I love those two guys and when I think of that record I treated the Vaughan brothers the same way that I treated David Bowie. Bowie had never met any of the guys that played on the Let’s Dance album before. He was a Rock artist and everyone in the band were Black or Latino. That fact that these brilliant musicians get the chance to play with a Rock superstar meant that they attacked their instruments as they knew it was their one chance to play with an artist with such credibility that it put them into a different space. In America race is still such an important thing and most of the musicians I know started out as Rock musicians, we all came from Rock bands. Tony Thompson was with LaBelle who were a futuristic Black R’n B band. I don’t see Funk as a compromise, it’s what we had to do and we had to seize the moment and we did the best we could do.

You produced David Lee Roth’s Your Filthy Little Mouth album. How did you end up working with Roth?

David and I were like many artists I know. The first time we meet, it’s love at first sight. He had an after hours club and David likes to party and I used to like to party myself too. I met him at his after hours club and he had no idea that I knew as much about Rock as I did as he had no idea that I started out in a Rock band. We started talking about a lot of bands we loved. At the time I was really into California Surf music. I loved that scene, everyone knows The Ventures but I loved the hard core guys. David is from Pasadena and he said “Fuck, how do you know those guys?” and from that moment on we were destined to work together. The problem with the record is that both of us were going through transitions and I wasn’t as tough on David as I should have been and I know at the end of the day it’s the artist’s record and if this is the way he wants to do it I’ve got to go along with him and try and do the best I can. What I did with David when I started my own record company and distribution company I paid David to do a Rock ‘n Roll record. I said “Come on Dave, man. Do a Rock’n’ Roll record”. Van Halen at that time were kind of floundering and they didn’t know what they were going to do. I think at that time they were going with Gary Cherone who was the lead singer with Extreme. I told him that this was the time to give me a Rock record, I knew he could do it. I told him I’d give him the money to do the record. So he goes off and does a pretty damn good record and he puts it out but he didn’t understand that he was the record company. I said to him that he was the label now and I was just his distributor. He flipped out on me and got pissed off with me.

He seems to be an absolute bundle of energy and can talk non-stop. How did you manage to channel that energy into making a record?

Tell me about it !! No matter what happens we love each other. We’ve gone through ups and downs but I’m not the best friend in the world. Usually when I finish a record I’m on to the next project. When we’re making a record we do everything together, we hang out together, party together and go to restraints together but when I’m finished I’m that dedicated to the next person. It’s almost like a jilted lover but the truth of the matter is that I adore Dave as crazy as he is and he’ll probably say that I’m crazy too!!

Another one of my favourite projects is your work with the Dan Reed Network where you produced Slam and The Heat. I always saw this partnership as the perfect fit for you with a great blend of Funk and Hard Rock with a commercial edge. Is this how you originally envisioned Chic all those years back?

Dan Reed Network is the closest sounding band to what Bernard, Tony and I sounded like before we were in Chic. We had an incredible lead singer called Bobby Cotter who was in Jesus Christ Superstar and he sang like Living Color’s Corey Glover. We had an extraordinary vocalist and me on guitar but I was much more into playing lead back then. We had Bernard on bass and with him on bass you didn’t even need a lead guitar player and Tony’s drumming was phenomenal. It was great stuff, in fact we used some of the material for Chic including one called “At Last I’m Free” which was a real Hard Rock ballad in the tradition of Aerosmith or Led Zeppelin but we turned it into a smoother Chic song. We also had a song called “I Just Can’t Wait ’til Saturday” which was on Norma Jean Wright’s first album. She was the first lead singer in Chic but that was our song by our power Hard Rock band.

Dan Reed is one of the most articulate and intelligent people in the business. How was he to work with?

Dan Reed is a genius. He should be a superstar. He’s got so much talent, he’s extraordinary. He had everything. He’s the perfect example of the music business. 80% of records never recoup and Dan Reed fell into that 80%. He had a great band and Dan himself is as talented as anyone and is a fantastic guitar player as well as being a great singer. He recently played in New York but I missed him as I was out of town but I hope to catch up with him soon.

