Multiple Grammy winner shares the backstory of his hit song “Le Freak” and talks about award-winning songs that he produced for Diana Ross and Madonna.
Musician-producer Nile Rodgers
Tavis: I am pleased to welcome Nile Rodgers to this program. Along with his band Chic he helped define the music back in the late 1970s and beyond, for that matter, with a string of classic dance hits.
His life in and out of music has been defined by some incredible moments and numerous twists and turns, and so his new memoir is called “Le Freak: An Upside-Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny.”
Nile, I apologize to you in advance that I do not have enough time (laughter) to do justice to your life. I’m just telling you up front, man. You have lived such an incredible life and done so many things, I can’t do justice to all of it. But I’m glad you’re here for the book.
Nile Rodgers: I’m thrilled to be here, man, you have no idea. I’m like, “I’m on the ‘Tavis Smiley Show,’ yes.” (Laughs)
Tavis: No, I’m honored to have you here. Let me start – I was trying to figure out, when you’ve lived as much life as you have and done so many things, it’s hard to know where to start, but I want to start, I think, with the music.
Behind every one of these songs there is a great story. The first one we’re going to have to clean up, since this is PBS.
Tavis: Family television. But it is a great story for how the song “Freak Out” came to be. So I will – remember we’re on PBS, now.
Rodgers: I’m okay, I’m okay. (Laughter)
Tavis: But tell the story of how “Freak Out” came to be such a huge hit.
Rodgers: Okay. Well, I’ll tell you how it came into existence.
Rodgers: What happened was Grace Jones had picked up on our early songs, on our early couple of singles, and she had decided that she wanted my partner, Bernard Edwards, and myself, to produce her new album. So she says – I don’t know if you know how Grace talks, but she has that weird accent.
Tavis: I know it well, yeah.
Rodgers: So, “Darling, come to the back door and just tell them that you’re a personal guest of mine and you need to see my show so you can really understand who I am as a complete artist.” We said, “All right, cool.” We go and we knock on the back door and we say, “We’re personal guests of Grace Jones.” The guy looks at us for two seconds and slams the door in our faces. He says F you, blank, blank off, and we’re like, “Wait a minute, no, no, no, no.” We’re knocking on the door, “No, we really are.”
So we thought well, maybe she left our names at the front door. We go around to the front door, swim through this massive sea of humanity, get the guy’s attention and we tell him, “No, we’re personal friends of Grace Jones.”
Anyway, long story short we realized that it was an exercise in futility. I was going nowhere. So I happened to live around the corner from Studio 54, and music is our recreation as well as our livelihood, so we picked up our instruments and we started jamming on this groove (makes noise), and we started saying, “F Studio 54, aw,” (makes noise). (Laughter) “F Studio 50 – awww,” (makes noise).
My partner, Bernard, who has an amazing ear for hooks, pulled this number on me. “Now you know this S-H,” blah, blah, blah, “is happening.” I said, “Come on, Nard, we can’t get this on the radio. What are they going to do? “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Casey Kasem’s Top 40. We got the new song by Chic called -”
Tavis: “F Off.” (Laughter)
Rodgers: Right. So we changed it to “Freak Off,” figuring that was a good euphemism for that, and it just didn’t have any sex appeal. So then I said, “Well, Bernard, you know, like, man, when you take a little acid and your brain is,” blah, blah, blah, and you freak out.
Now, Bernard is a straight R&B background. He had nothing, no concept of what I was talking about, so I quickly said, “And you know that new dance, The Freak?” Bernard says, “Yeah, my kids are doing that.” We said “Freak Out,” like when you’re freaking out on the dance floor, you’re having a good time, and that’s what happened.
Tavis: So “Freak Out” is the result of being told to F-off by the guy –
Tavis: – by the guy at the door at Studio 54.
Rodgers: Believe it or not, because of Facebook, the gentleman who did this about six months ago, right when I was turning in the book, when I was doing the final edit, he called me up and he apologized. He said, “Nile, I’m really sorry, but I was the kid.” Then he gave me the security guy’s name, so I knew he was telling the truth.
Tavis: Wow. (Laughs)
Rodgers: I says, “Okay, it’s cool.” The truth is that had we gotten in, that song would have never happened because it was a complete reaction to real words.
Tavis: He didn’t ask for any royalties, did he?
Rodgers: Oh, of course not, come on.
Tavis: (Unintelligible) (Laughter)
Rodgers: But you know that in our business –
Tavis: I’m just asking, man, yeah.
Rodgers: – people do stuff like that.
