Nile Rodgers & Bernard Edwards: Beyond The Hit-Maker.
To say that accomplished musicians and production duo Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards were influential in shaping the sound of popular music would be an understatement. Through their work beginning with the creation of RNB/Funk band Chic and the release of their debut album, to their production work for other artists, the pair would define the music of an era while also laying the groundwork for the sound of contemporary music. Nile and Bernard’s collaborations with other artists would go beyond just a session hire, it would require total immersion into the world of these artists as the duo would strive to push their artistic development. Nile elaborates, “So in my position, producers are really responsible for the food, the atmosphere, the vibe. You have to be able to be part psychologist, and in my case, I’m an arranger, so I do the arrangements, the orchestration. And I always want to play on your record. I don’t like the record that much if I’m not playing on it. That’s not quite true, but almost completely true (laughs). And I help you conceive it. I help you come up with the vision for what it is. Sometimes artists don’t realize that the record you’re putting out now is your next record. It’s not your last record or your first record, it’s your current record that’s going to happen. The day we finish it is not the day the record’s coming out, at least in the world I came up in. The day we finish it, it may not come out for months, so you better make sure you’re ahead of the curve. So my job is always this — and it doesn’t matter who it is — I become a fan, I study them, and I make their next record. I become what I think is the next logical step. In order for you to get in that chair you had to walk in and sit down. If you hire me, I’m trying to do the thing that you’re going to do after you get up and leave that chair. So that’s my job. I have to figure out what you’re going to. That’s what I call a producer.”
Nile and Bernard would be immersed in music from an early age, Rodgers discussed how elementary years would help nurture and shape his musical abilities, “When I was a kid, America had nationalised education programmes. My mom had me at 13 years old but it didn’t make any difference because whatever school I was in from whatever neighbourhood I moved around we were all at the same level. So the intellectual standards were incredibly high and we had music, we had art, we had theatre, we had all of that stuff. It doesn’t make any difference whether you were good at it or not — you were exposed to it. And if you gravitated towards one subject, you could pursue that. I happened to gravitate towards music, so every time I checked into a new school — my mom at 13 didn’t provide a stable home, I was going, as we say in America from pillar to post — I would register with the band and usually they would assign me an instrument where the position was already filled, so by the time I was 11 I knew how every instrument in the symphony orchestra functioned. I knew the written range so I became an arranger.”
Edwards similarly recollected on his exposure to music through school and the influences that shaped his sound, “I took saxophone at school. They started me in the Glee Club on recorder. Then I switched to the saxophone, but I hated it, it was like something I had to do in school. I was always attracted to the Otis Redding band, Sam & Dave, James Brown. James Brown had a bass player named Bernard, and that fascinated me. For some strange reason, I made the association as a kid. I always dug seeing a guy standing there with an instrument and singing. When I was 13, I sold my saxophone and bought a bass.”
After playing a host of instruments, Nile would eventually take up the guitar, learning to play The Beatles 1967 track, A Day In The Life, which he credited as an event that would inspire him to pursue a career in music. Rodgers would be immersed in jazz early on, forming the basis of his musical training, as he notes, “My training is all classical and very heavy jazz. My teacher learned with Wes Montgomery. In jazz, you can play whole solos all in chords with pretty harmonic movement, just as a piano player would. You get that from McCoy Tyner, you hear that there. I learned a complete harmonic style.”
Nile would meet Bernard in New York when he was standing in as a last minute substitute for trumpeter, Hank Bartholomew’s band, Edwards was playing bass in the group. The pair’s initial interaction via the phone did not go smoothly as Rodgers elaborated, “Bernard was not impressed with my avant-garde classical-jazz-rock-fusion ideas and told me in no uncertain terms to lose his number. But once we started playing together that night, well, it was like we each telepathically knew what the other was thinking.” It was clear that there was chemistry between the two musicians as evident from their seamless interplay during live performances. Nile and Bernard would learn skills from each other during these jam sessions with each contributing attributes of their own playing style as Rodgers noted, “Bernard taught me about the art of simplicity.”
After jamming together for a number of years in a semi-successful group, New York City and Big Apple Band, Nile and Bernard would utilise their exceptional and varied musical skill to form an RNB collective that would deviate from the mainstream, both in sound and image. Chic were not just another male-dominated RNB group in the vain of The Commodores or an eccentric funk collective, reminiscent of Parliament Funkadelic. The group was comprised of Rodgers on guitar, Edwards on bass, Tony Thompson on drums, Norma Jean Wright and Luci Martin on lead vocals and a host of background vocalists, including Alfa Anderson and Luther Vandross. Bernard recollected on when the idea for Chic developed, “The whole idea for Chic was developed in England. When Nile and I were working in New York City (the group) in 74–75, we went to England and did some concerts. There was one at Hammersmith Odeon. People came to see us and said we weren’t the typical Disco Radio Band. We’re considered good players, a lot of people now appreciate that.”
The group’s image was both stylish and elegant with the women dressed in elegant attire while Nile and Bernard in formal and distinguished suits. Chic’s image was effortlessly cool, matching and also somewhat contrasting the hedonistic content of their lyrics. Nile discussed the conceptualisation of the group’s image, “We had one good suit each and our demo tape in our pocket. We would tour the happy hour bars where we could get free hors d’oeuvres and watch the people there in their smart suits and dresses who’d just got off work. And we thought, what if these people had a band? There was no-one that represented their culture. I knew that most black groups looked stupid. Stupid clown suits and the rest. But I’d seen Roxy Music in England and I knew I wanted a band with style.” Bernard similarly recounted, “We wanted to have the style of Duke Ellington and the power of Kiss. We had a female classical string section and we told ’em, ‘We’re gonna look like we just got off the cover of Vogue’. At first they said, ‘You’re just chauvinists telling us what to wear’. But we only said they had to wear it onstage. Man, after two weeks you couldn’t get ’em out of the clothes. We used to pull into these hick towns and, man, those farm boys used to get down off their tractors and just goggle at these black women in their beautiful sexy dresses.”
There would be a significant female presence in the group’s image and sound with the prominent use of Wright and Anderson on lead and background vocals. Edwards discussed how the inclusion of the girls in the group would bring a unique element to Chic, “You’ll know that the girls aren’t the sole vocalists — I sing on some tracks, but I always thought that to present that all-male show, like the Commodores, is really lacking something. So the girls are looking great, singing great and it all helps tone down the, y’know, black funky impression that a lot of bands put over.”
The band would continue to grow and evolve; featuring an array of supremely talented musicians and singers as the duo would begin to incorporate stings as a significant aspect to their compositions. It can’t be under-stated just how instrumental their utilisation would be in creating the vibrant and rich sounds that defined Chic. As evident on tracks like Funny Bone, the strings would not only compliment the composition but would also play an integral part. This was just another aspect of the Chic sound that would differ from other contemporary groups. Nile elaborates, “We didn’t think of ourselves as a disco band. We made music that was played in discos, but if you listen to a Chic album, we were a more jazzy, R&B band….“It was funk but it wasn’t Parliament. It was based on European modal melodies. It was sophisto-funk.”
Both Nile and Bernard had a clear passion for jazz with each referring to themselves firstly as jazz musicians and while Chic was primarily an RNB/funk band, there were elements of the genre throughout the group’s discography. Instrumental tracks like Tavern On The Green allowed the duo to demonstrate their love and knowledge of jazz playing, with Rodgers exceptional guitar riffs being a focal point. Nile elaborated on his love for the genre, “I come from a jazz background. I started out studying classical music, but if I could only do one style of music and could never listen to or play anything else — maybe I’d have to say funk, but I would say probably jazz because it feels the most rewarding to me because of harmonic complexity and things like that.”
In a 1980 interview, Bernard would state that the sound of Chic was not necessarily about the pair showing off their masterful technique as musicians, “Let me tell you, both Nile and I are jazz musicians and both have studied classical music too. I spent years with all this heavy stuff, until things clear and you realise that a lot of what you’re doing is just the same old ego-tripping. The two of us, with our drummer Tony Thompson — he used to be Labelle’s drummer — could walk into a studio and sweat off some stuff that could floor these so-called serious music guys. But for what? Look, have whatever in your collection at home, but everybody needs a little Friday night. And really that is Chic. No big deal. Y’know, smile, dance, get crazy…we sure do while we’re making it, because music is our leeezshure, it’s my fun.”
While Nile and Bernard would record a wealth of musically exceptional and commercially accessible material, Chic would also be an outlet for the duo to record some of the heavier jazz-inspired material that they were fond of. Tracks like the amazing instrumental, Savoir Faire contrasted with the commercial RNB tracks like Le Freak, giving the opportunity for Nile to showcase his exceptional talent beyond funk. Nile recollects, “It’s very difficult to play on a song like ‘Savoir Faire’. It took me a week to figure it out. Once I did, I could record it in one take. Bernard said, “Instead of writing lyrics, why don’t you play, and think of being suave and sophisiticated, think like you live in Monte Carlo, and play it on the guitar.” One night Bernard sang some lines to me, the first measures, and then I understood what he was talking about.”
Nile would go on to say in a 1979 interview that he preferred comping as opposed to playing jazz solos and noted that instrumentals were not the way to reach a mass appeal that the duo were aiming for with Chic, “If a few people can enjoy ‘Savoir Faire’, that’s great, but we want to reach lots of people. As big as he was, Sam Cooke, if he were alive today, could never think of competing with the Stones, or Foreigner, or Kiss. We want to compete with them.”
Bernard’s subtle but captivating method of bass playing was largely a product of his experience playing in small piece bands and this would carry over to his work on Chic, as he notes, “My style of playing evolved because I was never involved in a band that had more than three pieces; bass, guitar and drums. I had to have a very heavy bottom, and fill up all the holes…I knew music, so it wasn’t just making noise. I knew the changes, I understand the melodies. A lot of time the bass carries the melody. But I liked my job, I like being on the bottom. A lot of guys do a lot of playing, but it has nothing to do with the story of the song, the emotion of the song.”
Similarly, Rodgers had adopted his own unique playing style that would become synonymous with both the Chic sound and his later collaborations. His playing style would be a synthesis of both jazz and funk, sounding distinctively “Nile’ while also effortlessly tight and loose at the same time. Nile elaborated on his unique sound, “Guitar players, usually when they know a chord, that’s the chord. They know the E chord, they hold the E chord. Maybe they know another way of playing it, but that’s it. And whenever they play a song it’s just the same thing over and over again, and that’s what they call playing a song. When I play a song I’m moving the chords all around and inverting it and voice leading and all this stuff. And when Bernard did that, just playing the song, it sounded more interesting. I noticed he was jumping around the strings — he would hold the position but then move all across the fingerboard (gesturing with right hand). I was, “Damn, if you can do that with one position, what would I be able to do? I can go anywhere up and down the neck and pick out random notes and just play the extensions, never touch the root or the fifth. What would I be able to do?” So I moved into the bathroom for about four or five days. The guy who was on the road with me had about a million girls coming in and out, so I’d just stay in the bathroom and practice. And then about a week later I emerged as the guy that I am now, which is the funk guy who can play a bunch of chords and melodies at the same time.”