You worked with Jeff Beck on his Flash album. He has to be one of the most respected guitarists in the business and along with Jimmy Page pretty much established the blueprint for Hard Rock. As a fellow guitarist did you find it difficult telling him how you wanted something played? Did you ever have to say “No, not that way, like this??”

Jeff is one of my personal favourite guitar players of all time. I don’t know anybody that plays guitar like Jeff Beck. He’s a unique individual. He just sounds like Jeff Beck and no one else. One of my favourite periods in Rock is the Jeff Beck Group. I didn’t understand that Rod Stewart had shifted into the style of the Rod Stewart that we all know now. I was superimposing my romanticism of the Jeff Beck Group onto my work with Jeff, I really wanted that record to be like the Jeff Beck Group. Now this sounds like a Spinal Tap moment but it’s true. I wanted to make a great Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart Rock record and he walked into the studio with the soundtrack to Chariots of Fire and he played it to me and he said “Nile, I want to make a record that sounds like that!!” I said to him “Are you kidding me? I have to go to the record company and tell them that we are going to cover Chariots of Fire?” So I wrote some songs with him and did one single “People Get Ready”. That wasn’t exactly what I wanted to write but I was trying to rescue the project and get him to try something different. He was dead serious though, he wanted to make a record like Chariot’s of Fire.

You’d actually worked with both Beck and Jimmy Page on Robert Plant’s Honeydrippers EP. You co-produced this with Page and Plant. How did it feel sitting in the producer’s chair alongside these guys?

Led Zeppelin is probably my favourite Rock band of all time. I was at the O2 for the Ahmet Ertegun tribute and I hate to say it as I’m a grown man, but when they played “Kashmir” tears were streaming down my face because they got it so right. It was extraordinary. My favourite Rock’n’Roll record of all time, and I don’t mean to define something by it’s genre as my favourite records are just my favourite records regardless of the genre, but when I think of the 10 records that I can’t live without Led Zeppelin II would be one of those records, it’s Like Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew or Axis Bold As Love by Jimi Hendrix, I just can’t live without those records. I don’t know why those records mean more to me than their other work but when I listen to Axis Bold As Love or Led Zeppelin II I don’t listen as a producer but as a fan. The shit is perfect to me, they are just perfect. So now to have Robert Plant and Jimmy Page as my friends is unreal. I’ve tried so hard to get them to keep playing I’ve even used the tactic of “Why don’t you do it for Jason man?” You know, Jason Bonham is such a fantastic drummer; he was unbelievable at the O2. I’ve seen Led Zeppelin play in the old days with John and what was really great is that they treated Jason the same and focused on him as the groove guy. Also, most people don’t realise what a genius John Paul Jones is. When you get down to it Led Zeppelin, in my humble opinion, is about John Paul Jones. When I saw that show and they went off on a jam I thought “That’s right, those are the cats!!” Led Zeppelin were just great when they went off on those jams, so too were The Doors, they just didn’t get the credit for it when they went off on those free form jams, I know after Spinal Tap it is kind of a joke, but that’s what the bands used to do and it was great. That’s what my old band used to do. People would come and watch and you’d go off and jam for 30 minutes, that’s how it was done. The way I say it is that we’re like a flock of birds and we all make the same turn at the same time. When I saw Zep doing that at the O2 I thought “Fuck !!, that’s what it’s all about!!”, John Paul Jones, that’s what I love man.

Do you think they were right to only play one show?

Robert and I are fantastic friends so I tried to exercise my will. I’m going “Come on Robert, come on!!” and I won’t stop, I’m like The Terminator. I just want Robert to continue with Led Zeppelin as they’re my favourite act.