Tavis: “I’m the guy that told you that, and I think I’m entitled to some royalties off the song.”
Rodgers: Yeah, right. (Laughter) “Here’s my lawyer’s -”
Tavis: You know how the business works, yeah, yeah. It’s not just the stuff that you did that we know you did. What blows me away about this book is the stuff that you either wrote or produced that I didn’t know that Nile Rodgers did.
Tavis: “Let’s Dance?” David Bowie?
Rodgers: Yeah. Yeah. That was my lifeline back into the music business. What had happened is that when the disco sucks phenomenon hit in the summer of ’79, we put out our last hit on Chic, which was “Good Times.” Then we got a little bit of a reprieve because right after that we followed up with Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down.”
Tavis: We’re going to come back to that, yeah, yeah. (Laughter)
Rodgers: I already know what story you’re going to ask.
Tavis: We’ll come back to that, yeah.
Rodgers: So basically what happened is that after Diana, I had six flops in a row. Then I met David Bowie at an after-hours club and we started talking. I knew he was friends with Luther Van Dross. They all lived in the same building. We started chatting. He told me about jazz and how much he loved jazz.
The next thing I know we were like that. “Let’s Dance” rescued my career. After that I did INXS, which brought me to Duran Duran, then Madonna –
Tavis: You produced “Like a Virgin.”
Rodgers: Yeah, biggest album of my life.
Tavis: For Madonna.
Rodgers: Twenty-something million albums.
Tavis: Gee whiz.
Rodgers: I was on a roll after that.
Tavis: For a guy who’s classically trained, what do you make of the different genres that you’ve been able to not just perform and produce in, but to succeed in?
Rodgers: When you say what do I make of them, well, I just love music in general, and when I was younger I wasn’t absolutely certain what kind of music I was going to go into. It was actually my partner, Bernard Edwards, who helped me develop my sort of funky jazz style.
I used to be in the Apollo Theater house band. Actually, you may not know this – I started out with “Sesame Street.” That was my first gig out of high school. (Laughs) So I was with “Sesame Street.” (Laughter)
Tavis: These PBS stories kill me. You never know where they come from.
Rodgers: So this was the second year and the stars of “Sesame Street” were Bob and Susan on camera – that was Bob McGrath and Loretta Long. Loretta’s husband was Peter Long, who was a manager at the Apollo Theater, and they needed a music reader, because the Apollo was like 30 acts a night.
I auditioned for the Apollo Theater house band right from “Sesame Street.” That led me to New York City and then that led me to Bernard Edwards and Chic and the rest of my career.
Tavis: You are only here today, unlike a lot of folk in your generation who were taken out by drugs, you’re only here because of an incident in an elevator that saved your life that you talk about poignantly in the book. Tell me the story.
Rodgers: I lived in a high-rise building in New York City, across from Lincoln Center, and I lived on the 28th floor. One night I was out partying all night, which is what I did typically every night back in those days, and somehow, I pushed the number 14 instead of 28. I don’t know why I pushed 14.
Actually, in my building, 14 was 13. It was one of those buildings that went from 12 to 14.
Rodgers: My heart stopped, and I had fallen out of the elevator and basically I was dead. The staff, the way that they emptied the garbage in my old building is they start at the top and they worked their way down. Had I gotten to the 28th floor they would have already passed my floor and I would have fallen out dead on my landing.
I happened to fall out dead on the 14th floor just as the janitors were coming by. They did – I don’t think they did mouth-to-mouth; they were like, “No, brother, you ain’t,” but they were able to revive me enough for the paramedics to just come from across the street, which is where the hospital was.
They revived me, but my heart stopped eight times in one night. I kept coding over and over again. Once my heart would start it wouldn’t continue beating. Finally, they were filling out the death certificate. They had given up, and my heart started going again. The orderly said, “Hey, Doc, we got a live one over here,” and he said, “What do you mean?” He says, “Yeah, he’s going.” He says, “Well, what do you want me to do?” and he says, “Obviously, nothing.”
They wheeled me out into the hallway, kept the monitoring machine on me, and the doctor stayed around to tell me the story.
Tavis: This is a strange segue, but given that you were able to live to keep doing what you do, there are those who had said at the time that you were, pardon the pun, killing Diana Ross’s career. (Laughter) They said this is going to be the death of Diana Ross’s career if you let Nile Rodgers, let Nile and Bernard get a hold of you do this record.
Rodgers: This song, yeah.
Tavis: This song. Motown doesn’t want to put it out, they think it’s horrible.
