When Nile Rodgers released his brilliant autobiography he was yet to collaborate with Daft Punk – that’s certainly brought him even more of an audience, brought even more of an audience to him. But the book tells a great tale already, the guest appearances, the production duties, the band Chic, writing songs to order, inventing so many great disco-soul hits.
Then there’s the partying – the non-stop partying. And before that the troubled childhood. You know how – so often – you’re reading a music bio and you just want to skip the first two chapters because it’s all about how the parents met, or grandparents even, and then about being bullied at school, or being the bully and you just want to get to the heart of the art; to the soul of the music…well, Rodgers’ story is fascinating (often harrowing) from near-enough to day one.
Junkie parents had him drug-running before he was a teen, doing dirty errands for them.
As a teenager – obsessed with music, lost in it, his saviour, his salvation, Rodgers joins the travelling Sesame Street band and does his time on the Chitlin Circuit and as a member of the Apollo Theatre house band.
He becomes the world’s greatest rhythm guitarist.
Then there’s Chic – and from there the hits start to come. He and Chic’s bassist, Bernard Edwards, create so many good times for so many people, their hit Good Times becomes the basis for hip-hop’s first big breakout/breakthrough with the Sugarhill Gang lifting it for Rapper’s Delight. The Chic duo writes We Are Family for Sister Sledge, playing on so many of these “outside” hits too; Diana Ross’ I’m Coming Out is another big one.
In telling his story – a remarkable, almost improbable story – Rodgers guides you through the fascinating worlds of 1970s funk and disco and on to the clubbing 1980s with far too much cocaine and booze, the reinvention of David Bowie as a pop-star for the 80s, the discovery of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Madonna and though he doesn’t boast about every triumph – the book could be longer, or he could offer another volume, it’s in fact often brilliantly understated; the writing so clear, it’s both chance to offer up a CV bursting with gems and a cautionary tale.
Rodgers the workaholic produced so many great records in the 1980s and he leaves out a lot of them here – but we do get some great producer insights; he was there when Madonna was still developing her character, so sure of herself – so sure she was going to be a big pop star. He also lovingly describes David Bowie’s rare skill for knowing innately what every song must have.
That of course is Rodgers’ great skill. He ends up telling us that in the book – most of us will know that when we arrive at the memoir anyway. He has great ears and knows a hook. And those hands know what not to play as much as they could ever know exactly what to play.
Think of his contribution to Get Lucky, the runaway smash by Daft Punk this year. It’s a simple line that Nile plays – but could anyone else play it and get that sound? Not in the first instance. It’s his touch, his feel, his years of playing, of knowing, of feeling.
And that’s exactly what comes out and comes across in this book. The soul of the man. One of the true living legends of pop music.
Le Freak is must-read stuff for any fan of music.