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BLACK MUSIC MONTH PREVIEW: NILE RODGERS LOOKS BACK (PART 2)

As we prepare our Black Music Month special, we present the second half of musical Renaissance man Nile Rodgers' in-depth conversation with the Mother of BMM, Dyana Williams.

Read Part One first, for goodness' sake.

Considering how much pop success you’ve had, people might be surprised by your jazz background.
I was raised with modern jazz. All my early stuff, I was sort of basing it on [jazz piano great] McCoy Tyner. Before we became Chic, we were a jazz fusion/R&B group, The Big Apple Band. And we noticed that jazz artists—Herbie Hancock, Roy Ayers, Norman Connors—were getting hits on the R&B and pop charts. I said, “Wait a minute; I can write jazz-influenced pop-dance stuff. Hence “Everybody Dance.” We could walk down the street with our heads held high but still maybe get hit records. When we did, it was so rewarding to me that I’d been able to keep my jazz vibe.

One of the greatest moments of my life, I was walking down the street and the great jazz pianist Harold Mabern walked up behind me and tapped me on my shoulder and said, “You know, I hear what you’re doing, blood.”

After I’d hired Herbie Hancock to play with me on Mick Jagger’s album and do The Stray Cats with me, I went to the Village Vanguard when he was playing, and he asked me to come up. We played “Stella by Starlight,” and I was killing it. I remember nights where I played with Les Paul and he’d call out a standard like “How High the Moon” or something, and I could hold my own. Right after that night at the Vanguard, Herbie was on this TV show, where he said, “You guys talk about Nile Rodgers like he’s only this one thing, but I can tell you, don’t count this brother out because he knows a lot more than you think.”

Do you remember some of the other jazz clubs?
There were a ton of thriving jazz clubs downtown and up on 52nd Street. In the Village, in addition to the Vanguard, there was The Top of the Village Gate. Of course there was The Blue Note. Slugs’, on the Lower East Side, was really happening. That’s where [trumpeter] Lee Morgan was killed [by his wife, who shot him while he was onstage]. We only did one gig at Slugs’, unfortunately, because there were a lot of deaths in those days, from drugs and other causes. A lot of people don’t realize that the downtown scene, especially on the Lower East Side, was intense.

What about dance clubs, like the Cheetah?
I’m really happy you’re going all the way back to The Cheetah because it’s super-important. People don’t remember that it was a real disco dance club. Another club, Tamburlaine, aka The Sanctuary, became famous in the movie Klute. The Loft, Crisco Disco—those downtown joints were just as hip and bohemian as the jazz clubs.

I didn’t actually go to the discos that much, though. I only went because of gigs. I remember when we were playing 2001 Odyssey, the club from Saturday Night Fever, no Black people went to that club.

Why not?
Bernard and I used to back Carol Douglas, who had a big disco record called “Doctor’s Orders.” When we played at 2001 Odyssey, the Italian guys had to come to the subway and escort me to the club because the first night I went there, I wound up running to the club—people were chasing me, and they were out for blood. The Italian guys said, “Man, are you crazy? You can’t walk these streets.” There were no Black people around. That early disco scene was not really my scene, spiritually, but I was doing the gigs.

That’s one of the reasons Saturday Night Fever is such a powerful film—that movie was talking about racism; when John Travolta’s character wins first prize for being the best dancer and sees that the Latin couple was much better than him and his partner, he says to his friends, “You voted for me because I’m one of you. They were clearly better than us.”

What role did radio, especially Black radio, play in Chic’s success? The powerhouse station in New York was 107.5 WBLS-FM, programmed by the Dean of Black Radio, air personality Frankie Crocker, my former boss.
I lived on 43rd Street between Second and First Avenue in a place called Tudor City. Humphrey Bogart was born in that building. I lived in the penthouse. My apartment was beautiful. It was a half block from WBLS, and I used to see Frankie Crocker—I believe his car was a burgundy convertible Rolls Royce. My then-girlfriend’s best friend went out with Nicky Barnes, a famous Harlem gangster. So all these people were my girlfriend’s friends. She knew all the DJs at WBLS. By the time I became my own composer and my own boss, WBLS was the #1 station in America.

I didn’t think we could go directly to WBLS with “Dance, Dance, Dance”; I was convinced we had to break somewhere close to WBLS before we could get on the airwaves there. The first station to play “Dance, Dance, Dance” was WAMO in Pittsburgh, where the phones lit up. Then it spread to Philadelphia. A guy named Joe “Butterball” Tamburro, Music and Program Director of 105.3 WDAS-FM, became the hero of “Dance, Dance, Dance”—Butterball played it in heavy rotation from the jump. Then a new station in New York, 99X [WXLO], went on the air just as the song was going from WAMO to WDAS. When they played “Dance, Dance, Dance,” it got Frankie’s attention.

But I don’t think he liked the record, because of “Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah.” [“Yowza” is an interjection used to express surprise or amazement whose first recorded use was in 1932.] People thought we were going, “Ya balls.” I was the most anti-authority person you ever met—I was a subsection leader in the Black Panther Party—but that’s not what we were saying; we were paying tribute to the 12-inch record. We thought that this new format, where you can make songs really long, was reminiscent of the dance marathons that took place during the Great Depression, where people danced until they dropped trying to win prize money. That’s where the “yowsah, yowsah, yowsah” came from.

The late ’70s was also a period of financial difficulty in the U.S. Gas was being rationed. But the disco environment was something totally different—it looked hedonistic, like we all had money and were living our best lives. In fact, it was escapism, like people watching those marathon dancers back in the ’30s.

From top: A typical example of Rodgers' sartorial verve; with Herbie Hancock and Mick Jagger; defining the freak with Chic; tuning in with David Bowie and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Photos courtesy of Nile Rodgers

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