Tavis: They sit on it for a while, they don’t put it out. Eventually, something happens, they put the record out, and I’ll let you tell the rest of the story.
Rodgers: So what happened was back in the day all of the music in the underground sort of germinated in these really cool clubs, and one of the coolest clubs in New York was a transvestite club called the GG Barnum Room.
So one day I happened to go in the GG Barnum Room. I was in the bathroom relieving myself and I happened to notice on either side of me there were Diana Ross impersonators, and I couldn’t laugh because I didn’t want to offend anybody.
So I said to my partner, I called him up, I says, “You’re not going to believe this, but I’m in the bathroom doing my thing and there are, like, a bunch of Diana Ross impersonators. Since we’re aware of the way that the gay community feels about Diana Ross, what if we did a song where Diana acknowledged her alignment with the gay community, or at least their alignment with her?”
And my boy says, “That’s a great idea.” I said, “Yeah, and you should have seen these dudes in the bathroom.” We wrote the song “I’m Coming Out.” Diana asks us to make a rough mix of “I’m Coming Out” to play it for a DJ named Frankie Crocker, who happened to be the number one DJ not only in New York but –
Tavis: In the country, exactly.
Rodgers: So she played the record for me. She was thrilled. “Oh, Frankie, listen to my new song,” and Frankie was rather worldly. So when he heard the lyrics, “I’m Coming Out,” he knew that that was a sort of gay catchphrase, and he obviously told Diana.
She came back to the studio almost in tears and asked us point-blank why we were trying to ruin her career. I said, “What are you talking about?” She says, “Are people going to think I’m gay?” This is the one and only time I’ve ever lied to an artist. I looked her point-blank right in the face and says, “Diana, what are you talking about?”
She said, “Well, Nile, Frankie told me that people are going to think I’m gay.” I says, “You’ve got to be kidding me. Diana, you are the most sexy woman, you are our Black queen. You are the soul diva. Who could even think such a thing?”
Eventually they put the record out, shot to number one, along with “Upside-Down,” the biggest record of her career, and last night at my book signing party one of the greatest feelings of accomplishment was when I looked up and I saw Suzanne de Passe in the crowd, because it was Suzanne de Passe who singlehandedly took care of us throughout that whole ordeal.
The entire Motown company was against this record. They said it was not a Diana Ross record and we tried to explain to them that it wasn’t Diana Ross’s last record, it’s Diana Ross’s next record. That’s what we do. We don’t do the last record, we do the next record.
This is the most logical step for this woman to make because of all she’s done, and this sort of encapsulates her whole career and says, “I’m coming out. I’m an independent woman, I’m leaving Motown,” because as you know, that was her last record on Motown, and her biggest, which allowed her to go to RCA and negotiate a big deal, eventually go back to Motown when it was sold and get an executive vice presidency.
Tavis: The postscript on this is not only does it bring Diana back, becoming, as you said, her biggest-selling record, the record is hot enough that years later a guy named Biggie Smalls (laughter) – so Biggie and Diddy end up –
Rodgers: And Puff, yeah.
Tavis: – and Puff end up sampling, and it becomes a big hit for them on the sample.
Rodgers: I was on an airplane, right? I’m sitting there, and John Singleton and Bret Ratner are on the airplane with me. We’re sitting up in first class and they put headphones on me. That’s the first time I hear that record, and I hear, (singing) “I don’t know what they want from me.” I’m like, listening, “I’m coming – (unintelligible).” I’m like, going, “Who thought of this?” and they said this was Puff’s new record with Biggie.
I was like, “Oh, man.” It was genius, and I sat there flying across the country listening to this record, and I just thought, ka-ching.
Tavis: I know you – (laughter).
Rodgers: Ka-ching. I said, “Man,” I was like, “Hey, Puff, I love it.” (Laughter) Because ever since “Rapper’s Delight,” a lot of people have been worried that oh, you sample a Nile Rodgers record, you’re going to get sued. I said, “No, no, no.” The only problem that we had with “Rapper’s Delight” was that they took our music well before – it was the first record with sampling on it.
So just for the television audience, when we did “Good Times,” Sugar Hill Gang came and they sampled our strings from “Rapper’s Delight,” but they also used our bass line and there was a whole postmodern interpretation of the thing.
We sued them because it was a copyright infringement. As you know, I can’t take the “Tavis Smiley Show” and put it on my other network and say, “Well, I’m sitting here with my man, Tavis Smiley,” (Laughter) and I match your questions to something else. “I can’t believe Tavis said that.” (Laughter)
So what happened, all we wanted to do was ask our permission, and then now that it’s a huge hit, pay us, and “Rapper’s Delight” was only available on 12-inch, it was three times the list price. So it was $2.99, and it was a platinum record at $2.99, millions of dollars that should have been in our pockets, which wound up in our pockets at the end of the day.