Nile would go on to discuss the importance of developing his own sound and playing style, “One thing about what I do is that while I’m playing the song, I’m also embellishing it — I’m playing it differently, all the time, but it still sounds like the song. That’s because when I learned to play, every band had a style, and you worked hard to sound like yourself. Even if was I jamming with Parliament — and they had amazing guitar players — I wanted to stand out. You wanna be able to be heard amongst the chorus of people. You had to have a style that added but didn’t take away, and didn’t distract or detract from the core vibe. I had to figure out a way to sound original so that no matter what record I’m playing on, people are like, “Oh, that’s Nile playing.”
Nile would also incorporate the concept of DHM (Deep Hidden Meaning) into his writing process as early as Chic and would continue to use the method throughout all of his songwriting and collaborations. He elaborates on the term, “We were bards who self-imposed a deceptive masquerade architecture on our lyrics. I’m not trying to make more of our songs than they were. They simply were more than most realized. We were proud and welcomed the challenge, but envisioned a future that we knew would come one day.” Beyond the surface, there would always be a DHM to the lyrics, some subtler than others but always deliberate. As Nile further notes, “We wrote for the masses, but worked tirelessly to make sure there was a deeper kernel that would appeal to the savvier listener.”
With a wealth of experience playing together for a number of years, Nile and Bernard would take this partnership into a studio to record Chic’s debut album in 1977. Nile discussed his admiration for Bernard’s playing style and how this lead to an easy and organic recording process, “It’s (the result of) a whole lot of time playing together and mutual respect for the other person’s musical ability. Bernard’s a very musical guy, very solid in his grooves and I like his choice of notes. He thinks in a very lyrical way, not like those power thump-y guys. He plays old-fashioned bass, where they keep the groove but make it interesting.”
Bernard would similarly recollect in a 1991 interview with Bass Player, “If you hear Mick and Keith play together, it always sounds like the Stones. When me and Nile play together, we sound like Chic. We can play individually and you can’t find it but as soon as we start playing together, that’s my reaction to him and vice versa. The two of us I consider a rhythm section, even without drums, because we keep so much rhythm going on.”
The genesis of a Chic composition would usually begin with a rhythm section developed by Rodgers to which Edwards would build on with a corresponding bass line. Nile elaborated, “Well, it’s a little bit of a process, but Chic records always start with the rhythm section and it always has a certain little vibe to it. So usually my guitar tracks are multiple tracks, usually a minimum of two but sometimes it can be three or four.” Bernard follows, “My main role is to keep the bottom there, keep the groove solid and steady. I play a lot on the E and A strings and I play down in the first five frets mainly to keep a really fat, chunky sound. I usually start more basic — I don’t like to get too note-y and it’s usually a reaction to some rhythm that Nile’s playing. He’ll start playing a chord and I’ll pick up on it and put notes to the rhythm. A lot of times there’s no melody so I have total freedom as to what I’m going to play — just knowing whether it’s a major or minor mode and then I can go with it. I’ll come up with a line and maybe we’ll write around that line.”
With years of experience playing together, this transition into the studio to record Chic’s first album would be seamless, as Nile notes, “Bernard and I were responsible for the melodic, the harmonic and the bass part. The drummers we figured would learn the grooves. We thought about everything as a duo, because if Bernard and I showed up, we got it covered. We’ve got the songs covered, the licks covered, all that stuff. And that’s basically why we were so tight.”
The record label, however, were not confident that the pair were capable of producing an album themselves, but Nile and Bernard would not part with creative control as Edwards elaborated, “The production company that signed us didn’t think we were capable of producing an album. But me and Nile fought them all the way. We made them let us do it by ourselves. If we hadn’t, I don’t think it would have been a success.”
The ecstatic anthem, Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) would be the first single released from their debut album in 1977. Despite the fact that the song would become a huge success, it was a difficult and arduous road to get the song released. As Bernard recollected, “With the master. That was it for me and Nile. We sold all of our musical instruments, all our equipment, clothes, anything we had, we sold for that production. And from February to September of ’77, we couldn’t sell that record. No one wanted it. They thought it was silly. “Yowsah Yowsah” to them was idiotic. The name ‘Chic’ for a black group? If Jerry Greenberg hadn’t taken a personal interest in it, we may never have gotten a record deal. It was taken into Atlantic twice. The third time they took it to Jerry Greenberg.”
The track would be an adequate representation of the unadulterated fun and joy that came with the band’s output. The duo reflected on this in a 1979 interview, “The first reaction we get from people generally is that our music cheers them up — it’s happy music. There’s something positive in there that makes people want to dance, laugh and just generally feel good. Just a natural exuberance in the music.” Edwards was not initially fond of the track, having reservations with the chant and also the distinct bass line that carries the groove on the classic track, Everybody Dance. Nile would convince him, however, to keep the bass line demonstrating that there was a shared trust between the two collaborators. Bernard elaborated, “I don’t use a pick, or more than one finger. That’s my style. That’s what I do when I sit at home playing, because it’s a lot of notes and it keeps the rhythm going, which you tend to do when you’re by yourself. Sometimes I feel I’ve done too much. Like the bass part at the beginning of ‘Everybody Dance’. Nile made me play that. I was ashamed of it, I thought it was too much. I was gonna redo it. That was the first take. We drank 45 beers that night, we were plastered. It was guitar, bass and drums (Tony Thompson), that’s how we always cut. The next morning, I hated it. But Nile said, “Keep it.”
Despite the fact that singles such as Everybody Dance, Le Freak and Dance, Dance, Dance would go on to become extremely successful, the duo were constantly in conflict with the record label, Atlantic, as they were not as confident in the group’s forthcoming success. Bernard elaborated, “When we first released that record everybody said the same thing. The disc jockeys said, “Ah, you blew it, you got a flop on your hands. The record company was completely disappointed, they said, “Oh no, this is what we been waiting for all this time?” And then all of a sudden we sold half-a-million records in three days and they went, “Oh my God!” We try to make it grow until it explodes and you can’t stand it anymore.”
By the beginning of 1979, Rodgers and Edwards had attained significant commercial success with the release of C’est Chic the previous year. Most notably, the iconic single Le Freak would top the disco charts for seven weeks and also sell in excess of over seven million copies, attaining platinum status. This commercial performance was unprecedented for record label Atlantic, with Le Freak becoming their highest selling single in the history of the label. The pair had demonstrated with just two albums their ability to create extremely successful hits as Nile recollected, “We couldn’t do a thing wrong. We’d just go in the studio and jam… Wham! Hit record! Wham! Gold disc! We wrote 300 tunes in two years, most of ’em hits. And in the end it became meaningless. I remember the day vividly, another gold disc came into the office and we both said, ‘Damn, we don’t ever wanna see another of those f — ers’.”
It’s vital to note how the commercial success of the band, and in particular the work of producing duo Rodgers and Edwards, would lead to the expansion of the pair into composing and creating for other artists, outside of Chic. Rodgers recalls, “While I was busy celebrating my success, some heads up record companies started noticing that Chic had captured the magic of Studio 54 in our music, and they thought they wanted to bottle it. One was Jerry Greenburg, the president of Atlantic records.” While the pair had previously produced and composed for Chic singer Norma Jean’s self-titled album in 1978, writing and producing the entire album, Greenburg had intentions for the team to work with high profile artists. Nile elaborates, “The label was really pressuring us at that time to produce either Bette Midler or the Rolling Stones, then the company’s two biggest acts. But we felt if we did produce the Stones and they got a big record out of it, that was just going to be just another thing that the Stones did; it would be nothing special to us. Our production style was to play the song in our style and then have the artists copy us. But you know that wouldn’t work for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. So we said, “Can you give us someone unknown?” We thought, “If we can take them to the top, then they’d believe in us. We would have a solid foundation for ourselves upon which we could build, like our own Motown within the company.” Rodgers would rather ambitiously use this opportunity to prove the capability of the duo in producing commercial success for lesser-known artists. He elaborates, “We sat down with the [heads of the company], in this meeting, taking down dictation on a legal pad! Tried to act like we were professionals! Atlantic said, “We’ve got these girls. We can’t seem to get a hit with them but we really like them.”
It was through this discussion that Nile and Bernard would be offered to produce for RNB group, Sister Sledge. As per the name, the group was comprised of siblings, Debbie, Joni, Kim and Kathy Sledge. At the time, the group had released two albums and while they had achieved popularity in Europe, there was a mild commercial success. Joni Sledge notes how the group had come to an impasse at this time, conflicted as to whether to continue in the music industry, “We’d had a couple of hits in 1974, 1975, we’d been to Germany and made an album with the disco act Silver Convention, but by the time we met Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic, the four of us had been in the music business for eight years and we were frustrated. We were saying: “Well, maybe we should go to college and just become lawyers or something other than music, because it really is tough.” My sister Kim actually started law school.” In a meeting with the head of Atlantic, the sisters were informed of the new partnership. Joni discussed her outlook at the beginning of the collaboration, “So our expectations when we met Chic were not, “Wow, we’re going to work with them and become big stars”; it was more, “We’ll see what happens.” We’d heard the album they’d produced for Norma Jean and thought it was nice, so we figured making our own album would be interesting.” Not all sisters shared the same sentiment, however; Kathy Sledge discussed being somewhat concerned about parting with creative authority on the groups material, “While we weren’t a household name in America, we had records that were successful in other countries; we even won the Tokyo Music Festival. We had also written and recorded our own songs. I felt we had paid the dues to decide what direction we should take. So when we got the call that the “Yowzah yowzah yowzah” [the chant from Chic’s “Dance, Dance, Dance”] people would be producing us … I was a little apprehensive.”
The sisters would have an indirect creative input on the album, being the central inspiration for many of the lyrics written by Rodgers and Edwards. Arguably the greatest example of this interplay are the lyrics to We Are Family. The sublime track was partially written as the first song during these sessions before the pair had met the sisters. Rodgers noted how the song almost wrote itself after their initial meeting with Greenburg, “He told us about “a group of sisters that are like family to the label,” he said, adding “they stick together like birds to a feather.” They were called Sister Sledge. After our meeting we went home and glanced at out notes. The record exec had delivered, almost verbatim the lyrics to “We Are Family.” Not only would those words provide inspiration for the lyrics of the track, but the central concept of the album would also be birthed from these discussions. For a group literally comprised of sisters, family and music would rightfully be a central theme of the developing project. Rodgers elaborated further, “It seemed like a perfect situation to link to our hit-making technique. We had two concept albums under our belt by now, and we were developing the process and quickly becoming proficient. We agreed and started to conceive what this sister act that we hadn’t even met should be.”
