Nile Rodgers Reflects on Working With Prince & David Bowie: 'Both Saw the World In Ways Unlike We See the World'

A.E. Kieren


"I love and miss them both."

I first met Prince when he was just starting out -- he played in New York at The Palladium on 14th Street in 1981. Prince came back to that club rather frequently, and we would have amazing chats. Playing with Prince was almost like having a ­conversation -- it was just, “Hey, this is what I’m thinking.”

He was an extraordinary virtuoso, and it made me feel like a million dollars to play with someone who is that talented. He would put down his guitar when I walked in and ­happily sit at the piano and let me play the guitar. He said to the audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, Nile Rodgers! Now, this man has the funk.”

With Bowie, it was a very different type of experience, because he gave me an enormous responsibility. He said, “Nile, I want you to do what you do best... I want you to make hits.” I was nervous as hell when I played him the “China Girl” guitar lick, because it was very hooky -- I told the band, “Get ready to get fired today, because he’s going to laugh his head off.” But he looked at me and went, “Nile, darling, that’s ­fantastic!” I’m more proud of “Let’s Dance” than damn near anything I’ve ever done, and it’s the easiest record I’ve ever made in my life -- we did it from start to finish in 17 days.

Prince and David were both absolutely extraordinary geniuses who saw the world in ways unlike we see the world. I would have conversations with both of them about a ­specific object or situation, and they would look at it from a completely different ­perspective. Prince once said to me, “Nile, I’m really thinking about moving Paisley Park to Sweden. All the girls are beautiful, they drive Mercedeses and BMWs, and they can dance.” It was profound to him. I tried to see if he was joking -- “C’mon, Prince, that’s the most superficial thing I ever heard of” -- but he was not pulling my chain.

And with Bowie, we would have thorough discussions about what songs meant -- except “China Girl.” I thought it was about speedballing, cocaine and ­heroin at the same time, because “China” was a type of heroin and “girl” was a name for cocaine. And I felt uncomfortable talking about drugs with him because I didn’t understand why a guy who was sober wanted to sing a song about speedballing. But that’s not what the song was about.

I always go back to [Bowie’s 1972 album] The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars: It was a real story and you could see it -- it’s like a film. Everything Bowie did was theater -- even if we were having dinner, it was theater. And Prince could make music with and out of anything. When you break down “When Doves Cry,” it’s so musical, but there’s actually not much going on. How do you make a record and have no bass? And it was a smash!

The last time I saw Prince was at the Superdome [in New Orleans] on July 4, 2015. He came onstage and played with Chic -- funny enough, we did David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” We said goodbye, not like “Goodbye forever,” but like, “That was killer. See you in a minute.”

David didn’t talk to me about [his illness]. But I knew that he was ill.

I love and miss them both. What they’ve given to the world, what they’ve given to me as an individual, is extraordinary -- ­wonderful moments of brilliance. To have friends like that, unique thinkers in your midst, is a great gift. 

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17 issue of Billboard.


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