I originally thought I’d stay away from writing about black American musicians for Black History Month; as with athletes, it was too predictable. But, when black Americans are the driving force behind American music, with artist after artist excelling, and with music being such a prevalent part of my life – I just can’t avoid it. I asked myself who might be categorized as THE best. Quincy Jones has the most Grammy nominations and wins out of any performer; Jay Z, Dr. Dre, and Sean Combs are the richest black artists; Michael Jackson sold the most albums out of any black artist (81 million); and James Brown produced the most studio albums (71). These are all well-known artists, even in white households, so they don’t fit with my intention of sharing the stories of amazing black Americans that probably aren’t universally known names.
Then it hit me – Nile Rodgers, producer, composer, guitarist, and the leader for my favorite disco band, CHIC. He has written, produced, and performed on records that have cumulatively sold more than 500 million albums and 75 million singles. He has written for artists such as Madonna, David Bowie, George Michael, and REM. His Fender Stratocaster was nicknamed “The Hitmaker” because Rodgers helped write over $2 billion worth of music.
Nile Rodgers was born in 1952 on the Lower East Side of New York City. His mother had him when she was 14 years old, having become pregnant the first time she had sex. His father – an Afro-Cuban beats musician – was not really a part of his life. When Rodgers was 7, his mother married a man who introduced them to Eartha Kitt, Richard Pryor, Thelonious Monk, and Lenny Bruce. His mom and step-dad were both heroin addicts, and Rodgers was addicted by the time he was 13 years old. He experienced a lot of varying traumatic events throughout his childhood – he talked his father down from trying to jump off a 4-story building, he witnessed sexual abuse at the convalescent home he was sent to for acute asthma, and he was witness to his mother’s recoveries from three horrific “back alley” abortions.
He began studying music as a child, playing the flute and clarinet. Then he picked up a guitar at age 16. His music career started when he became a session musician with the traveling Sesame Street band. That’s where he met Bernard Edwards in 1970, and together they formed The Big Apple Band. That band dissolved, and they started the funk rock band The Boys, playing shows along the East Coast. They had labels interested in signing them, but no one would follow through because of worry around promoting a black rock band.
In 1977, CHIC was born – disco infused with funk, jazz, and soul with European influences. Their first hit was “Dance, Dance, Dance,” which featured Luther Vandross on back-up vocals.
Despite their rise to fame happening just as the Disco Sucks movement started, several of their songs were Billboard-topping hits. My personal favorites are “Everybody Dance” and “I Want Your Love.” Their most recognizable songs are “Le Freak” (which was Atlantic Records’ only triple platinum selling single at the time) and “Good Times.” After being denied entry to the infamous Studio 54, Rodgers and Edwards wrote a song that went “Aaaah, Fuck off!” and this became the more radio-friendly “freak out!” heard in “Le Freak.” The bass line of “Good Times” has been argued to be one of the best ever recorded and has been sampled in almost 200 songs. Sugarhill Gang used it first in “Rapper’s Delight,” and it has been heard in songs by Queen, Beastie Boys, Grandmaster Flash, Will Smith, Digital Underground, De La Soul, Shakira, and so many more.
Atlantic invited Edwards and Rodgers to become producers, starting with Sister Sledge. Rodgers became highly sought after. Some of the albums he worked on include Diana Ross’ Diana, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, INXS’ Original Sin, Madonna’ Like a Virgin, Duran Duran’s Notorious, and The B-52s’ Cosmic Thing.
In 1984, Rodgers nearly died one night while partying with Robert Downey Jr. He woke up in a hospital after his heart had stopped 8 times. He didn’t become sober, though, until 1994, when a friend showed him a video of him performing while high.
Rodgers has seemingly been working non-stop ever since the 1980s, releasing solo albums, reforming a version of CHIC, arranging film scores, and working with a multitude of artists.
In 2013, his distinctive sounds became popular once more when he helped create the Daft Punk album Random Access Memories, co-writing and playing guitar on three tracks. In 2014, for his work on that album, Rodgers won three Grammys: Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, Record of the Year, and Album of the Year. He performed at the Grammy Awards with Daft Punk, Pharrell Williams, and Stevie Wonder – and it was one of the best Grammy performances of all time.
In 2001, less than two weeks after the attacks on 9/11, Rodgers brought together more than 200 musicians and celebrities to re-record “We Are Family” at Avatar Studios in New York (previously The Power Station, where Sister Sledge’s original “We Are Family” was recorded in 1978), and in Los Angeles at The Record Plant. The music video was directed by Spike Lee. This was followed by the documentary “The Making and Meaning of We Are Family” which premiered at Sundance in 2002. Then, more than 100 children’s television characters came together to re-record their version of “We Are Family.” This was the first time that competitive companies gave their characters to participate in music video together. The video first aired on the 6-month anniversary of 9/11, on the Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and PBS. (Beautifully appropriate, considering Rodgers’ start with Sesame Street.) Rodgers founded the We Are Family Foundation, to create and support programs that inspire and educate people about mutual respect, understanding, and appreciation of cultural diversity while striving to solve global problems.
In 2010, Rodgers was diagnosed with an aggressive type of prostate cancer, but was clear by 2013. In 2017, he had a growth on his kidney that showed two types of cancer. He had it surgically removed, and is expected to fully recover. He wrote a blog post about his experience.
Rodgers has received many prestigious awards, and several humanitarian awards for his foundation’s work. In 2013, Rodgers and Edwards were nominated to the Songwriters Hall of Fame. The following year, Rolling Stone named Rodgers one of the 50 Most Important People in EDM, and “Le Freak” was inducted into The Grammy Hall of Fame. In 2016, Rodgers and Edwards were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And in 2017, Rodgers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with an award for Musical Excellence.
The Fender Custom Shop made a limited edition recreation of Rodgers’ Hitmaker Stratocaster guitar.
Note: Props to the amazing show Unsung, which exposed me to the awesomeness of Rodgers last summer in their episode devoted to Rodgers and CHIC, recorded in 2014. If you haven’t watched that TV show, I highly recommend it.