Nile foresaw the potential of the work that he and Bernard would be able to create and the possibility of bringing significant commercial success to Sister Sledge, “Their song “Love Don’t Go Through No Changes” had been a popular R&B song, but we knew DHM-based breakdown songs could take them all the way to the top of the charts. Our confidence grew with every song we penned, though by now we’d come to expect we’d make a lot of changes once we got with our band, so basically everything was just a thumbnail sketch. Even our string arrangements would often change on the spot.”
The duo would begin to work on the track in the studio, developing the lyrics and composition further. Nile recollected on when they were first introduced to the Sledge sisters, “The first time we met Sister Sledge was also the first time they ever heard the song “We Are Family.” When they walked into the studio, we were still writing the song as it was blasting over the loudspeakers.” Upon meeting the group there was a clear excitement for Nile as he became aware of the creative freedom that would come with this collaboration, “It felt like we could make hit records, if it was done our way. We were introduced to them and they were really wonderful about it all. Kathy Sledge said it best, she said, “We were going along for the ride. And it was a wonderful ride!”
Debbie recollected on her thoughts after learning of her new collaborators, “Nile and Bernard were new, they had just finished working with Norma Jean [Wright], we were very excited to go to the studio with them. We all didn’t know what was going to come about but we were there to give our best and we felt very privileged.”
The project would be a Rodgers/Edwards production to the full extent, as they would bring in musicians from Chic to perform on the developing Sister Sledge album. Tony Thompson would contribute percussion; Marianne Carrol, Cheryl Hong and Karen Milne of the iconic “Chic Strings” would also lend their talents to the project. Despite the fact that the production duo had complete artistic control over the project, they saw the value in a fully collaborative relationship with the sisters. Debbie discussed this further, “As a producer he’s (Nile) not gonna be restricting. He has very definitive ideas about how we want a song to go but he gives that room for the artist to bring their artistry to that track.”
The collaboration between producer and artist would differ during these sessions for the sisters compared to their previous collaborators. Nile and Bernard took a fluid approach to develop the project as Debbie noted, “Chic had some awesome tracks in mind for us, but they were developing the songs as they went, and actually writing lyrics in the studio. They said they had a concept, but they didn’t necessarily tell us what the concept was, which was kind of frustrating. We were used to coming in to the studio prepared. Our grandmother had trained us and she was a classical artist, an opera singer, so we were very disciplined.”
They also valued spontaneity in their collaborations with the sisters as they felt it could capture something truly unique and exciting in the group’s vocal performances. Kathy Sledge discussed this further, “Nile and Bernard believed in spontaneity, they had a formula we had to follow. They wanted that edge with each song they felt you couldn’t get from rehearsing. Nile was literally feeding me the lines [to “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and “We Are Family”] as we recorded. I had to find the melody — and quick! [laughs] That’s when my years in the business and instinct as an artist kicked in.”
While Kathy swiftly adapted to this new mode of creative collaboration, Kim felt some apprehension at first, “Our first reaction to hearing “We Are Family” was mixed. We were frustrated that we couldn’t hear it in advance. We were trained to always go to a recording session fully rehearsed and prepared to be ready to record quickly. Perfection was important to us because of the discipline and standard for excellence set by our Grandmother Viola Beatrix Hairston, an opera singer, and our first teacher. After recording however, we understood their strategy; they wanted the nuances and excitement of spontaneity. The song actually became a “party” in the studio!” Another aspect of Rodgers producing technique was to install confidence in the group, as he knew the quality of the work that would come from a confident artist. Kathy recollected, “He would go ‘It’s gonna be fine,’ and of course he knew exactly what he was talking about. Not only did Nile and Bernard instill confidence but originality and innovation. Those songs are gonna be here when we’re long gone. It’s special because he wrote ‘We Are Family’ about us with lyrics like a portrait. It’s very special and close to the heart.”
It was obvious from the masterful quality of Nile and Bernard’s developing tracks that some truly special music was being created. One only needs to listen to the very first seconds of We Are Family to understand the magic of a Nile and Bernard production had been well and truly captured. The warmth of the composition combining Rodger’s signature guitar riffs, Edward’s irresistible bass line and a sharp interplay between keys and strings formed a perfect symbiosis with the playful vocal performance of the sisters. It’s interesting to note the similarity in structure between We Are Family and other tracks featured on the album and the pair’s previous work on Chic. As Rodger’s noted, “The Chic motto was: A song is an excuse to go to a chorus. That’s all we cared about. That’s why our songs start with the chorus, that’s the hook, that’s what gets you. So the song is just an excuse to go to the chorus and the chorus is just an excuse to go to the breakdown.” The track begins with the iconic chorus; irresistibly catchy, fun and possessing all the sonic and lyrical hallmarks of a RNB classic. The vocals are a clear highlight with flourishing harmonies and a simplistically catchy chant defining the chorus. Nile and Bernard would utilise the notes taken at the record meeting to write the verses:
Everyone can see we’re together
As we walk on by
(And) and we fly just like birds of a feather
I won’t tell no lie
As with many Rodgers/Edwards productions, the bridge of the track is replaced with a breakdown in the composition. The breakdown not only deconstructs the instrumentation to the bare essentials as it begins to slowly build again, in the case of We Are Family, it also shines a spotlight on the supreme vocal ability of Sister Sledge. Kim discussed the recording of the iconic vocals, “They showed us exactly how they wanted it. We took the ideas and made them our own. We had been performing for many years. So we were able to assist each other and get the best out of what we were given.” Kathy recollected on recording the jubilant ad-libs, “That’s what makes that song so special. Being a singer is a lot like being an actor; you’re given a script and you have to bring that character to life, and it’s the same thing with interpreting a song. You’re singing a story. Having my sisters with me cheering me on, plus Luther [Vandross] and Alfa [Anderson] on background, and Bernard playing that funky bass, I easily got caught up and captured by the music. I’m most proud of that performance.”
This feeling is well and truly captured in the performance; a particular highlight is Kathy calling out her new collaborators, crooning, “come on Niles” and “play your funky bass boy” in response to Edward’s irresistible bass licks. The jubilance and chemistry of the recording session can be felt as a listener forty years later.
On an album filled with stellar, quality tracks, another dance floor anthem that would be released as the first single from the album is the sublime, He’s The Greatest Dancer. Much like the former track, the chorus of the song is a focal point, bringing the listener in amongst the stellar composition. The song begins with multiple prominent guitar riffs embellished by dramatic strings featured in the chorus. The lyrics detail the voyeuristic gaze between a woman and a man she desires in a club. There was some creative friction during the recording of the track between Rodgers/Edwards and Sister Sledge, namely due to the lyrical content. Nile elaborates, “The best example of this friction was with the lyrics of their first single, “He’s the Greatest Dancer.” They were religious girls and took offense to singing, “My crème de la crème, please take me home.” They thought clean-cut girls would not have a one-night stand. We explained, “The song is not about you, it’s about him and the power the greatest dancer has over you.” They suggested we change the lyric to “Please don’t go home.” This was in direct conflict with the song’s core truth. We insisted that the lyric stay as we’d written it. They reluctantly sang it (though you couldn’t tell that from Kathy’s breathtaking delivery), but there was a wedge between us because we would not negotiate. After all, this was supposed to be their record. And it was (from our point of view).” Debbie Sledge similarly recollects, “There was one line, ‘Oh, please take me home’, I said to Nile ‘We wouldn’t do that’,” He was a little frustrated, there were some clashes in that sense, but he said, ‘This is creative licence, just sing it’, so that is what we did.” As with many tracks on the album that share a similar structure, there is a noticeable breakdown during the bridge of the track, accentuating the prominent strings that drive the melody as the keys and guitar return for the final chorus. The classic track is a display of Rodger’s and Edward’s genius at effortlessly creating sonically rich and commercially viable songs.
Despite the fact that We Are Family is an album produced, composed and written by Rodger’s and Edwards, they would use the project to showcase to the world the story and identity of Sister Sledge. One of the most evident examples of this is the classic autobiographical track, Lost In Music. The lyrics reference the groups challenging road to success and the passion and devotion they have for the art of music.
In the spotlight the band plays so very tight
Each and every night, uh-huh
It’s not vanity to me, it’s my sanity
I could never survive
Some people ask me “What are you gonna be?
Why don’t you go get a job?” uh-uh
All that I could say “I won’t give up my music”
Not me, not now, no way, no how
Joni Sledge takes on the role of lead vocalist as the track begins with prominent keys, an assortment of percussion, embellished by a loose, funky guitar riff, The chorus is akin to a hypnotic trance, with the sisters chanting in harmonic rhythm. Debbie Sledge recollected on when Nile brought the track to the group, “When they brought us Lost in Music, I in my ignorance even said to Nile: “Well, I think it’s too repetitive.” He just looked at Bernard. But Joni sang that song and the lyrics were so reflective of her personality. She’s like that to this day: it’s all of our passion, but she’s really focused, she’s all up in that music.”
The repetition of the track is one if it’s greatest assets, giving emphasis to the infectious chorus. Debbie discussed the significance of the song lyrically and how it related to their outlook at the time, “The words are about determination, not giving up, so they kind of fitted where we were at the time. if you have something that you really, really desire, and you’re good at it, even if you’re raw, it’s a good thing to do. And don’t let anybody deter you from it.” Joni Sledge similarly recalled how recording the track differed to We Are Family, “Lost in Music was totally different. It was like being in a trance. Even when we play it today, it’s different every time we do it. We have brilliant musicians, and we just say, “Take us somewhere. Go deep,” and we let the audience know, “You know what? Come along if you want to, but they’re really going to take us somewhere!” And they do.”
A change in tempo from the previous songs, the sublime Thinking Of You showcases the sensual vocals of Kathy Sledge amongst a warm and vibrant instrumental backdrop. Starting with a pronounced guitar riff, the song begins to slowly build with an array of percussion, swelling strings and Edward’s subtle but distinct bass line. Rodger’s distinct and unique sound is evident during the guitar riff featured at the beginning of the track.
Another clear highlight of the song are Kathy’s flawless vocals, supported exquisitely by a gorgeous array of harmonising background vocals in the chorus, pushing the groove forward. She brings a further intensity to her vocal performance during the outro of the track with ad-libs, perfectly expressing the jubilant nature of the track. Kathy recollected on the recording of the song, “Lyrically, it’s just so sweet. And it has such a breezy flow. I think of it as a groove love song. With some songs, the second you hear them they lift you. And Nile’s guitar [during the intro] immediately takes you there. Right away I thought to myself, “I’m gonna enjoy singing this.” I remember it being two in the morning recording it, and feeling good. That’s why I go up the scale at the end. I was smiling because it made me happy and people listening to it can feel that, too. That’s probably why it’s one of our most remixed songs.” The stellar track is a demonstration that outside of up-tempo club anthems, Rodgers, Edwards and the members of Sister Sledge had clear chemistry to create sensual and authentically joyous ballads.
