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|Also Known As:||Gregory Nile Rodgers||Died:|
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One of the most prolific and successful songwriter-guitarist-producers of the late 20th century and beyond, Nile Rodgers first rose to fame in the mid-1970s as co-architect of the funk-R&B group Chic, which produced such defining hits of the disco era as "Le Freak" and "Good Times." Chic's music would, for a period, wield enormous influence over the pop and rock worlds while serving as a cornerstone of the rap movement when the Sugarhill Gang adopted "Good Times" as the backing track for their pioneering hit "Rapper's Delight." The collapse of disco also brought Chic to an end, but Rodgers segued smoothly into production work, where he shepherded some of the biggest hit records for David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran, the B-52's, Diana Ross, INXS and countless others. The 1990s saw Rodgers move into soundtrack work for features while briefly reviving Chic before the death of the band's co-founder, his longtime partner Bernard Edwards, in 1996. Rodgers soon added soundtrack work for blockbuster video games like "Halo" to his expansive résumé while creating the We Are Family organization to support cultural diversity in the wake of the September 11th attacks. As an influential songwriter, musician and...
One of the most prolific and successful songwriter-guitarist-producers of the late 20th century and beyond, Nile Rodgers first rose to fame in the mid-1970s as co-architect of the funk-R&B group Chic, which produced such defining hits of the disco era as "Le Freak" and "Good Times." Chic's music would, for a period, wield enormous influence over the pop and rock worlds while serving as a cornerstone of the rap movement when the Sugarhill Gang adopted "Good Times" as the backing track for their pioneering hit "Rapper's Delight." The collapse of disco also brought Chic to an end, but Rodgers segued smoothly into production work, where he shepherded some of the biggest hit records for David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran, the B-52's, Diana Ross, INXS and countless others. The 1990s saw Rodgers move into soundtrack work for features while briefly reviving Chic before the death of the band's co-founder, his longtime partner Bernard Edwards, in 1996. Rodgers soon added soundtrack work for blockbuster video games like "Halo" to his expansive résumé while creating the We Are Family organization to support cultural diversity in the wake of the September 11th attacks. As an influential songwriter, musician and producer, Nile Rodgers was among the top echelon of talent in the history of popular music.
Born Sept. 19, 1952 in New York City, Nile Gregory Rodgers endured a harrowing, almost Dickensian childhood. Raised in the East Village by a teenaged mother and a white stepfather who sold heroin to support their mutual habits, Rodgers would occasionally see his biological father, who suffered from debilitating mental illness, living on the streets. He also endured severe asthma, which required him to spend much of his fifth and sixth years under oxygen tents in a convalescent home. The home proved to be, like so many things in Rodgers' early life, a double-edged sword; while he benefited greatly from its early childhood development program, he was also subjected to sexual abuse by the home's caretaker. At around seven years of age, he was shipped off to live with his maternal grandmother after his mother was committed to psychiatric care for attempting to kill his younger brother while in the grip of post-partum depression. There, he fell in love with the movies, but spent so much time in theaters along Skid Row that he was expelled and sent back to live with his mother after her recovery.
Despite the squalor of his home life in New York, Rodgers received an education in modern jazz from his mother, who not only introduced him to records by Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, but counted many famed jazz musicians, along with noted writers and artists, among her "clients." He began pursuing his interest in music as a member of various school orchestras. Unfortunately, his mother experienced a relapse of her addiction, which prompted the entire family to move to Los Angeles. There, the 12-year-old Rodgers worked in a variety of jobs at the private airport in Van Nuys, where he met many of the top artists in the music industry, including Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Ray Charles, as they disembarked from their flights. During this period, Rodgers continued to hone his musical talents, initially by playing clarinet in school orchestras before teaching himself to play guitar. Rodgers also began experimenting with drugs during this period, sampling a wide variety of substances before settling into a powerful and debilitating cocaine addiction that would last until the early '90s.
Rodgers returned to New York in the late '60s, where he found steady work as a guitar player in various bands, as well as a musical performer on the PBS series "Sesame Street" (1969- ). At 19, he joined the famed house band at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, where he backed such R&B greats as Aretha Franklin and Parliament-Funkadelic, among others. In 1970, he met another musically gifted teenager, Bernard Edwards, with whom he would form a lasting partnership. The pair played together in a variety of bands, most notably the Big Apple Band, which backed the vocal group New York City. When the group fizzled after the failure of their second record, Rodgers and Edwards decided to form their own group. After a brief stint as a New Wave act called Allah and the Knife Wielding Punks, the pair returned to their R&B roots, enlisting former LaBelle drummer Tony Thompson and singers Norma Jean Wright and Alfa Anderson in a group they dubbed Chic.
Rodgers and Edwards' vision for Chic was a sleek, stylish and polished group like the Motown acts of the past, with harmony vocals and Rodgers' stinging funk guitar riding the fluid, propulsive rhythm section of Edwards' complicated bass line and Thompson's flawless dance beats. Their tight arrangements allowed them to execute a flawless take on the breakdown, a musical flourish by which each of the instruments would drop out of the track, leaving only the rhythm section, before rebuilding to full strength. But Chic's first single, the Rodgers/Edwards-penned "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)," failed to generate any label interest. The small Buddah label, which had scored hits for the Isley Brothers, Curtis Mayfield and Bill Withers, eventually, released the song in 1977, which exploded on the burgeoning disco scene. Atlantic Records swiftly moved in to sign Chic to their roster and reissue the song, which shot to No. 6 on the pop charts. A quickly assembled, self-titled debut soon followed, as well as a second hit, "Everybody Dance," in early 1978.