I respect the guys but they got it right. They’ve been trying to do that for so long now and they finally did it and it showed the love they had for Ahmet Ertegun, the love we ALL had for Ahmet. I did something for him in Montreux with Santana, Buddy Guy and funnily enough Robert Plant too. We all came from Atlantic Records and if it wasn’t for Ahmet then you and I probably wouldn’t be talking now.

When you worked with Page and Beck did you swap techniques with each other? That’s what I imagine happens when a few guitarists get together!!?

Not really. At that point we were doing what we do. We appreciated each other’s individuality. When I play with great guitar players I so want to be Nile Rodgers. I’m doing a big concert with John McLaughlin at the end of the year. We talk all the time and he’s a fantastic guy. When I was doing something with him and Carlos Santana I decided in one split second when I was doing the riff and doing some shredding as when you play with those guys that’s what you have to do, in one split second I thought I had to be Nile Rodgers and it’s my responsibility to be Funky and do a totally different type of solo but for one moment I just wanted to go out there and let rip. I’ve become very comfortable being who I am now. The other night when we played in Spain at the end of the show we went off into this freeform jam and I was off soloing all over the place but the crowd were great and came with us. We just took off and went to the stratosphere. My guitar tech is a Metal head and he said “Hey boss, why don’t you do that more often, people don’t know you can play like that, come on man you should be shredding every night!!” That’s just not Chic though so I don’t do that often. But I guess that’s why we do “Spacer” now as it gives me the chance to solo a bit.

Do you think the Producer gets enough credit for their work on an album?

There’s a pattern here. If a record goes wrong, it’s always my fault and if a record goes right, I had nothing to do with it. With a record like Let’s Dance rarely do I get mentioned and I’m like “Errr, David!! What about me??” When an artist says I did the wrong thing I would say “Hang on a minute, you were loving it when we were in the studio”. It seems like they don’t like the record when it didn’t sell but at the time they thought it was great.

When you were a Producer did you keep an eye on Bernard and Tony’s work? What did you make of The Distance album which they both played on with Robert Hart and Eddie Martinez? That’s a bit of a lost Melodic Rock gem.

I love those guys, we all grew up together. I lived within one block of Eddie Martinez and Bernard Edwards and were childhood friends. We were all Rock guys together and Eddie got a record deal with a group called Mother Night where he established himself as a Rock guy whereas our first record deal was an R&B deal. On our very, very first Chic recording I brought in my buddy Eddie and we do “Everybody Dance” and he and I do our homage to The Eagles where we do our guitar harmonies.

That album deserved to do so much better didn’t it?

Yeah, it’s all about timing. The Distance album came out at a time when they had already done The Power Station and things were really changing. It was moving from that type of Rock to the more Grunge stuff. It was much more cerebral, a precursor to Emo and before the Skater Punk stuff. Like I said it was a different time and it was hard to accept guys who had already made it and those who had a Duran Duran or Rod Stewart legacy and they’d also been with Robert Palmer but to come back to their Rock roots. It’s also very racial. If you’re Black and coming up people will support you like Living Color but it’s hard after you make it to sustain that. I mean look at Vernon Reid, he’s a great player and should be a huge star now. It’s like Fishbone and I absolutely LOVE Fishbone, they too should be huge now.

Living Color and Fishbone and bands like that were influenced by Mother’s Finest. Do you remember them?

Oh, yes, of course. When me and Bernard were out of New York City we backed this R&B band and we called ourselves The Big Apple Band. We toured with Mother’s Finest and everybody would come and see us play behind this singing group and that’s when we knew we had something good. Mother’s Finest, Parliament, Funkadelic and those kinds of Rock influenced bands we loved. R&B became so much more Rock influenced because of those bands.

You did some shows in the mid ’90’s that featured Slash and Steve Winwood. And they do a particularly storming version of Hendrix’s “Stone Free”. How did they end up playing with you?