Each track on the album is a master class in production, exceptional musicianship, inspired lyricism and soulful vocal performances by the sisters. From the gorgeous interplay between the background vocalists and Kathy Sledge on the haunting ballad, Somebody Loves Me to the prominent string line complimenting the stellar composition of You’re A Friend To Me, it’s clear that the work produced by Rodgers and Edwards for other artists would be of the highest caliber. Nile recollected on his thoughts of the project in his 2011 biography, Le Freak, “The album We Are Family is the best example of DHM perfection. We knew who they were (or certainly who we thought they should be) and crafted a production that revealed that reality on every song. Contractually we didn’t have creative control, but we had it musically, and we were dedicated to protecting our music. This philosophy would ruffle feathers, but sell millions of records.”
We Are Family was released on January 22, 1979 in the United States, with the first single, He’s The Greatest Dancer, released to radio a few weeks later. While the album received widespread critical acclaim immediately, by May of 1979 it was clear that the album was also a significant commercial success. Kathy recollected, “On the day “Dancer” was released, my alarm clock went off and the song was playing! And then when it went into heavy rotation, that was like a dream. It’s a beautiful thing, hearing your song, everywhere. Nile and I laughed about this last year; I was always that little girl in braces following him around the studio, asking “So, you think this is gonna be a hit?” He always knew it would be.”
The second single released from the album, We Are Family, would eclipse the success of Dancer even further, reaching number 2 on the Billboard 100 and becoming an integral part of popular culture. Lost In Music would also similarly appear on the charts. Rodgers recollected on the incredible success of the album, “Bernard said it really great. When we did “We Are Family” and it was the big theme song of the ’79 Pittsburgh Pirates when they won the World Series, we didn’t even know. We got on the plane and went “Look at that, check that out.” I look at success and failure almost as the same. Success doesn’t make me want to succeed more.”
Through their collaboration with Rodgers and Edwards, Sister Sledge achieved success in the States and internationally they had not experienced. Greenburg, whose intention it was to replicate the success of Chic was clearly impressed with the response. More importantly however, beyond the commercial success, Nile and Bernard had created a concept album and demonstrated that outside of the inner Chic circle, they could collaborate with established artists and produce incredible material. Rodgers was extremely proud of the finished product, “We Are Family is the best commercial album we have ever done, compositionally. There isn’t a bad song on the record. We had a formula for Sister Sledge.” Kathy discussed the fast-paced nature of the album production in an April 1979 interview; “We started the album back in September so we finished it very quickly really. It’s a good mixture of ballads and disco and the thing I love most about it is that it has such a classy sound to it. I love the violins.”
Joni Sledge similarly recollected on the experience collaborating with the duo and the success it brought the group, “They definitely put their signature on us which I thought was incredible for our careers… They did a great job and we’re very blessed that we had a chance to meet with them and work with them.”
Following the recording of We Are Family, Edwards discussed plans for the future with NME magazine in January of 1979, “Well eventually, Nile and myself would like to back out and let Chic continue with us just producing. At the moment we’ve still got other things. We’ve just finished recording Sister Sledge, and next month we go in with Aretha Franklin.”
While the pair did meet with Aretha Franklin to discuss a possible collaboration, this potential partnership did not come to fruition. Rodgers recollected, “We had a meeting. Her version of the story is, she was much more sophisticated than we were. We just didn’t want to be the ones who made Aretha go disco. There was no real fight. But once we didn’t agree to do it her way, there was never going to be a second meeting.” Bernard elaborated further, “We wrote some dynamite R’n’B tunes for her and had plans to cut a real killer R’n’B album with her. But uh-uh. She didn’t want to know. She wanted a disco LP and nothing but. We refused. We did not want to be responsible for Aretha Franklin’s disco LP. After weeks of talk it fell through because she wouldn’t give in, but hey y’know, I didn’t want people mad at me for turning Aretha disco.” In a 1980 interview, Bernard disused their intention with an Aretha collaboration in more detail, “It would have been completely different from what we did with Diana because Aretha is a downhome type of singer with a big, powerful and gutsy voice. We had visions of bigger band type orchestrations than anything we had ever done — even down to including standards and outside material. It would have been a truly well-rounded album and that was something we were really excited about.”
Nile and Bernard would return to Chic for their next major project after their collaboration with Sister Sledge, crafting the follow-up to the 1978 release, C’est Chic. In a January 1979 interview, the pair discussed their intention with recording the new material, “It will just continue to be an extension of what we’ve established as ‘Chic’ music. Our aim is to crossover completely on a consistent basis in all areas — pop, rock, r&b and disco — everything.” The sessions for the forthcoming album would be fast-paced and somewhat hectic as the group was in the midst of a national tour while recording in the studio. Nile elaborated in a 1979 interview during the production of the album, “We finished rhythm tracks, backgrounds and sweetening (strings and horns) but we’ve got to add on the lead vocals whilst we’re touring. It will mean flying tapes back and forth across country which is gonna be real nutsy!”
Rodgers further discussed the overarching theme to a Chic record, “Albums to me are the same as films, they tell a complete story. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And the basic backstory of every Chic album is that we’re a new band, opening for a big star. So we have to tell you who we are on every song — like, “Gimme a C! We are Chic, C-H-I-C!” or whatever. [laughs]”
Risqué would be birthed from these recording sessions, however, the new album would deviate in some ways from Chic’s previous releases with less of an emphasis on the loose, dance party atmosphere of their debut. The LP would also contain one of the most pivotal and influential tracks of the 20th century with Good Times. Edwards discussed their developing sound in a 1979 interview, “European disco is what the whole American disco sound is based on and we haven’t lost that I think. It’s just become fuller, we’re using more instruments now as opposed to synthesizers.” Rodgers similarly interjected, “It seems to have gotten more sophisticated now. I know that right now in America the artists that are doing well, like harmonically the music is getting a little bit more complex. It’s sounds more interesting than it sounded in the beginning.”
Risqué feels like a natural continuation and evolution of the Chic sound with a continued emphasis on the sublime musicianship of the group, Rodgers/Edwards complex compositions, and infectious melodies. This was intentional as Rodgers notes, “With Risqué, we started to pursue artistic dreams. This is the problem with the US –and racism and classism or any kind of-isms. Had “Disco Sucks” not happened, this would have been the beginning of Chic becoming thought of more like the way people think of Earth Wind & Fire: more artistic. For some reason, now people think of us that way because of our playing and our musicianship, but at the time, they didn’t; they thought it was all about “freak out” and this was us saying, “No, no, no, this is about a lot more than us just saying ‘freak out’ and ‘yowzah’.”
In a July 1979 interview with Rodgers, he teased the impending release of Risqué, detailing the tracks in more detail, “Harmonically, it’s the most complex and yet melodically, it’s the most simple. We’ve got ‘My Feet Keep Dancing’ which is definitely going to be a biggie, ‘Warm Summer Night’ which has a Latin feel, the uptempo ‘Forbidden Lover’ and ‘You Fooled Around’ and a real emotional gem, ‘When You Hear This Song, Will You Cry?’ — naturally a ballad.” Interestingly, You Fooled Around would be recorded and released by Sister Sledge for their 1980 album, Somebody To Love and would not be released on Risqué, indicating that the track was originally intended for Chic but instead given to Sister Sledge.
Beyond the evolution in the composition between Risqué and previous work, Rodgers and Edwards conceptualised the new album as a celebration of African-American artistic and cultural identity as a response to the racial divide in society. Nile elaborates, “It was all about authenticity. Being African Americans, because our skin is black, we’ve never been able to assimilate into culture the way other races have. During the Harlem Renaissance, people who were descendants of slaves came up with their own class system and royalty to beat this: ‘Duke’ Ellington, ‘Count’ Basie, ‘King’ Pleasure. We were playing tribute on Risqué to people who were oppressed and not having any voice apart from their music and their art. Everything had to fit the vibe.”
As with their work on Sister Sledge, Nile and Bernard would become increasingly more spontaneous in the creative process, extending to the development of Risqué. They discussed this further in a 1979 interview with Blues & Soul, “We think about the general idea of what we want to convey before we start working in the studio but, nonetheless, it turns out to be quite spontaneous. We’re aware of what people have reacted to, what they’ve liked so there has to be a certain format to it but there is a lot of flexibility with our tunes. “Like ‘I Want Your Love’ — we knew how that was going to be more or less from the beginning when we began writing it, and the same with ‘Le Freak’, but in our more recent work, it’s been more what’s happened in the studio — on the spot.”
The duo’s songwriting process for a Chic project did not differ too much from their collaborations with outside artists. As with Sister Sledge, Rodgers and Edwards found lyrical inspiration from interacting with lead vocalists, Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin. The duo elaborated, “There are only but so many different themes. What people go through and experience. It’s like a lot of our tunes come from a woman’s perspective since Luci and Alfa are singing leads, and what happens is we sit down and talk with them and find out about some of their experiences and observe other personal situations. So what’s in our music is based partly on what we’ve seen and what people have experienced as well as stories that we make up — yes, there must be some fantasy in there.”
The opening track on Risqué, Good Times would become one of Chic’s most iconic tracks and certainly one of their most influential in terms of breadth, with an influence spanning multiple genres and eras. Nile discussed the genesis of the song, “This was a groove we had been working on for years and years and we never got it right and one night I was hanging out at Studio 54… I went right from partying to the recording studio and I had taught the band the groove and Bernard was a little late to the studio. He walked in and he goes “wow, what is that”… Bernard came in and started mimicking me which is usually how we start our records and then we develop our parts.”
One of the most revered and instantly recognisable elements of the song is the sublimely funky bass line featured on the chorus. Rodgers recollected on the initial recording of the bassline, “It was funny the way we discovered that walking bassline — it was a total accident. Bernard started playing something and I screamed: “Walk!” And he did and that was Good Times.”
Edwards similarly recalled the creation of the bass line, “‘Good Times’ did more for my bass playing than any other song because, for some reason, people think that’s such an original and fascinating bass line. I walked in one day, Nile was playing some chords and I just followed him. It took me about five minutes to come up with the line, but you can’t convince anybody of that.”
The prominent keyboard which opens the track, was recorded in somewhat of an unorthodox manner as Nile describes, “It’s a gigantic glissando starting at the lower portion of the keyboard and going as far as you can in that couple of seconds. And then we have the women’s bathroom at the Power Station, our famous studio that we recorded in, as the big echo chamber. We fed the signal into the ladies bathroom. It was very reflective in there. It’s all tiles and stuff like that, so it makes this swirly sound that’s bouncing back and forth. So it’s a cool thing. It’s a subtle technique that winds up becoming this grand, big statement.” The composition would also be anchored by an iconic guitar riff that Rodgers defined as “quite jazzy in its roots” despite its place on a pop record.
Nile would discuss the incorporating of jazz elements in his guitar work further, “I grew up as a classical jazz musician, and when I started to play pop music, I couldn’t be satisfied with just the way that regular guitar players play. That was not inspiring to me. So I developed this sound where I wrote music that is dependent upon my knowledge of harmony and inversions and voice leading and stuff like that. I don’t play guitar like the typical guitar player. I play more like a jazz guitar player, but I’m still doing pop music.”