Tavis: To your point now, how did that get interpreted by folk in the industry? Because you made a joke a moment ago that if you sample Nile Rodgers, you’re going to get sued. But there are a lot of people who, in the process of sampling, as it was growing, didn’t get the respect, didn’t get their money, until people started putting their foot down.
Tavis: But as one of the early guys to sue, how did you get impacted by that?
Rodgers: It was a little bit tough at the beginning because it was – we were suing powerful guys, and we had to go it alone. The fact that I’m still sitting here talking, that I don’t have any broken legs or something like that; we went up against really tough people.
But at the end of the day I think that cooler heads really prevailed, and it was the type of thing where the record was so profitable, because no one had seen profits like that. A 12-inch for sale as the record? I’m sure the first royalty checks that came through with that thing were $3 million, $4 million, and those were in the days when $3 million, that was a lot of money.
It’s not like now, I meet young artists and they go, “Oh, yeah, well, I blew $3 million on this and I blew $3 million on that.” But in those days you got $3 million, that was probably like having $15 million now.
So at the end of the day I think that everybody realized that it was the right thing to do, and it was just a new paradigm that we were starting to discover, and it’s now become the bedrock of R&B music, to sample.
Tavis: When you walked on the studio floor minutes ago before the start of this conversation, we were talking about our mutual friend, Quincy Jones, and I was saying to you that Quincy and I just had dinner together the other night and your name comes up in conversation, and he sends his regards and all that good stuff.
You said to me that Quincy gave you some really good advice that you did not take. I’m only raising that because it is connected to the sound score for one of my favorite films of all time. Everybody on this set and all my friends know that I love “Coming to America,” (laughter) and Nile Rodgers did the music for “Coming to America.”
So tell me what Quincy told you that you now wish you had listened to, just to make Quincy feel good about that great advice he gives out.
Rodgers: Well, Q said to me, he says, “Nile, let me talk to you for a minute.” He says, “Whatever you do – I mean, the score is cool, the score is great, but make sure you get all the songs.” “What do you mean?” “You know, make sure you get all the songs,” he says, “because that’s really where the money is.” He says, “And if you produce some hits, it’ll be great.
So obviously I wrote songs that were the comedic songs in the film, (singing) “Just let your soul glow,” and all that stuff.
Tavis: I love it. (Laughter)
Rodgers: But then I wrote, (singing) “Oh, say can you see, I’m coming to America.”
Tavis: (Singing) “Coming to America,” yeah.
Rodgers: Eddie and Arsenio were dying to make that into a single. They were just, “Man, I’m telling you, Nile, it’s going to be a hit.” I had to look Eddie – he probably still hasn’t forgiven me. I haven’t forgiven myself, Eddie, so please. (Laughter) Don’t hurt me more than I’ve hurt myself. But Eddie and Arsenio nailed those parts so well; imagine if we had a music video with them singing that song. (Laughter)
I was like, I was taking myself so seriously because I got a chance to do full symphony orchestra, work with Baba Olatunji, some of the greatest African and Latin percussionists in the world, along with a symphony orchestra and all my other people that I brought.
I’m standing in the room with, like, 150 people, yeah, I’m the man. Don’t destroy my great soundtrack. It’s a musical comedy, come on, guys. (Laughter) But for a Black man, a Black composer to get this kind of responsibility was incredible to me, and I didn’t – I’m sorry, Eddie, I didn’t want to cheapen my song by having you guys make a joke out of it.
But it would have been brilliant, and boy, what would I have gotten paid? Oh, man. (Laughter) Oh, God.
Tavis: What do you think, when – you obviously did the score for them for the film. When the film comes out, and now you’ve seen it, I’m sure, countless times, as I have, what do you make of what Eddie and Arsenio did with that film?
Rodgers: I think it’s truly one of the greatest performances that have ever been put together by a duo on a screen.
Tavis: It’s comedic genius.
Rodgers: Arsenio, he does not get the props, man. He is unbelievable. The preacher, obviously, is a stand-out, but even when they’re in the barber shop and, and Semmi is a great role. The way he plays that character, he can see everything that Akeem doesn’t see.