Slash and I are great, great friends. He may be one of my best friends in the world. Slash’s Mum, Ola Hudson, used to design costumes for David Bowie in the old days, Ziggy Stardust and all of those things; she actually went out with David Bowie for a while. I became friends with Slash through my friendship with his Mom. She kept telling me about her son and his band called Guns ‘n’ Roses and she told me she thought he was going to get a record deal and I said “Aww c’mon, every Mom says that about her son!!” . She told me how great they were. Anyway we met sometime later and he said how his Mom used to talk about me all the time and he said how much he loved Chic and Funk. My relationship with Slash is very much like that with Dan Reed. Dan would tell me how he used to ride on a tractor ploughing the fields listening to “Le Freak” and singing the guitar riff. He couldn’t believe how an R&B band would have a song with a guitar riff in it as the hook. He said it was almost like a guitar riff like “Sunshine of Your Love” or something. That was our way of fusing these different styles into a new type of Funk. Slash and I became very good friends and I just spoke with him last week. I actually just missed his birthday which was two days ago, oops, sorry Slash !! He’s doing a new record and I’m hopefully going to play on it. He called me the other day and told me he had the perfect song for me. If I don’t get to play on this one I’ll play on the next one. It will happen sometime as we’re always in each other’s lives. He’s played with Chic 7 or 8 times with us now. He played with us at the Hollywood Bowl a while back. We’re actually playing there soon and everyone in the band has been asking if Slash is going to come down and play. His wife loves Chic and his son is a big Chic fan too so hopefully he’ll come down to play.

I also came across some footage of you performing “Chain of Fools” with Foreigner’s Lou Gramm. What do you remember about that performance?

I used to have a TV show on VH1 where I’d have a different style of music every night so my band, which ended up being the band for the Vaughan Brothers, was such a versatile band that we could play every style so we’d have a Jazz night, a Rock night, a Folk night, a Soul night and other styles on each night. Lou played on the Rock format and he was fantastic. We also had Stewart Copeland, Herbie Hancock, Sinead O’Connor. The CEO of the network pulled me in for a meeting and he fired me !! He said “Nile, I want you to know that you’ve single handedly bankrupted this network. Every artist you’ve got, you flew in !!” I did as well, I flew them in from all over the world as I wanted the best show possible and I wanted to show people the connection between different types of music and that the DNA that ties different genres together is actually a very slender strand and when it broke off and became the Blues, Rock or Jazz or what have you, it was all basically the roots of Rock ‘n’ Roll so the difference between say Metallica, Jethro Tull, Buddy Guy or Hendrix is not some insanely huge chasm, it’s actually quite a narrow chasm, more like a ditch !! Like my band, Chic, you heard us play tonight, we’re an R&B dance band but we go off on journeys and do what we want to do. We have structure and form but the music lives and breathes and changes like a Rock band. The last thing I’d do is record my music and then go out on stage and sync to it. I don’t just want to do a show, I want to play it. You get the odd bum note, which I did tonight but it’s real. I also had to transpose my part in “Good Times” by an octave so I could hit the notes tonight !!

That combination got me thinking about another potential collaboration for you. What about Glenn Hughes, Stevie Salas and Cindy Blackman from Lenny Kravitz’s band now THAT would have Funk and Rock to perfection?

That would be a GREAT band. I’ve worked with Cindy Blackman but not with Stevie Salas or Glenn Hughes yet but I certainly could in the future. If I didn’t adore my drummer Ralf Rolles so much I’d work with Cindy. Not only is Ralph an incredible player but he keeps us all laughing. I can’t have dinner around Ralph otherwise I’d die !! Look at the other drummers I’ve been with in my life, Tony Thompson, Omar Hakim and Ralph. These are great guys.

Ralph has a great voice too.

He does. He just said “Niles, I want to sing “Let’s Dance” tonight” I thought he was crazy. I didn’t hire him to sing, I hired him to play the drums but he insisted, it wasn’t planned but he sounded great.

You played at Live Aid with the Thompson Twins, Madonna and a pretty wild Steve Stevens. That whole event must be just about the most memorable single musical event I’ve ever known. What were your memories of that day?