The brilliance of Good Times lies in its incredible composition with a homogeny between each and every instrument layered to perfection. Between the sweeping strings during the verse, Rodger’s consistently funky guitar riffs, the perfectly placed acoustic piano emulating the bass during the chorus, the snares, hi-hats and assortment of percussion, all are intertwined to perfection. Nile discussed the track during a Red Bull Music Academy interview in which the song was played, “But anyway, what’s interesting is that that was the single version, and even that, to go out instrumentally like that was revolutionary in the world of pop and R&B. You didn’t just go out and let the band play! But Chic is all about letting the band play, the interplay between the vocals and the unit, it’s all about the unit and the space.”
While Rodgers/Edwards always incorporated strings into Chic effortlessly, Good Times is one of the greatest examples of how the “Chic Strings” can enrich a composition further. They are exquisitely arranged to mirror the vocal arrangements of the track, sweeping during the verses while dramatic in the pre-chorus. (The strings featured in the pre-chorus were ultimately removed from the final mix.) Edwards discussed their use in a 1979 interview, “The three women who play violins are very important too, for our balance, our look and our sound. Even though I dislike a lot of strings on a disc — I hate all that German formula shit — I think they add a necessary sweetener to our rhythm.”
The magic of a Chic composition is captured to its full extent in the extended versions, giving room for the arrangements to truly breath and in the case of the 12” extended version of Good Times, display the all-important breakdown. The track may arguably be the greatest demonstration of the genius of a Chic breakdown in replacing the bridge with something that brings focus to the expertly layered composition. Rodger’s recollected on the importance of the breakdown in their music, “What we do is we break it down to almost nothing and then we rebuild the track in the listeners’ ears. You hear one instrument coming in at a time. You hear it on “Dance, Dance, Dance,” our first single, but you really hear us take it to a higher artform in the song “Good Times.” In “Dance, Dance, Dance,” obviously the two stars are me and Bernard because it’s our band. We didn’t know anyone except for Luther and those guys in those days. Me, Bernard and Rob (Sabino), the keyboard player, we’re the guys, so we’re the three people who solo. Later on, when we become more of a unit, we start to feature more of the people. And in “Good Times,” that’s when we really have more of a solid footing. We get the breakdown, we develop it to a real artform. We believe the listeners will be able to take that long development of the groove. Here, I’m the leader of the band and it takes me forever before we get to my part. We start to realize that all of those layers are beautiful to people.”
Good Times is deconstructed to the bare essentials of the groove during the breakdown, beginning with Edward’s bass and Thompson’s hi-hats and snare with strings appearing intermittently. Rodgers discussed the importance of the bass and drums as the template for building a composition, “The bass and the bass drum are an integral part of the foundation of my compositions and arrangements. The stronger that foundation, the more artistic freedom you have. If the bottom is strong — if the foundation is solid — it will support a larger structure, so it’s almost like a law of physics.” The song is then slowly rebuilt with each instrument being placed back into the groove, one by one. First comes the Rhodes electric piano with some low notes to contrast with the bass, and then the acoustic piano emerges propelling the groove further. Nile’s iconic guitar riff is the final element to return to the groove, as the verse and chorus of the track begin again mirroring the full arrangement from the beginning of the song. The complete genius of the breakdown technique is demonstrated to full effect on Good Times, present and clear with each and every listen and a testament to the production brilliance of Rodgers and Edwards.
The unorthodox nature of the breakdown would lead to the astonishing influence Good Times would have on the hip-hop genre that was beginning to emerge at this time. Nile noted how it was an ideal element for the genre, “That’s when hip-hop was in its infancy and we realize we have the perfect record for MCs, because the breakdown took so long to develop that they could have rhymes that would go on forever. And by coming in with different parts of the grooves, it would add dynamics to their raps. So they could just go on and on, and the next thing you know the band behind them would start to grow and they’d have different flows for different parts of the breakdown.”
The lyrical content of the song sums up the Chic mentality to its core, to dance and party. Though the DHM is far more liberating than simply enjoying a night out in a club or disco, it was an act of defiance against the injustice and misfortune that envelops society. Rodgers interpolates the lyrics to an old 1920 depression era track, Happy Days are Here Again in Good Times, acting as a contemporary response to the perils of financial recession in the 1970s. Nile elaborates, “We were talking to people in a time of financial chaos and putting a bright face on it. We were going through the greatest recession since the Wall Street Crash. In the 1920s they wrote ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ because they could drink booze again.”
Happy days are here again
The time is right for makin’ friends
Let’s get together, how ‘bout a quarter to ten
Come tomorrow, let’s all do it again
Boys will be boys, better let them have their toys
Girls will be girls, cute pony tails and curls
Must put an end to this stress and strife
I think I want to live the sporting life
Good times, these are the good times
Leave your cares behind, these are the good times
Good times, these are the good times
Our new state of mind, these are the good times
Nile discussed the writing process further when it came to Chic records, “When Chic started we were in the midst of the greatest financial recessions. We had gas rationing lines in America. And people said to us, ‘How the hell could you write such happy songs when the world is so miserable?’ But you have to write about the world that you want to see. The path I’m trying to carve out for Chic is, ‘Always remember the fun,’” he says. “Sometimes an artist’s greatest responsibility is not to reflect the world as it is, but to dream about the world you want to have.”
The release of Risqué and with it the first single from the album, Good Times would coincide with a defining event in the history of disco music and culture. Good Times was released to radio on the 30th of June 1979 and a few weeks later, on July 12, 1979 “Disco Demolition Night” was staged in Chicago, Illinois. Radio Shock Jock, Steve Dahl urged members of the public to bring disco records to Comiskey Park to burn after a baseball game. The event was significant not just because of the sheer scope of the backlash, it also signaled a very real racial and homophobic dimension to this riot. “Disco” represented more than just music played at clubs, it was a vehicle for marginalised communities to come together and dance in the face of adversity, with diversity. Rodgers elaborated further, “At the end of the 70’s every kind of negativism started growing, most likely as a backlash of the perceived victories of underground movements flaunting their triumphs: women’s lib, racial equality, the anti-war and gay rights movements, etc. The one thing that seemed to bring everybody together was discotheques. Some of the most extreme right and left wingers rubbed elbows nightly at clubs like Studio 54… and Studio 54 wannabees around the country. We had a damn good time together and genuinely liked each other as people. We respected each others differing political, religious and sexual points of view.”
He discussed further, “The way people had burnt their disco records was nothing less than an act of racism. That movement was led by white people from the American Bible Belt, and the music was never meant for them. We created it for people like ourselves, to dance and have fun to, not for rednecks in Wisconsin in Journey T-shirts.” Despite this, Good Times would reach number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 during this time, ultimately being one of the last successful “disco” singles of the 1970’s. The success of the song would go far beyond the charts as it would have a significant influence in shaping the hip-hop genre, while also influencing other popular hits that would come a year after. Rodgers discussed further, “The success of Good Times, and that it could overcome such mass hysteria, showed the strength of a good song. I’m sure that a lot of the idiots who were part of the ‘Disco Sucks’ campaign must also have been among the buyers. So Good Times was the ultimate irony, as was everything that came after it, such as My Sharona by The Knack — Chic’s influence on that song was so obvious it almost hurt. And exactly a year after Good Times, the US number one was Another One Bites The Dust by Queen. Hello? If that wasn’t influenced by Good Times, I don’t know what was.”
It’s abundantly clear that Good Times would become the most influential cut featured on Risqué, however, it is one of many highlights. The album is a clear display of supreme musicianship, Rodgers and Edwards talent at effortlessly producing dance hits and a clear lyrical evolution for the group. Some tracks harken back to the previous material, while others are an indication of evolution in sound and image.
The kinetic, My Feet Keep Dancing has a propulsive beat embellished by Edward’s and Luci Martin’s contribution on lead vocals and background vocals by Michelle Combs and Ullanda McCollough during the chorus. The arrangement is particularly sparse during the verses with a prominent emphasis on the heavy bass and subtle strings in the background. The vocal interplay between the male vocals of Thorton and the girls are a particular highlight.
The breakdown of the track possesses all the traits of a Chic composition, however, the use of the sample of tap dancers adds a particularly dramatic and visual component to the track, combined with the intensity of the string section. Rodgers noted how the bridge came about with the use of real tap dancers, “We got the Nicholas Brothers to dance on ‘My Feet Keep Dancing’. We were saying ‘thank you’ to the aristocrats in the ghetto, and their form of dancing was tapping. We thought no one would know why we did it, but we didn’t care.” Nile and Bernard further discussed the recording of the track, “When we first started working in the studios ‘My Feet Keep Dancing’ was going to be the first single. We felt that was the one. But it didn’t quite gel to start out with. And then when we did ‘Good Times’ we just knew that it would be the one and we seem to have been proven right.”
While Good Times would become one of the most synonymous tracks attributed to Chic, songs like My Feet Keep Dancing are a testament to the excitement of the content on Risqué.
My Forbidden Lover would be another track featured on the album that recalls elements of previous Chic material while also demonstrating a clear change in direction, lyrically. The song would become a fan favourite and appear on the UK pop charts and the US disco charts. Rodgers and Bernard discussed their initial surprise at the success of the track, “Now that really surprised us! We didn’t expect that kind of instant reaction to the tune. But we’ve studied it and we found that there’s a certain rhythm pattern that happens in there that’s what people dig. It’s the same with all of our hits — a certain combination of bass and guitar that seems to really get to people.”
The composition of My Forbidden Lover is somewhat reminiscent of the sublime track, Happy Man from C’est Chic. Both share similar melodies and interplay between guitars, keys and strings that is infectiously catchy. Where this song differs from previous Chic tracks is in the lyrical content. While previous tracks such as I Want Your Love touch on feelings of pure desire and At Last I’m Free deals with the sorrow of heartbreak. My Forbidden Lover, however, deals with the perils of attraction.
I fell in love and I didn’t want to do it cause I knew
That your love wasn’t true
You try to hide that sinister appearance and the lies
Whew, those alibis
You give your love to anyone who asks, yes you do
And I know that it’s true
But still I care and I want to see you there
When I need, yes indeed, you are
The duo discussed the lyrics of the track and their evolving approach to song-writing in further depth in a 1979 interview with Blues & Soul, “We’ve tried to stay away from anything that was really controversial in our tunes so we were kinda worried about it but it seems that people are digging it anyway. You see, we try to write songs that will relate and the fact is that people — especially in big cities — definitely relate to the concept of a love affair outside of the conventional boundaries that society had set up.”
