Wednesday 13 December 2017

Feeling lucky

Nick Kelly

Nile Rodgers is on a high. The 60-year-old guitarist, songwriter, producer, blogger and bona fide musical legend has never been more in vogue than he is right now.

Having upstaged the Strolling Bones at Glastonbury, where his band Chic were by consensus the highlight of this year's festival, Nile also had the feelgood anthem of the summer as his collaboration with Daft Punk, 'Get Lucky', went to No 1 in 79 countries. And he also featured prominently on the recently screened BBC4 documentary on the history of disco.

Meanwhile, Warners is releasing a greatest hits album looking back on the storied career of the Chic Organisation, from when they helped kickstart the disco craze in the late 1970s with dancefloor classics like 'Le Freak' and 'Good Times' and including Nile's timeless collaborations with the likes of Sister Sledge ('We Are Family') and Diana Ross ('Upside Down').

What's more, having wowed the faithful at the Forbidden Fruit festival last month, Rodgers is bringing the Chic experience back to Ireland this autumn when they play an Irish tour in October (see details below).

As a new generation falls in love with the music of Nile Rodgers, such success is bittersweet – because he has been battling a life-threatening illness these past two years. His way of dealing with coming face-to-face with his own mortality is, well, to put on his dancing shoes and dance the blues.

"Two years ago I was stricken with very aggressive cancer and the prognosis wasn't that great," says Nile.

"When I was informed of the diagnosis, I thought I'll let the doctors do what they do – that's their job. What can I do to enhance my therapeutic role? Nothing makes me feel better than creating and playing music – that's what makes me feel the best. I decided to ramp that part of my life up. I went on this incredible tear of playing concerts and making records – I have a slew of records coming out."

Nile adds: "Every year I like to pay tribute to my partner (the late Chic bassist) Bernard Edwards, so this new greatest hits record is all songs we've done together, so it's the first time we have on the one album the likes of Debbie Harry, Diana Ross, Sister Sledge . . . Johnny Mathis, even."

But Rodgers is not content to just look back at his glittering career. He's currently the toast of dancefloors from the Copacabana to Copper Face Jacks thanks to his collaboration with Daft Punk on 'Get Lucky' – a sort of modern Gallic twist on classic 1970s Chic.

How did they meet?

"I met Daft Punk 17 years ago in New York at the listening party for their first album," he says. "They said to me 'We dedicate this record to Bernard Edwards and Chic because you guys were a major influence on us'.

"It's funny – you never think that artists are that inspired by your work. In retrospect, it makes sense that it took 16 years because prior to that record, Daft Punk were just two guys sitting in a room making records – they never used live musicians until they did the Tron: Legacy soundtrack. After that, they were inspired because they thought 'our music is good and it can be even better with the participation of others!' I've known that all my life."

Indeed, collaboration has been crucial in the story of Nile Rodgers. His rise to the top of the tree was as swift as it was unlikely, as he explains.

"At 15 years old, I had never touched a guitar. At 19, I was working on Sesame Street. At 20 years old, I was working behind some of the greatest r'n'b artists that ever lived. In four short years, I found myself in the house band at the Harlem Apollo and on tour with the Jackson 5. I was like, 'Wow, can you believe this?'"

One scene in particular in the BBC documentary on the rise and fall of disco sticks in the mind: the infamous Disco Demolition Night in Comiskey Park, Chicago, where thousands of angry white people burned their disco records – a predominantly black music genre – in a bonfire that had looked like nothing so much as a modern-day Ku Klux Klan rally. How did Nile react to this at the time?

"It was heartbreaking. Gut wrenching. Between 1977 and 1979 we had amassed seven, eight, nine gold/platinum records. Then in one fell swoop we were kicked to the side and that's it – after the summer of 1979, Chic never had another hit record again.

"We just wanted to make people happy. But that protest was violent and horrible. They tried to say that it was just a baseball promotion gone awry, yet you didn't see any black faces in that crowd.

"People said that the protest was not actually a backlash against the music but it was a backlash against the lifestyle, so to speak, because we were going through the greatest financial recession since the Great Depression, but meanwhile the disco lifestyle was very hedonistic and celebratory.

"That's when art and artists seem to be at their best – when society is at its worst. If a person is having a tough time getting through the day because they don't have a job and they don't have food, they don't need to be reminded of that. So you do celebratory stuff. It's what we call escapism – that's what entertainment is."

Chic play Ulster Hall, Belfast, on October 23; Milk Market, Limerick, October 25; Radisson Hotel, Galway, October 27; and Vicar Street, Dublin, October 29 and 30. The Chic Organisation: Up All Night is out now.

Irish Independent

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