The word prolific doesn’t begin to describe writer, producer and guitarist Nile Rodgers, being inducted this year to the Songwriters Hall of Fame along with a posthumous nod to his longtime writing partner Bernard Edwards.
Among the music industry’s hottest annual tickets, as much for its relaxed, non-televised ambiance as its A list attendees, this year’s SHOF also honors Elvis Costello, Tom Petty, Chip Taylor, Marvin Gaye, Johnny Mercer designee Lionel Richie, Hal David Starlight honoree Nick Jonas and Seymour Stein, who receives this year’s Howie Richmond Hitmaker award. Performer/presenters include the B-52s, Marcus Mumford, Roger McGuinn, Rachel Platten, Sister Sledge, Jussie Smollett and Jon Voight.
From penning a string of hits for Chic to chart toppers “I’m Coming Out” and “Upside Down” for Diana Ross, not to mention voluminous production and performance collaborations including David Bowie, Duran Duran, INXS, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Diana Ross, Britney Spears and Pharrell Williams, Rodgers is still innovating at the top of his game with his trademark ease in embracing the new. Rodgers spoke to Billboard about 1978 international hit groove “Le Freak,” the song that launched it all:
Searching for Grace Jones: “We were invited to Studio 54 by Grace Jones herself. We were just starting out, we had never worked with any stars. And she told us to come to the back door of Studio 54 and tell them that we were personal friends. We’d seen all the stuff about them separating the M&Ms and all that stuff so we wanted to get it exactly right. Grace has a very interesting, affected voice so we tried to put on her voice and say exactly what she said, thinking the bouncer would know. We ended up sounding like a cross between Bella Lugosi and Marlene Dietrich, but the guy slammed the door in our faces and told us, ‘Ah, fuck off.’ Studio 54 was the center of the disco nightclub universe at that time, it was the hardest place to get into and this was New Year’s Eve no less. So it was like, the ticket. We knocked on the door again and he said, ‘I told you, Ah fuck off.’ And we realized we weren’t going to get in.”
“Rock’n’roll mouthwash”: “We went and bought a couple bottles of Dom Perignon, which we used to call rock’n’roll mouthwash, and we went back to my apartment and stated drinking the champagne and we made up a song called, ‘Ah, F–k Off,’ and we were going, ‘ah, f–k off, f–k Studio 54.’ And my partner at the time said, ‘Wow, you know, this is really happening.’ This was at least two years before hip-hop and I’m going, ‘Bernard, we can’t get a song on the radio that says fuck off, that’s crazy.’ So we changed it to ‘Ahhh freak out’ and instead of it being a protest song it ended up being a celebratory song about what was going on in Studio 54. At that time there was a dance called Le Freak, so we called it Le Freak and then Bernard went, ‘c’est Chic,’ so we made it all about our band doing this dance called Le Freak at the back door of Studio 54.”
French accent: “Because we pretended to be French, and we weren’t French at all — people thought we were at the beginning, that was our way in, that was our shtick. But our pronunciation wasn’t perfect at all. People actually thought we were saying ‘Africa’ instead of ‘ahhh.’ Think about how clever it is — ‘Afffrica… le freak, c’est chic.’ The record became so big and to this day people who speak French think we’re saying Affffrica.”
Coming for you Flo Rida: “The record was the biggest-selling record in Atlantic history. It held that title for 33 years just until Flo Rida beat us out a few years ago.. We cut off our sales at 7 million because we were afraid if we let people keep buying ‘Le Freak’ nobody would buy our album. Because in those days black artists only got two singles unless you were the Jackson 5 or somebody really famous, so if we’d let I go to 8 million, Flo Rida would not have caught us [Big laugh]. He only sold, like, 7 million, 200,000.”
Keeping up with Nile Rodgers: “I only sleep a few hours a night, since I was a child. An exceptionally good night is three and a half to four hours, and normally I can do two hours. I think I go into REM sleep right away, so I think I’ve gotten a long sleep. The thing that’s really scary is that if I come home and I’m exhausted and fall asleep four an hour or two, when I wake up I think it’s the next morning.”