Beyond the RNB classics, another staple and highlight of a Chic album are the instrumental tracks, shining a spotlight on the sublime arrangements of Rodgers and Edwards, as well as the stellar musicianship of the group. Songs like Savoir Faire from C’est Chic demonstrate that beyond the public perception of the group as “disco”, Nile and Bernard were first and foremost, accomplished and eclectic musicians. Nile discussed how the instrumental track developed, “It’s very difficult to play on a song like ‘Savoir Faire’. It took me a week to figure it out. Once I did, I could record it in one take. Bernard said, “Instead of writing lyrics, why don’t you play, and think of being suave and sophisiticated, think like you live in Monte Carlo, and play it on the guitar”. One night Bernard sang some lines to me, the first measures, and then I understood what he was talking about.”
A Warm Summer Night, may not be completely instrumental, however it is Risqué’s own variant of Savoir Faire, featured on C’est Chic and also Sao Paulo from the debut album. While both are exceptional, A Warm Summer Night is more emphasised on the interplay between Rodger’s guitar work and Edward’s bass playing with prominent keys featured throughout. Nile discussed the satisfaction of composing these instrumental tracks, “For me, artistic fulfillment came when we did tracks like ‘Savoir Faire’ and ‘Sao Paolo’ because it allowed me to stretch out and do something different.”
Between the harder rock sound of Can’t Stand To Love You and the exotic, Latin feel of A Warm Summer’s Night, there was a clear expansion of the Chic sound with Risqué, subtle enough to still sound like a Rodgers/Edwards production, while also breaking new ground. This direction would be taken further with the group’s 1980 follow up album, Real People. As Edward discussed further, “The Rock and R&B influences are heavier on this album than at any time in the past, too. I think that everyone has noticed the change — and yet it isn’t such a drastic change that we are not recognisable any more. That would have been both wrong and probably impossible. It’s funny because we recorded this album over a longer time than usual and we noticed the tremendous changes that were taking place. And so some cuts reflect that change more than others — depending at which stage we recorded them. I think we all feel this album to be a kind of bridge between the old style and what we are aiming for in the future.” The album would also be somewhat of an act of defiance against the abrupt backlash on disco to which the group was often attributed.
Risqué would only be the beginning of Rodgers and Edwards ambition at continuing to build the critical acclaim of Chic and further expand on musical styles and innovation. Nile discussed how their outlook changed as they attained commercial success in order to continue creating exciting material, “In the past three years, we’ve changed our thinking on a couple of things. At first we listened to the radio to hear what everyone else was up to. Now, we don’t listen that much. We don’t make an effort to keep track. We stay away from other artists because we don’t want to be too influenced by others, subconsciously or otherwise. In order to make it to a massive audience, we deliberately didn’t take chances. We were careful about how far we went in one direction or another. Now that we have an audience that spans a big age group, we want to expand a bit without alienating anyone. It’s being careful in a different kind of way. At first we wanted to avoid being musically controversial. Now we have to keep from being musically stagnant.”
The duo further elaborated in a 1979 interview just after the release of Risqué, “Well, we don’t feel that the group has peaked yet by any means. Musically, that is. It’s great that the records are still taking off the way they do but now we have new challenges. We want the critical acclaim, we want people to recognize our capabilities outside of just making hit records, because you never know when that’s going to come to an end.”
Risqué would be released on July 30 1979, on the back of the immense success of Good Times which was dominating the charts, despite the beginning of disco backlash. The album would rightfully attain significant critical success, earning many accolades both at the time and retrospectively as well as performing well commercially. Rodgers and Edward had accomplished their goal of demonstrating that beyond the commercial hits, Chic was an incredibly skilled group that could create critically acclaimed and recognised work.
By the end of 1979, the swift and sudden backlash against disco had become considerable with the genre falling out of grace with the general public and record labels cautiously steering away from anything that could be considered “disco.” This would go on to affect the future of Chic and the trajectory of the group’s career as Rodgers noted, “It scorched our careers. Chic never had a hit record after that. The industry just shut us down, scorched our careers.”
While Chic as a group would release their next album, Real People in the summer of 1980, before working on the album, Rodgers and Edward were approached by Diana Ross backstage at one of their shows in 1979. Edward elaborates, “We met with Diana when we were out in California performing and she came backstage to tell us just how much she enjoyed our music and how much fun we seem to have onstage. It seems that she feels that she’s at a point where she wants to have more fun onstage herself. She says that it’s important to relate and that even her kids don’t enjoy her music as much as they do ours!” Prior to their meeting with Ross, Nile and Bernard met with the then president of Motown Records, Suzanne De Passe to discuss working with the superstar. Passe was a big fan of Chic and hoped that the duo would be able to take Ross’ commercial success to the next level. By this time, Ross had released her most recent album, The Boss in 1979 through the Motown record label, produced with longtime collaborators, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson.
The album would attain commercial and critical success, but it was clear that Diana was looking to appeal to a younger audience by collaborating with Rodgers and Edwards. As the duo had already produced numerous chart-topping and career-defining hits, this appeared to be a perfect pairing. Nile elaborated, “Diana Ross had recently come off of a pretty big hit record called “The Boss,” which had been written and produced by the husband-and-wife the mega-crossover sales that Chic had tapped into. Suzanne wanted to make sure that Motown was part of this wave of chart-topping black pop, especially since Berry Gordy had perfected the black-crossover entertainment business in the first place. Suzanne was the ultimate consigliere. She was always loyal to the Don and what he’d created, but she also knew that the old ways didn’t work the way they used to. If the business was going to survive, it had to grow or die.”
Before beginning work on the new Diana Ross album, the duo were putting finishing touches on a new Sister Sledge project. Once again, Nile and Bernard would work with the group on their follow-up to We Are Family, the 1980 album, Love Somebody Today. The under-rated album would not receive the commercial success of We Are Family, however, it is a solid release, once again a product of the Chic Organisation with many of the Chic musicians featured on the project. An alternate recording of the title track was produced before being given to Sister Sledge to record for their album. Rodgers recollected on the project, somewhat dissatisfied with the release, “Love Somebody Today is the perfect example of [what happens] when you feel the pressure and buckle to the formula. With Love Somebody Today, we should have done it the same way as the first one. We do all the singing and all the playing and they just sing on top of us. Unfortunately, we didn’t do that, but there are good songs on there.”
The duo would also work on Sheila and the B Devotion’s 1980 album, King Of The World before beginning recording sessions with Diana.
As Rodgers and Edward began to collaborate with Diana Ross for her new album in November of 1979, they discussed their intention for the project in line with Ross’ aspirations, “We want to bring her to a new audience. We want to put back the kind of dancing, fun and variety she used to have without losing the sophistication. As with Sister Sledge we are going to have complete control on what goes down in the studio from start to finish.” There was clear excitement at the thought of being able to work with and produce for one of the biggest stars in the music industry, and also an opportunity for the duo to showcase their material to an even larger audience than previous collaborations. They discussed further, “It’s going to give us a chance to write some real class material too — so it’s a definite challenge for us — something we’re really looking forward to.”
The writing process for Diana was somewhat similar to how the duo worked with Sister Sledge, finding lyrical inspiration from interacting with Ross, hearing her discuss her thoughts and using them to create lyrics. As Nile explained, “We never write in advance, you can’t write a Diana or a Debbie song. We sit down and ask them, like, how do you see yourself in this industry? What do you think you are? How should it come across? and then we’ll go home and start writing.”
Diana was used to this type of collaborative process as she discussed in a 1981 interview with Andy Warhol, “It’s easier for me to sit with the producers and the writers and I give them my feelings and my thoughts and what I think I feel like singing about and then they go away and write it.”
Rodgers and Edwards had to take a different approach to collaboration with Diana Ross, considering she was an already established superstar. This was in contrast to their work with Sister Sledge who, being a lesser-known act at the time, was fairly malleable. As Nile elaborates, “We created Sister Sledge in our heads. The day that we met them, we never met them before they walked into the studio and sang but we had already had all their songs laid out. So the first day we looked in their faces, they came in to sing We Are Family and we designed their careers. So we tried to do the same thing with Diana Ross but because she was famous well before we met her, what we had to do, we had to re-design her. Almost like we had to do a face-lift, re decorating. We had to analyze where she had been and where she was going.”
The duo would also use their collaboration with Sister Sledge as a learning experience, becoming more transparent in the creative process with the artists, as Nile elaborates, “Before we started composing, our plan was to have a few interview sessions with Diana. We didn’t want to misrepresent her, a mistake we’d made to some degree with Sister Sledge. The fact that they’d never heard the songs until the day they came to record — we were still writing them in the studio — hadn’t helped either. That was a less-than-desirable way to start a relationship, as we’d learned the hard way. Determined not to make the same mistake with Diana, we wanted to get a broad range of subjects that she was interested in.” With their collaboration with Ross, Nile and Bernard would use the opportunity to continue experimenting with their compositions and take their sound further.
There would be immense pressure for the duo as this would be the first super-star that they would be producing for, initially refusing established artists like The Rolling Stones and Bette Midler in their meeting with Atlantic Records a few years prior in 1978. Rodger’s cites De Passe’s belief in the duo as the confidence needed to take Ross to the next step.
Once again the Chic Organisation would be utilised to the full extent for Diana’s project with the album sessions featuring musicians from Chic such as drummer Tony Thompson, Haywood, Hong and Milne on strings and Alfa Anderson, Fonzi Thorton, Luci Martin and Michelle Cobbs on background vocals. Recording for the album began in December of 1979, with Chic vocalists recording reference vocals to be given to Ross to listen. Anderson discussed this in an interview with Pop Matters, “Strangely enough, I heard Diana’s songs before she did. “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?’” While Anderson had recorded lead vocals for the tracks, it was reported that Ross requested a male vocalist do the guide vocals instead; Fonzi Thorton would do these.
As Nile and Bernard began writing songs for Ross, Rodgers found inspiration for one of the most successful tracks on the album not only from talking to the star, but also from an unlikely source. He elaborates, “In the old days, to hear new music, it wasn’t like it is now where you can just go on the Internet and hear it. Back then, you had to be in the environment where the music was being played, and the coolest underground clubs, which had the best music, would be the most extreme ones — the transvestite clubs, the leather bars, all that kind of stuff. So one night when I was out club-hopping, I stopped into the Gilded Grape on Eighth Avenue in the Theater District. I just popped in for a minute, and while I was there, I went to the bathroom and on either side of me were these Diana Ross impersonators, which is what gave me the idea for “I’m Coming Out.” While Ross was not particularly aware of it at the time, she had attained a significant gay following in the 70s since her time in The Supremes, often being impersonated by drag queens. While Rodgers got the initial idea for the track from the drag queens, there was a double entendre behind the meaning of the lyrics.