Steve Stevens, what a fantastic guitarist he is. That day I have two powerful memories. The first memory is the atmosphere backstage was almost surreal because they were the biggest stars in the business and they were people I grew up idolising and now they were my peers and my friends. I was sitting down talking to these people telling them how their work has influenced me and they’re telling ME how I’ve influenced them!! Now that’s what I call the topsy turvy world of Rock ‘n’ Roll and it’s the things that just don’t make sense to me. I remember being on the bus and Crosby Stills Nash and Young were on there and they were saying how much they liked my music and I remember thinking “Crosby Stills and Nash are talking to ME? They like MY music?” It was incredible.

The thing that really stands out is Madonna’s graciousness to sing background vocals for the Thompson Twins, I mean Madonna singing backgrounds with the Thompson Twins?? It blew me away. That’s the day that Madonna went from being the Madonna she was to the Madonna that we know today. Everyone has talked about Queen’s performance saying that it was the greatest Rock’n’Roll performance of all time. I love Queen and have huge respect for them. I even worked on a Freddie Mercury record and I could not believe how much of a genius he was. The Rock ‘n’ Roll press wrote about Queen, Bowie and Phil Collins flying across the ocean and Tony Thompson playing with Led Zeppelin. What happened with Madonna that changed everything was that she was having a spread coming out in Playboy magazine and she couldn’t stop it. Some guy yelled out “take it off, baby!!” which was strange as Live Aid was so spiritual and about relief for Africa. This guy shouts this out and Madonna replies by shouting “I ain’t taking off shit!!” The whole crowd just erupted and from that moment on she became so famous. The whole world saw that, so millions of people saw Madonna shouting that. That one line was her performance and after that she had the whole crowd. This was a girl that a year and a half before couldn’t pay her rent and I was giving her a sofa to put in her apartment as she couldn’t afford furniture. From that moment on at Live Aid she changed and she was bigger than Elizabeth Taylor and became a super, super star and she became a personality, not just a singer.

What did you make of Tony sitting in John Bonham’s stool for the Led Zeppelin performance in America?

That was amazing for me. Consider this, I’m just a guy and all of these superstars were telling me how much they liked my music. Then there’s Tony Thompson, who is just a guy too, up there on stage playing with Led Zeppelin, a band who I consider to be the greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll band of all time. It was absolutely fantastic. We were just a couple of regular guys who had these fantastic opportunities.

I understand that they rehearsed together for a while after this. How close were Led Zeppelin to reforming with Tony on the drums?

That’s right, but Tony was having a real tough time, which was a shame as we had grown apart so I didn’t realise all of the tough stuff that had gone on in his life. Soon after that he had a bad accident that just stopped the whole project but he was also still suffering from something that had happened earlier. So he wasn’t the great, great Tony Thompson that we know or loved but if he’d had more time he would have come back, I had faith. Unfortunately, the Zeppelin thing wasn’t to be.

I was working on a project with Eric Clapton and I called up Tony and Bernard to play and people often ask why I didn’t use Tony when I reformed Chic and it was because when we did the record with Eric Clapton, Tony couldn’t play the way he used to be able to play because of the accident and he was still getting it together. The accident was really bad and he nearly died and it did affect his performances.

Bernard once said that “This music is bigger than both of us”. Did you take this as the inspiration to keep Bernard’s musical legacy alive?

That’s right, he said that on the last night of his life. Not that, that wound up fuelling me after I’d internalised it. A year after we played there with Bernard, the same Japanese promoter called me to do a tribute to Bernard. I went back into Budokan and there’s a statue and a plaque of Bernard Edwards and I thought “Wow!!, this is so respectful and so extraordinary.” I asked them what they wanted me to play as I wasn’t playing any Chic music then and they said I should play my music. I had to retool my brain to think of it as my music. Of course it was “ours ” because Bernard and I did it together but I couldn’t play it thinking of it like that. It was hard for me, but once I internalised it as my music then I could go out and play it as tribute to Bernard. Bernard and I were so close so it’s great to be able to go out and play these songs again. Everything I play I either wrote or produced so I never need to go out on stage and play something that I was not involved in writing or producing. Chic is the entity that I’ve created to express myself. I’m not Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page or Lenny Kravitz, I’m not some pretty boy that the girls all scream for I’m just a guy who writes music. Chic is what I need to perform my compositions.

