Cruising with Nile

Nile Rodgers performing at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Oscar Party. Photo: AP/Nekesa Mumbi Moody/PA Photos
Nile Rodgers performing at the Elton John AIDS Foundation Oscar Party. Photo: AP/Nekesa Mumbi Moody/PA Photos

Less than two years since it was released, it’s already difficult to imagine pop music if Daft Punk’s Get Lucky hadn’t been released.

The song signalled the French duo’s return to music after a few years away, but as much as they - and co-writer Pharrell Williams - are present on the track, it really does sound like Nile Rodgers’ baby.

His unmistakable guitar-playing, sitting on top of a tight bass groove, was the foundation of almost all of Chic’s recordings - in fact, it wouldn’t be outrageous to think, had he kept the band together a bit longer, they might’ve got around to writing Get Lucky themselves.

The modern disco song has since spawned a string of imitators and tracks that nod to a similar vibe. Mark Ronson’s Uptown Funk would likely not have been such a global hit without Get Lucky paving the way; indeed, Ronson’s guitar part on that track is often mistaken for Rodgers.

“The biggest compliment I ever got was when someone asked me if I’d got Nile Rodgers to play guitar on Uptown Funk,” Ronson said recently.

Rodgers is still enjoying the Get Lucky effect. Of course, he’s been an active musician since 1970 and was part of the biggest band of the disco era, so the attention isn’t a new thing.

“The coolest thing about Get Lucky is that it’s given us another song to play,” says the New York-born musician.

When we meet at his hotel room, he’s watching The Bourne Legacy on his laptop between interviews, ignoring the 41,000-odd unread emails in his inbox. “What can I say, I’ve got my priorities right,” he says, having been caught out.

“I’ve worked with Avicii and Tensnake recently, and they have been huge records. For Tensnake, it was the first time they had been in the charts, so that was great. But if I played it [the song, Love Sublime] at a Chic show, next to I’m Coming Out, then it’s not going to stand up,” he says, referring to the 1980 single he co-wrote and produced with former bandmate Bernard Edwards for Diana Ross.

“I can play Get Lucky because that was as big a hit, like No 1 in 97 counties or something. That song really meant something, all over the world.”

For 62-year-old Rodgers, choosing a set list for his live shows is a difficult, often frustrating task.

He says it’s hard to play much new material, because audiences don’t really go to concerts to hear new music, they want to hear songs they love.

“When I was a kid, the definition of a concert was that you went to hear music that you didn’t know, with some hits sparkled in,” he says. “We were in the age of discovery back then, we went to a show to hear someone trying stuff out, or play their new album before it was released.

“Now, go to a show of anyone popular - and bang! The people are off to the bathroom as soon as there’s a new song. People don’t have the bandwidth to discover something new. They’re fiddling with their phones, and then they might look up if you play something they know.”

As a result, Rodgers and Chic are locked into playing hits like Good Times, Le Freak, Everybody Dance and Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah). Most bands would kill for a song half as good as any of those - but it’s understandable that Rodgers might be getting slightly bored, 40 years after they were written.

“We love the fact that everyone loves to hear Chic stuff and don’t tire of it, don’t get me wrong,” he says. “But we have to play an extended set now, because I’m getting tired of them. We have so many songs in our arsenal, but we can’t play them because we only have so much time on stage.”

If you do go to see Rodgers and Chic this month - and you really should if you can - you’ll hear a medley of hits by other artists, as well as Chic songs.

Those hits may have been recorded by other artists, but Rodgers wrote them. He’ll often play David’s Bowie’s Let’s Dance, He’s The Greatest Dancer, Lost In Music and We Are Family by Sister Sledge, Carly Simon’s Why, or a handful of Madonna songs. All at least co-written and produced by Rodgers.

Is he, partly at least, also playing them to make sure everybody’s aware that he wrote them?

He says that’s not the reason, that he just wants to keep the show entertaining, but something he says hints at the niggling feeling that he’s not had his dues...

“Did you know The Beatles are the only act that have had numbers 1-5 [at the same time] on the Billboard chart in the US? But I’ve had 1, 2 and 3. And as well as that, I am the only act that has had the No 1 three times [for the same song]. Chic were No 1 and got knocked off by Barbra Streisand, then we went to No 1 again, then got knocked off, then went back to No 1 again.

“That only happened to Chic, but if that had happened to The Beatles or the Stones, then I guarantee that everyone would know it. But it happened to us, so no one knows it.”

He will have another shot at making chart records when he releases two new singles this month, and an album in June.

The music is 40 years in the making and dates back to Chic’s very first recording session in 1976, although the tapes had been mislaid until recently, when Rodgers found them and began working on adding new parts to the songs.

“I couldn’t stop smiling when I heard it all. Bernard’s bass!” he says.

Bernard Edwards; Rodgers’ best friend, Chic bassist and musical collaborator. They met while part of the Sesame Street touring band in 1970, and played together until Edwards’ death in 1996. Rodgers found Edwards dead in his hotel room in Japan after he’d taken ill after a show in Tokyo’s Budokan.

When Rodgers shows me a preview of the video to Chic’s forthcoming single I’ll Be There, he wells up at footage of him and Edwards singing together on US TV show Soul Train. “Every damn time,” he says, smiling.

“The first song I wrote and recorded with Chic was Everybody Dance, and I’ll Be There was recorded at that same session, so it features all the same musicians; Luther Vandross is on there. It’s very symbolic,” Rodgers adds.

“It gives me an opportunity to play with bandmates that have passed away.”