There’s a new me coming out
And I just had to live
And I want to give
I’m completely positive
I think this time around
I am gonna do it
Like you never do it
Like you never knew it
Oh, I’ll make it through
At the time, Ross was in a precarious position as one of Motown’s most successful artists. With this distinction came great control from manager Berry Gordy and the record label, however, with new producers at her helm, Nile saw this move as somewhat of emancipation for the now more defiant Ross. As he elaborates, “Now, most of the time, I don’t think of the titles first — the titles develop as the story develops because we want something catchy or something that makes sense. In this particular situation, I thought of the title, and then we backed into the song. But that was the case where the Deep Hidden Meaning in that song was that we knew that Diana Ross was planning a big change in her life because we sat down and interviewed her so we knew what subjects were taboo. I’m sure the subject of transvestites would have been pretty taboo, but it was just too good a coincidence and too great a title. So the double entendre was that we knew that Diana Ross was planning a big move — maybe she wasn’t going to leave Motown, but she certainly was going to ask for a portion of the company…So we wrote the song about it — from her point of view. But from my point of view, it was about the gay community. The audience was built-in — they were going to flip out. I mean, I’m a New Yorker, so we know all of the gay icons — the Judy Garlands, the Diana Rosses, the Chers. So writing a song for Diana Ross called “I’m Coming Out” was just brilliant.”
Nile would discuss his idea with Bernard, “What would it be like,” I wondered, “if Diana celebrated her status among gay men in a song?” I shared the anecdote with Bernard, who agreed that it would be a cool idea to have Diana talk to her gay fans in slightly coded language.”
He would then bring the track to Diana, aware of the implication of the radical lyrics but he also knew that the track had the potential to be a significant hit. Nile recollected further, “In the black community, we use to have a phrase called the Coming Out Song. So anyways we knew it was a catchphrase for the gay community and we knew we were on the verge of a hit. After we approached Diana with the song, she was concerned that people were going to think that she was gay. I’ve never lied to an artist anytime except this time. I looked Diana in the face and said, ‘Are you kidding me? Who’s going to think that? No, this is your ‘coming out’ song,”
Sonically, the song features one of the most iconic and distinctive openings in popular music, beginning with Rodger’s signature guitar riff and Ross’ joyous vocals. The composition is then built upon, first with Tony Thompson’s incredible drum fills and Meco Monardo’s big-band reminiscent trombone solo. Anderson recollected on Thompson’s incredible drum skills noting, “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.”
There is an immediate sense of excitement and anticipation from the opening section of I’m Coming Out, acting as a clear build up for the chorus and central melody of the track. Nile explained the intention of the opening portion of the song, “That’s Diana Ross, who we consider the queen of pop R&B. If you listen to that intro, when we tried to explain it, no one got it. We said, “She’s the queen, it’s a fanfare.” “What do you mean it’s a fanfare?” And my exact words were, “Alright, you’ve got the President of the United States. When the President of the United States walks into the room, they go, ‘Ladies and gentleman, the president of the United States.’ (sings “Hail to the Chief”) That’s the President of the United States. How about the queen of R&B/pop/soul? ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Diana Ross.’ (Sings riff) Yeah! Here she comes!’” Is that hard? Nobody got it. I was like, man. If you listen to the intro, that’s all it is, a fanfare.”
The bridge of the track features a sublime trombone solo by Monardo, perfectly complimenting the ecstatic tone of the track, while also quite unconventional in its inclusion on an RNB/pop song. This was intentional as Monardo notes; “Nile recorded all the tracks and vocals and called me and my horn section for a 3-hour date. We had a great time, as the songs were fabulous — especially “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out.” We sounded great — Nile was pleased and as I was packing up, he asked me to stay and play a jazz trombone solo on one of the tracks. I said, “Nile, there are a lot of hit records with jazz saxophone solos — even some with jazz trumpet solos, but not one with a trombone!!” He said: “That’s exactly why I want you to do it!!”
While the composition during the verses is predominately made up of guitar riffs, keys and bass, this expands into multiple prominent guitar riffs intertwined during the chorus alongside distant horns, a staple of much of Rodger’s guitar work on the Diana album. The classic intro of the track is once again replicated during the bridge. It’s clear from listening to I’m Coming Out that beyond the boldness of the lyrics, the composition is rich, infectiously catchy and quintessentially a Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards production while also diverting somewhat from the Chic formula. There is no deconstruction of each instrumental part akin to Good Times or a breakdown replacing the bridge as featured in He’s The Greatest Dancer. There is simply a grandiose and obvious introduction to the super-star that is Diana Ross. As Nile noted, “Even now it does sound sort of radical to me. It’s not like any other Diana Ross record and we’ve never done any Chic records like that, really. But you’ve got to remember, this is artist-specific.”
With a rough mix of the track completed, Ross took the song to DJ Frankie Crocker before the release of the album to play alongside an early version of Upside Down. While Crocker was a friend of the pair, his less than warm reception of the tracks concerned Diana greatly. Rodgers elaborated, “Diana took a rough mix to the top DJ in the country who hated it and she came back really down in the dumps and she asked us, ‘Why are you trying to ruin my career?’ She asked us point blank if this was a gay record and if people were going to think she was gay. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever lied to an artist. I looked her straight in the eye and said, ‘Are you kidding? No, this is your ‘coming out’ song.” Ross at the time was recording her last album for Motown and “coming out” from under the shadow of its owner, Berry Gordy.”
Nile would convince Ross to keep the track and it would ultimately be released as the second single from the album. The song would be a significant commercial success, reaching number 5 on the Billboard Charts, but beyond that, it would have an immense cultural impact for the gay community becoming a defining anthem. Ross discussed her love for the melodically rich songs in her catalogue, citing I’m Coming Out as an example, “I like songs with a melodic sound — something you can sing in the shower. A lot of the Motown records had this, especially in the early days. They really connected with your brain and they stuck there.“I’m Coming Out” is still one of those messages, whether it’s for gays or whether it’s for women.”
The album launches with the sound of a guitar riff and the kinetic explosion of drums, strings and keys on the RNB classic and first single released from the album, Upside Down. As with most songs on the album, the lyrical inspiration for the track came from a conversation between Ross, Rodgers and Edwards. She recollects, “When we wrote that song, [producer] Nile Rodgers came to me and said, “What do you want to sing about right now?” and I said, “I don’t know. I’m just coming out and everything’s upside down.” And that’s how the songs came about.” Nile elaborated on the lyrical development further in Le Freak, “So, Diana,” I probed, “tell us about yourself. What’s on your mind? What kind of things would you like to do? What makes Diana Ross tick?” I wanted to start cautiously but she opened up right away. “This is a time of major change in my life,” she told me, “and everything is going to be 180 degrees different from now on.” “What exactly do you mean by that?” I asked. “I’m going to live here on the East Coast,” she told us. “I have a feeling life will be more exciting here. I’m actually looking forward to turning my world around.” Based on that conversation — and, admittedly, a few cocaine powwows between Nard and I — the result was the song “Upside Down. Many of the song ideas for Diana’s new album, Diana, were transcribed in my childish scribbling during those interviews.”
While the initial idea for the track revolved around Ross’ ambition to make significant changes in her personal life, the lyrical content would evolve, with the song becoming about the discovery that a lover has been unfaithful and the pull of attraction.
Instinctively you give to me
The love that I need
I cherish the moments with you
Respectfully I see to thee
I’m aware that you’re cheating
But no one makes me feel like you do
It’s clear that with the Diana project Rodgers and Edwards were not simply going to replicate the Chic formula, but would instead, be more ambitious musically and lyrically to cater to and enhance their new collaborator. This extended into the writing of tracks like Upside Down as Nile elaborates, “We included excessively polysyllabic words like “instinctively” and “respectfully” in the lyrics, because we wanted to utilize Diana’s sophistication to achieve a higher level of musicality. Along with the complicated verse, we deliberately made the chorus rhythmically more difficult to sing than the catchier, one-listen song hooks for Chic. We weren’t working with talented session singers this time, we were working with a star. We wanted to give her more ambitious, intricate material to work with and interpret, to fill with her own intelligence and skill.”
Thorton recollected on performing the guide vocals for the track and how it differed from previous work on Chic material, “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.”
Working with Ross allowed the duo to deviate from the formula of previous Chic tracks as demonstrated on Upside Down. While the song begins with the irresistibly catchy chorus; a staple of many previous Chic Organisation productions, the duo would use unconventional methods to address the key change between the chorus and verses. Rodgers elaborated, “Its structure was angular and its groove’s chords were staccato, this time without a smooth keyboard pad underneath, unlike our past hits. We started the song with the hook, like almost all Chic songs do, but cut to the verse with a modulating chromatic progression. It was a complex but interesting way of performing this unorthodox but simple key change.”
Nile and Bernard would also broaden into using alternate recording methods to bring unique sounds to one of the most iconic aspects of their productions. While the use of strings to enhance a composition has always been a focal point of a Rodgers/Edwards production, there is a dramatic intensity and spring to the strings used on the track that cannot be performed naturally. This is due to the unorthodox method used by the pair to record them to bring a funk element to what is otherwise, not generally a funky style of instrument. Nile recollected, “We came from the old school analog recording business, where you had to use every trick at your disposal. Strings were not traditionally funky, and they were all classically trained musicians. If you look at all of the Chic records, most of our players came from the New York Philharmonic. They were some of the best players in the city. But, you’re right, they weren’t necessarily the funkiest players in the city — although we tried to get that out of them. So what we would do to help aid in their interpretation of the groove is, sometimes we would actually use what we called gates to trigger their sound. Basically, they would play what I had written on the page, but you would only hear that music start and stop when another instrument is playing a trigger, or a gate, to open up the sound. So, for instance, when you hear hear those strings parts on “Upside Down,” well, string players can’t play that — at least not tight. And they certainly can’t play it for six or seven minutes! Basically what I have them playing is half notes, and I’m having them key off (long-time Chic drummer) Tony Thompson’s drum high hat. We used all of those kind of tricks to get those strings sounding funky and tight and grooving with us, so that it sounds like a band and a unit — as opposed to sweetening. The strings never felt like a sound that we just put on top of the records. They are a part of the groove, as well.”
Rodgers would cite influential producer Giorgio Moroder as an inspiration for the string sequences featured on Upside Down, as well as the Chic classic, I Want Your Love.
As with I’m Coming Out, Nile would incorporate multiple guitar riffs onto the composition at the same time elevating the funkiness, as most evident during the outro of Upside Down.
Despite the fact that DJ Frankie Crocker was not a fan of the track, Nile and Bernard knew that they had created something both truly unique and great. As Rodgers noted, “Upside Down” was unlike any song we’d ever written at the time, and it was unlike any song Diana Ross had ever recorded. But we were sure we hadn’t lost our compositional magic; in fact, it was getting better. We absolutely knew the record was a tour de force. But no matter how much we tried, we could never fully console or convince Diana.”
The duo clearly had a keen eye for a hit record and Upside Down was certainly that, reaching Number 1 on the Billboard charts and various international territories. It would also become one of Ross’ signature tracks.
