In 2020, we appreciate musical legends like Luther Vandross, Nile Rodgers and Roberta Flack.
The internet, along with time and perspective, has allowed us to recognise and understand the impact of so many artists that might, at some points in their career, have been wildly unappreciated.
In the 1980s, Roberta Flack isn’t knocking out classics like “Killing Me Softly with His Song”, she’s “celebrating her love” with Peabo Bryson. If you don’t know about her former glories, this song isn’t going to get you rooting through your local Our Price for soulful back catalogue gems.
Neither is Luther Vandross a behemoth of soul, co-writing songs with David Bowie on Young Americans. In the eighties he’s a yellow-shirted guy singing minor synth-drenched top forty hits like “Stop to Love” and being trounced in the UK charts by Five Star.
And Chic? They hadn’t had a hit since the first month of 1980, a top thirty hit with “My Feet Keep Dancing”. Just another disco band whose time had passed as the world moved on.
Chic have now earned recognition, and the story of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards – the cornerstones of Chic – is far more rock n roll than you’d expect. The clues were there the whole time, if you were only paying attention.
After all, who did Led Zeppelin call upon when they reformed for their (ill-fated) Live Aid reunion in 1985? Phil Collins may have got all the press, flying on Concorde, but the guy Robert Plant initially called was Chic’s Tony Thompson. You don’t replace Bonham with just anyone.
So just how did Chic get so good that the drummer played with Led Zeppelin? How did Chic help kick off hip hop? How did they inspire Queen? And where does Jimi Hendrix fit in to all of this (because he does)…?
We could start with Bernard Edwards, saxophone player, who switches to playing bass after the bass player in his band got drafted for the war in Vietnam.
The ramifications of that simple twist of fate include Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust” and The Sugarhill Gang’s groundbreaking “Rapper’s Delight”, because both songs stole or sampled liberally from Edwards’ bass line in the hit song “Good Times” (Chic and Queen shared a studio when they were making their respective albums).
Or we could start with Nile Rodgers. In 1968 the sixteen year old Rodgers ran away from home and lived in Greenwich Village, hanging out with fellow musicians on 14th street, watching new bands like Cream and Jethro Tull or acts like Johnny Winter and Jeff Beck. He was a hippie, a member of the Black Panther movement, and on one memorable occasion jammed, under the influence of acid, with Jimi Hendrix.
How rough was New York back then? Well, when Rodgers joined a band with his friend Robbie Dupree, they played a club opposite the Harlem Apollo. Three people in the club were killed the night they played – a triple homicide – with one of the unfortunate victims dying on the band’s amplifiers. It’s not easy to imagine a worse experience at a gig than that, unless you went to see Morrissey last year in concert perhaps.
Rodgers was poor, living in a neighbourhood where parents put cotton wool in their children’s ears to stop the cockroaches crawling in.
He hitchhiked to the Woodstock festival and wrote a song while there, which would later become known as “We Are Family”.
The band fizzled out, but Rodgers kept playing around New York.
It was now, at the beginning of the seventies, that Nile Rodgers met some people who would change his life. One, who was grouchy, lived in a bin. Another ate cookies constantly.
Another was Kermit the Frog.
Because this was when Rodgers joined a touring band backing the characters from new TV show Sesame Street.
Also playing on Sesame Street at the time were Luther Vandross and Carlos Alomar. There’s a great clip on YouTube where you can see Luther sing on the show…
Sesame Street had just been released on TV and was a major hit. They needed a touring band to play in theatres. Vandross and Alomar were already working musicians and would play in a backing band at The Apollo. Nile Rodgers duly joined them, and as well as accompanying Big Bird, he cut his teeth backing visiting musicians such as George Clinton, Aretha Franklin and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
In a short space of time, and thanks in no small part to a mixture of his own talent and Sesame Street, Rodgers had gone from playing illegal clubs where people seemingly regularly got murdered, to hopping across the road, playing for sold out audiences for some of the greatest performers in history. It was here he learned discipline, and how to support the band.
He still played in cover bands in clubs to make ends meet, and it was while jamming in one of these that he met Bernard Edwards. Recognising Edwards’ incredible musicianship, Rodgers drifted towards the bass player, and they soon became friends, and band mates. The basis of Chic was formed.
In 1974, David Bowie called on Luther Vandross and Carlos Alomar to help him make the Young Americans album. Seeing his friends become successful was an inspiration to Rodgers, as was the emergence of a band that used glamorous women on their album covers, Roxy Music.
Rodgers saw the sophisticated, high fashion, elegant and more cerebral approach that Roxy took, and wondered whether taking some of those elements, then adding a beat and their own approach might not be a successful concept.
They hired the hard-hitting Tony Thompson, a jazz-influenced drummer who could also play heavy music, and stripped back his playing. Then came Rob Sabino, a KISS-loving keyboard player. Rodgers admired the way KISS could come offstage and be anonymous, but also be over the top and flamboyant. They produced a demo, which included a song, “Everybody Dance” on which they asked Luther Vandross to sing along with his backing singers Alfa Anderson and Diva Gray. Another song, “Dance Dance Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” came from a Bernard Edwards bass line.
They didn’t know it, but the earliest line up of Chic had formed.
They didn’t call themselves Chic right away, mind you.
Incredibly, “Allah and the Knife Wielding Punks” was under serious consideration, which is probably the least likely name of a band featuring Luther Vandross that you can imagine.
Thankfully some Muslim friends provided Rodgers with sage advice and the idea was dropped.
Although Chic’s lyrics talked of dancing, they were subtly political. Dressing glamorously was a political act also, showing African Americans as upwardly mobile.
They signed for Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records – the man who signed Led Zeppelin. Atlantic pressed 2,000 white label copies of “Dance, Dance, Dance”, cutting the grooves deep and wide so the bass frequencies hit home, and then circulated it at a Disco convention.
The rest is history. The song sold a million copies in the days when that would still only get you into the top ten, but kept from the very top only by songs from Saturday Night Fever. A glittering career was to follow, more hits from Chic and production credits in Rodgers’ case with Bowie and Madonna, and for The Power Station in Edwards’. Thompson played for Power Station too, as well as that Led Zep gig.
As music fans have become less tribal, Chic’s unique and ground-breaking blend of Led Zep drums, proto-hip hop bass, funky guitar and a Roxy Music aesthetic has become less confusing to those who like things to fit into neat and tidy boxes. Chic may have done more than we realise to break down those tribal affiliations. The appreciation of Chic and Nile Rodgers (helped in recent years by Daft Punk and “Get Lucky”) now appears obvious, and that’s surely a great thing.
Further reading: Everybody Dance: Chic and the Politics of Disco by Daryl Easlea