Outside of music you’ve set up the We Are Family Foundation. What are the aims of the Foundation?

We almost say it, “We Are Family”. We are an anti-bias organisation and believe that we are all connected and are all one big family. What I was saying before about music where a strand mutates and becomes Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Pop, it’s not that big a mutation. When you think of the human race, there is only one human race. We are all Homo Sapiens. And science says that Eskimos are the same as me and we’re the same as you. There may be physical characteristics that are different but our differences should be celebrated as we’re more alike than we are unalike.

How does the organisation work? Does it have an educational function or does it give grants to worthy causes?

We do everything. We provide funding for a lot of programmes. We are an educational organisation. We are a media creation organisation who have done films, music videos and public service announcements. We just don’t stop and it’s like an artist and people who care about helping others, even as far as if a kid wants to help fight malaria in his village we’ll fund them and help them hook up with a sponsor.

That’s a great video that you did with all the children’s characters from the Muppets, Spongebob Squarepants, Bear in the Big Blue House, my kids loved it. The only thing missing was Animal on the drums !!

Yeah, that’s a great video, I’m glad they enjoyed it. It’s a good way to help kids learn, to make it fun and interesting too.

After this run of Chic dates which also sees you over in Holland, Spain and Ireland what plans do you have for the coming months?

I’m doing 3 Broadway shows one that’s a Harlem Renaissance called Double Time and each number takes place in 1929 then shifts to current time and goes back and forth and it’s about Leonard Harper, the only successful Black impresario to bring a Harlem Revue to Broadway and it was called Hot Chocolates and in that one show he had Louis Armstrong, Cav Calloway and Fats Waller, people who became superstars. The guy who produced this died in obscurity but he invented the concession stand selling hot food in theatres that we all know today.

One other show is called Family Fortune loosely based on the Firestone family. When I was a kid at 16, I was living on the streets and this lady called Lucinda found me on the streets and took me home and she was the heir to the Firestone tire fortune. She let me live in her fancy Park Avenue apartment while I got it together. She is writing a show based on her family and I’m co-writing it with her.

The third show is called Praise. In America we have some great Gospel acts that are just insanely talented and I went to see some of their shows and I thought the world needs to see these guys. It was like when I first heard Stevie Ray Vaughan, I wanted everyone else to hear this talent so I put him on David Bowie’s album. So in this case I’m putting a show together and I want people to see their talent and this is going to open in Vegas. So there’s plenty to keep me busy in the coming months!!

For more information on Nile Rodgers visit

For further information about the We Are Family Foundation see


  • Mick Burgess

    Mick is a reviewer and photographer here at Metal Express Radio, based in the North-East of England. He first fell in love with music after hearing Jeff Wayne's spectacular The War of the Worlds in the cold winter of 1978. Then in the summer of '79 he discovered a copy of Kiss Alive II amongst his sister’s record collection, which literally blew him away! He then quickly found Van Halen I and Rainbow's Down To Earth, and he was well on the way to being rescued from Top 40 radio hell!   Over the ensuing years, he's enjoyed the Classic Rock music of Rush, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple; the AOR of Journey and Foreigner; the Pomp of Styx and Kansas; the Progressive Metal of Dream Theater, Queensrÿche, and Symphony X; the Goth Metal of Nightwish, Within Temptation, and Epica, and a whole host of other great bands that are too numerous to mention. When he's not listening to music, he watches Sunderland lose more football (soccer) matches than they win, and occasionally, if he has to, he goes to work as a property lawyer.

    View all posts

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.