Diana is well and truly an autobiographical album, giving insight to the listener into the thoughts, feelings and aspirations of the highly publicised celebrity that is Diana Ross. It’s interesting to note that as the songs were written by Nile and Bernard alone, the lyrics come from an outward perspective looking in. Rodgers saw this form of collaboration as an opportunity to take Ross in a new and exciting direction, even if she was hesitant at the time, “We knew we had to placate her ego on some level, but also it was our responsibility to know where she was heading. So let’s deal with subject matters that are relevant to her life. Why make something that’s a Motown cookie-cutter? “OK, come in here and sing this and whoever sings it the best gets the record.” You’re Diana Ross, you’re a superstar, you’re beyond that now. Now we should be crafting things exactly for you. This is your record. But the problem is we do things our way. You may not agree with us, but we’ve done a lot of research and we’re on the outside looking in. And sometimes, as we all well know, other people can see us better than we can see ourselves. I can only see a reflection of me, but you can really see me. So that’s what we were trying to show, Diana, that we really respect you and this is where you should be going.”
After the initial idea for Upside Down was birthed from an interview with Ross, the blueprint for other tracks began to develop as the duo continued to interview and interact with Diana. Nile discussed this further in his 2011 autobiography, Le Freak, “My new life’s going to be fun and adventurous,” was how our next session started. “I want to do exciting new things.” We were just getting to know her, but by now there was a definite story line developing. Although she was upbeat, it soon became obvious to me that Diana Ross was leaving something painful behind. But most survivors possess a gift for looking ahead, and without a doubt, she had it. This interview resulted in a composition called “Have Fun (Again).” We were so impressed (and frankly surprised) by her incredible gentility and kindness, we composed a song called “Tenderness.” This record was clearly going to be about the vulnerable and powerful woman we were getting to know. From our point of view, this album was going to be in the song “My Old Piano.” We paid tribute to Suzanne de Passe and Diana with a song called “Friend to Friend.” It was the best way we knew how to say “thank you” to the two amazing women who’d rescued us from becoming a minor footnote in rock-and-roll history.”
While the duo would use their experiences with Ross to write songs that offer a window into her personal life and thoughts, Diana gives a truly spectacular and convincing vocal performance throughout the album to perfectly compliment the autobiographical lyrics. You can hear the unadulterated joy in her voice during Have Fun Again, and the sincerity as she serenades her companion in Friend To Friend. Tenderness showcases a sensual side to Ross’ vocals, perfectly complimenting the funky composition while on the album closer, Give Up, Diana exudes a playful attitude in her performance. The haunting ballad, Now That Your Gone features a vulnerable side to Ross as she achingly sings of lost love. There is an attitude to Ross’ vocals and her prominent use of a staccato singing style that differs quite dramatically from her previous material.
Sonically, Diana differs from the Chic records that came before it and while it includes the musical motifs of a Rodgers/Edwards production, there is a clear evolution and exploration into new sounds. The duo were able to experiment and explore this new ground that they otherwise would not have been able to entertain on Chic records. Rodgers elaborated, “I knew what we were doing: we could make the kind of record that we wished we could make for ourselves because we had Diana Ross there to protect us. Have Fun (Again) and Now That You’re Gone had this reggae/jazz fusion, time changes, all the things we’d practiced in Chic rehearsals. Diana Ross made it possible for us to get away with these songs and just be the groove band that we were. We knew no one would accept that from Chic.” The album is filled with these incredible and unique musical highlights, such as the duet between the acoustic guitar and piano during the final few minutes of My Old Piano, or the semi-breakdown on the magical outro of Have Fun (Again), showcasing Edward’s extraordinary bass skills, and the background vocalists. Rodgers recollected on the recording of Have Fun (Again), “I think the track that someone’s gonna have a No 1 sampled record with is Have Fun (Again). That is one of the coolest grooves we have ever thought of. It kills me when the track fades back in. That was the Diana Ross we discovered that day; She’d never heard that song and she started grooving and responding to the track. It was cool. Way outside the box.”
With the project completed, the album was submitted to Motown for release, however, Berry Gordy was not pleased with the progressive and unique sound of the end product. Gordy seemingly expected something different from the rich and harder sound Ross had found with her new collaborators. Nile elaborated, “’Upside Down’ is not a Diana Ross record,” said Berry Gordy, “and neither is the rest of the album.” And that scorched-earth response appeared to be unanimous at the label… Motown told us in no uncertain terms that this was not a Diana Ross record. I said to them exactly what I’m saying to you now. “Yeah, you’re right, this isn’t an old Diana Ross record. It’s her next record.” The way we formulated it, we sat her down for days and days and days and we interviewed her, because we wanted it to be about this star’s life. We wanted to make a biographical record for Diana Ross, something that was a holistic version of what this superstar’s life would be like.”
Motown would demand all the tapes from the sessions and then cease contact with Nile and Bernard, as would Ross and De Passe. Soon after, they were fired from the project. Rodgers noted his rightful frustration at the outcome of their hard work that was seemingly being brushed aside by closed-minded executives at Motown. “We were devastated. This was the most important project since our debut, and everybody hated it — everybody except us. Motown stopped communicating with us altogether. We didn’t merit so much as a single reassuring word. Not even from Diana.”
The label would employ their chief engineer Russ Terrana who had previously mixed other famous acts such as The Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder to remix the pair’s work, removing key compositional elements of the songs while also re-recording Ross’ vocals. Nile recollected on when he first heard the new “Motown” mix that would eventually become the released version of the album, “One day a test pressing of Motown’s “mix” of our record arrived, which was a completely different aural experience than what we’d intended. It didn’t have the same punchy big bottom end and used different edits and vocal composites. We hated it and were furious about what had happened to our master-work. Between the interviews with Diana and all the meetings, planning, and rewriting, we’d worked harder than we’d ever worked on any record.”
Bernard similarly recollected in an interview with Blues & Soul a few months after the album’s release, “We’re definitely not happy with the album, When we finished the album and turned it in, Diana wasn’t happy with her vocals. So, she almost went for a remix — and still felt that her voice was too thin. So, we gave her the tapes to do what she felt she wanted and despite the fact that it shouldn’t have been done contractually, another remix was done.”
The contrast between Nile and Bernard’s original mixes (or Chic mixes as they were later categorised) and the Motown, Terrana mix range from jarring to subtle. On tracks like Upside Down, the Motown version removes or significantly lowers the prominent floating string sounds and keys throughout the track. The incredible musical outro on Tenderness, highlighting the sublime interplay between the strings, Rodger’s guitar riffs and Edwards’s bass line was similarly removed on the released adaptation. The arrangement of background vocals on certain tracks like Friend To Friend and Now That You’re Gone were also edited or altered.
More subtly, other instrumental elements such as the sublime piano featured on the verses of Friend To Friend are also absent and Rodger’s subtle guitar strums are similarly buried deep in the composition. The bass line on Now That You’re Gone was also replaced to the dissatisfaction of Edwards who remarked in a 1980 interview, “But they really lost ‘Now That You’re Gone’ — it was a beautiful ballad when we finished with it and they remixed it and used a practice bass line that is completely out of tune.”
I’m Coming Out features a number of subtle, but also obvious differences between Nile and Bernard’s original and the Motown, released mix. The opening, iconic guitar riff is more prominent on the original while the structure of both mixes also differs with an extra chorus at the beginning of the Chic mix. Monardo’s trombone is absent from the bridge of the Motown mix and his trombone solo was also heavily edited. He discussed his thoughts on the remix, “It turned out that when the engineer at Motown saw the track listings of Meco 1–2–3–4, he just assumed that Track 1 was THE track and never listened to the others, and so that’s what is on the record. So, I’m extremely proud to say that my solo is the only jazz trombone solo of a top-ten pop hit in the last 50 years! But — it wasn’t my best — that, unfortunately lies in the vaults at Motown.” Ross’ vocal performance is also far more loose and spontaneous on the original Chic mix.
When comparing the two mixes, it’s clear that the pair’s original vision of the album was to be eclectic, daring and also musically diverse. There is a richness and excitement to the compositions with tracks like I’m Coming Out and Upside Down exuding energy, while ballads like Friend To Friend and Now That You’re Gone featured a sonically vibrant backdrop to compliment Ross’ vocals. The Motown mix strips a lot of these key compositional elements, making the album more commercially accessible but losing the magic of the pair’s original production.
Bernard recollected on his thoughts of the album just after it’s release, “The groove on some of the tracks is good. ‘Give Up’ and ‘Tenderness’ came out quite well. And ‘Upside Down’ is OK — though we don’t exactly love it!… But the album was on the streets before we had even heard it. We started to take some kind of legal action to have the album stopped but we decided against it. Apparently, Diana loves it so we thought we would just sit back and see what happens. If we made a mistake, it was in giving the tapes away so that changes could be made, but you live and you learn — and we’ve definitely learned!”
Nile similarly reflected on the experience in the liner notes of the 2003 re-release of Diana, which included the original Chic mix, “I was devastated on first hearing Motown’s mix. I was in tears over our artistic vision. It had been a long recording process, because Diana had removed herself at one point. It’s not true to say that the record company took it away from us. It was their record all along. They re-created our work with a different slant. Our concept was to make it avant-garde, and their concept was to be a little bit more accessible and commercial. After all, this is Motown. It’s very clear and radio-friendly. We were going to take our names off the record. Thank God, cooler heads prevailed and said: There’s something great here but it has to be made more accessible.”
Diana was released on May 22, 1980 and would be a commercial juggernaut, becoming the biggest album of the singer’s career and demonstrating once again that the pair were capable of creating incredibly successful material, even if the released product was not what the duo intended. With the release of the incredible Chic mix, listeners are able to hear a richer, and more vibrant version of the album as intended by it’s creators.
Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards will rightfully continue to be revered for their incredible contribution to shaping the sound of music for a generation while influencing the direction of contemporary popular music. Through their collaborations with others, their work in Chic and their solo work, they continued to strive towards artistic excellence for both their collaborators and for themselves, creating a rich and varied body of work that will continue to be celebrated.
“People celebrate with music, because it’s the medium of happiness. It can also portray sadness. … Music can change your emotions. It can talk to you. As Harry Belafonte once said, ‘Artists are the gatekeepers of truth’. And music tells the truth.” — Nile Rodgers.
“It makes me laugh to see these people going on about politics. Take rap. Man, they take it too seriously. ‘KRS dissed Public Enemy!’ ‘Ice-T dissed PM Dawn!’ Who cares? That is not the Chic philosophy. The Chic philosophy is; yes, we may have trouble and problems in our lives, but when we get together let’s forget them and have a good time.” — Bernard Edwards.
Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny, by Nile Rodgers. | Blues & Soul Interview: 1979 | Blues & Soul Interview: July 1979 | Blues & Soul Interview: August 1980 | New Musical Express Interview: Jan 1979 |Los Angeles Times Interview: April 1992 | Melody Maker: February 1979 | Guitar Player Interview: November 1984 | Smash Hits: November 1979 | Los Angeles Times Interview: 1981 | Pop Matters | GQ Magazine | The Guardian| Classic Pop Magazine | ARP Journal | EW.Com | Rolling Stone | Interview Magazine | Red Bull Music Academy | Loc.Gov | Yorkshire Evening Post | Independent | Pop Matters