Chic's sophomore album, C'est Chic (1978), truly established the group as superstars with the single "Le Freak," which shot to No. 1 on the Billboard pop, dance and R&B charts at the same time, making it the first single in Atlantic's storied catalog to do so. The success of the song and its follow-up, "I Want Your Love," which reached No. 7 on the Hot 100, made C'est Chic one of the first disco albums to achieve platinum status. The following year, Rodgers and Edwards scored again with Risque (1979), which produced another chart-topping hit with "Good Times." Though not quite the history-making success as "Le Freak," the song would send seismic ripples throughout the music industry off and on for years. Established rock acts would add elements of funk and disco to their material, most notably the Rolling Stones with "Miss You" and Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust," which was almost a note-by-note remake of "Good Times." More importantly, the song would serve as the backing track for the Sugarhill Gang's "Rapper's Delight," one of the first hip-hop songs to achieve national airplay and a cornerstone of the rap genre as a whole.
Rodgers and Edwards were soon in-demand producers for other acts, most notably Sister Sledge, who scored back-to-back No. 1 R&B hits with "He's the Greatest Dancer" and the monster hit "We Are Family" in 1979. The following year, they refashioned Diana Ross's career for the disco era with "Upside Down" and "I'm Coming Out" from her 1980 album Diana for Motown, and oversaw Blondie singer Deborah Harry's solo debut, Koo Koo, in 1981. But as they rose in prominence as producers, Chic had begun to suffer from the backlash against disco that surfaced in the early 1980s. Their fourth LP, Real People (1980), failed to reach gold sales status, and subsequent releases followed a similar downward trajectory. After completing the soundtrack to the movie "Soup for One" (1982), Chic would finish out their contract with Atlantic with Believer in 1983 before calling it quits that same year. Rodgers released his own solo album, Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove in 1983, but the album found few listeners. That same year, he teamed with David Bowie to produce Let's Dance (1983), which revitalized the British rocker's flagging career. Its success minted Rodgers as a producer with a Midas touch, and led to an astonishing string of hits for a wide variety of pop artists. He brought groove and soul to such rock and New Wave acts as INXS and Duran Duran, for whom he produced the latter's highest-selling single, "The Reflex," in 1983. His next record, Madonna's Like a Virgin (1985), surpassed both efforts in both popularity and sheer impact on the national zeitgeist.
For much of the 1980s, Rodgers lent his Midas touch to such performers as Robert Plant's Honeydrippers side project, Peter Gabriel, Mick Jagger, Bryan Ferry, Jeff Beck and the Thompson Twins. By 1985, Billboard had named him the No. 1 Singles Producer in the World, but he refused to rest on his laurels, overseeing Duran Duran's Notorious (1986) while performing similar duties for Grace Jones and Al Jarreau. His flawless guitar work was also heard on dozens of hits from the decade, from Steve Winwood's massively popular "Higher Ground" single to material by Gabriel, Cyndi Lauper, Laurie Anderson and many others. Rodgers closed out the decade by composing the orchestral score for Eddie Murphy's smash hit "Coming to America" (1988), which led to more soundtrack work, including "Earth Girls Are Easy" (1988). The following year, he revived the B-52's dwindling fortunes by co-producing their comeback record, Cosmic Thing, which featured their hits "Love Shack" and "Roam," among others.
Rodgers' career showed no signs of slowing down in the 1990s, with stellar work on Family Style (1990), the posthumous collaboration between brothers Stevie Ray and Jimmy Vaughn, as well as hits for David Bowie, Eric Clapton, Ric Ocasek, Cathy Dennis and scores of other artists. In 1992, he and Edwards performed some of their greatest hits as Chic at a birthday party, which received overwhelmingly positive response from the attendees. Both men decided to re-launch the group with new vocalists and session musicians standing in for Thompson, who had joined the super group The Power Station. The new lineup released Chic-Ism in 1992 which spawned two Top 5 club singles in "Chic Mystique" and "Your Love," as well as a substantial world tour. Two years later, Rodgers gained control of a cocaine habit that had spiraled out of control for the better part of the previous two decades.
In 1996, Rodgers' exceptional career was feted by a concert in Japan featuring some of his most successful collaborators and admirers, including Edwards, Sister Sledge, Steve Winwood and Slash. The celebration, however, was cut short when Edwards died of pneumonia shortly after the show. After mourning his longtime partner and friend, Rodgers returned to a busy schedule that soon included his own record label and distribution unit, Sumthing, which produced soundtracks for top-selling video games like the "Halo" (Bungle, 2001-2010) and "Resident Evil" (Capcom, 1996- ) franchises. The September 11, 2001 attacks prompted Rodgers to launch the We Are Family Foundation, which encouraged cultural diversity and respect. With the help of Tommy Boy Records president Tom Silverman, Rodgers organized a new version of the Sister Sledge hit "We Are Family" that featured over 200 musicians and celebrities and a music video directed by Spike Lee. A subsequent documentary, "The Making and Meaning of We Are Family," played the Sundance Film Festival in 2002. The new millennium was also marked by Rodgers' receipt of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences New York Chapter Governor's Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as induction with Edwards into the Dance Music Hall of Fame in 2005.
In 2010, Rodgers was diagnosed with cancer, which became the focus of a blog on his official website, nilerogers.com. The announcement did little to slow down his prodigious workload, which soon included a remarkably frank autobiography, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny in 2010. The following year, he collaborated with Adam Lambert on the single "Shady" from his chart-topping album Trespassing (2012). That same year, Rodgers announced that he was collaborating with the electronica band Daft Punk on their latest release, despite still waging an ongoing battle against cancer.
By Paul Gaita
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