He’s like, “Man, let’s go to the Waldorf Astoria,” you know, when the king is going to punish them? (Laughter)
Rodgers: “You’ve got to go back to the Waldorf Astoria.” (Laughter) “And bathe him.” Yes. (Laughter) So it was a brilliant film, but what was interesting about “Coming to America” that many people don’t know, it was a very difficult film to make because Eddie had seen – at least this is the way the story goes; it’s an urban legend, but it’s pretty good.
Eddie had seen the Orson Welles film, the David L. Wolper film where Orson Welles narrates the quatrains of Nostradamus and predicts the end of the world and blah, blah, blah, and the great earthquake in California.
So the way that I scored “Coming to America,” true story, I was living basically on the Paramount lot scoring dailies. They would shoot the dailies, develop them, send them over to me, and I’d have to shoot right out of the cannon, blah, blah, blah, (makes noise) look at the thing, because Eddie wanted to leave before the great earthquake.
So before all of his principal shots were wrapped, John Landis had to know that they were in the can. So I’ve scored that movie – it was like you know how you watch a cartoon and it’s what we call cartoon scoring?
So I reach over to Tavis and it goes (makes noise) because it was stupid. I didn’t know what the theme was, we didn’t spot it. They just gave me the film and I just sat there and go, “Okay, the priest -” like you get a great example of when the little dog, Dottie, my man with the Jheri curl comes to the door and Dottie –
Tavis: Eriq La Salle.
Rodgers: Right. (Makes noise) I did a sort of Rossini rip-off. I had to look at this film in a very holistic way, without seeing the whole thing.
Tavis: That’s a lot of pressure, though, when you’re scoring a movie on dailies?
Rodgers: It was impossible.
Tavis: Gee whiz.
Rodgers: So they wound up putting it together in the edit room. So they just had all these themes, all of this stuff going on.
Tavis: As I said, there are so many great stories I can’t do justice to them, but I would be remiss if I didn’t in the two minutes I have left here give you an opportunity to share what is a moving story in the book for all of us who are Chic fans – the story of how Bernard, who you called Nard, passed away.
Rodgers: Right. We were in Japan and we were doing a huge concert. I was being honored as the super-producer of the year in April 1996. In Japan, a very big company called JT – smoking in Japan is not nearly as taboo as it is in America. Certainly not then.
The super-producer honor is huge. It’s a 90-minute television special and I bring in all different artists that I’ve worked with. What they do is they use two big concerts to do all the camera blocking and all the shots and figure it out, because it’s maybe a 20-camera shoot, it’s huge.
Then the third night, like Miss America, the third night is that final night, the one that’s televised, that’s the show. That third night, Nard was very ill and a doctor came in and examined him and said, “You’ve got to cancel the show.” How are we going to cancel a show like that?
Anyway, he just says, “Give me a vitamin B shot” or whatever, he gets it together, he does the show, we somehow pull through it. You actually can see him pass out on stage, but he pulls it together. At the end of that night we go back to our hotel rooms.
He’s supposed to get a wake-up call for 6:00 a.m. the next day, he’s leaving for America. I go knock on the door and that’s it – he had passed away earlier that night; actually, early that morning. But the powerful part about that story is that somewhere in the middle of the night I had been thrown out of my bed, because I had been in the Northridge earthquake, so I thought that it was another earthquake in Japan.
I wound up on the floor and I looked at the clock and I said, “Man, it was so terrifying, I didn’t want to go back to sleep.” In that dream, it was a nightmare, I had been thrown off the bed and I was holding on to a person’s hand, and it was like he was a helium balloon, and he was carrying me up to the sky.
At a certain point I had to let go, because I’m afraid of heights, so I let go and he went drifting off. The next day, after we discovered his body, I’m at the coroner’s office. The coroner tells me to tell him the story of what happened that night. I reenact the story and I give him the time that I had this dream of holding this person, and he was filling out the death certificate.
He says, “Oh, really?” He changed the estimated time of death to the time of death, to coincide with my story, and this is in Japan, a man of science. He says, “No, no, that was your friend saying goodbye to you.” This is the doctor. He says, “That was your friend saying goodbye to you.” Time of death, 1:00 a.m., blah, blah, blah.
Tavis: You want some great stories; there are some great stories in this book by Nile Rodgers. It’s about time this book was written. It’s called Nile Rodgers, “Le Freak: An Upside-Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny.” It is a fascinating read about the life and legacy, still ongoing, thankfully, of one of the great writers, the great producers, the great artists of our time. I’m delighted to have him on this program. Nile Rodgers.
Nile, good to see you, man.
Rodgers: Thank you, brother, it is a pleasure.
Tavis: Oh, my delight.
Rodgers: Pleasure to be with you.
Tavis: My delight.
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