Life Lessons from Hit-Maker Nile Rodgers

Christina Knight | March 16, 2018
Nile Rodgers at the McKittrick Hotel taping of Front and Center: Songwriters Hall of Fame: Nile Rodgers

Nile Rodgers at the McKittrick Hotel taping of Front and Center: Songwriters Hall of Fame: Nile Rodgers. Photo: Jim Belmont

If you need a single-artist theme to fuel an all-night dance party, plus a bottomless brunch, set your play list to songwriter, producer and guitarist Nile Rodgers. From the “Good Times” disco groove that the Sugar Hill Gang spread to hip-hop (“Rappers Delight”), to Daft Punk’s 2014 Grammy-winning “Get Lucky,” which reached the top 10 in 32 countries and is one of the best-selling songs of all time, the work of Rodgers has made him a go-to hit-maker since 1977.

The native New Yorker was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2016. In a recent episode of Front and Center on PBS, Rodgers shared invaluable life lessons in his charmingly down-to-earth style. I got lucky enough to attend the taping and hear the stories behind the music I grew up with.

A Brief History

Rodgers and his longtime collaborator, the late Bernard Edwards, began their careers in a traveling band for Sesame Street before scorching the disco floors with every single from Chic, their concept band inspired by Roxy Music. Chic thrived for two short years with “Everybody Dance,” “Le Freak,” “Good Times,” and other singles that consistently landed gold, platinum or beyond until the death knell of disco in 1979.

The pair went on to produce career-changing albums for Sister Sledge (We Are Family) and Diana Ross (diana) among other artists. Rodgers himself was tapped as a producer by David Bowie (Let’s Dance), Madonna (Like a Virgin) Duran Duran (Notorious) and many other musicians.

Nile Rodgers and Chic begin a national and international tour March 29. Try and keep up with Rodgers’ own lightning staccato recap of his career:

Here are five life lessons, courtesy of Nile Rodgers.

1. Don’t Be a Snob

“My great jazz teacher taught me how to not be a snob,” said Rodgers at the McKittrick Hotel taping as he described his launch into chart-topping music. In the 1970s, Rodgers was studying with jazz guitarist Ted Dunbar and he once complained to him that he had to play Top 40 music at a gig. Surprised that Rodgers was so dismissive of huge hits like The Archie’s “Sugar Sugar,” Dunbar told him something very poetic about pop music:

“Any song that makes it into the Top 40 makes it a great composition, because it speaks to the souls of a million strangers.”

That observation sent a ripple of appreciation through the taping’s audience, and it changed Rodgers’ life direction when he first digested it. Two weeks after Dunbar’s wise words, he wrote his first song for Chic, “Everybody Dance.”

“Now we’re trying to talk to a billion strangers,” said Rodgers of music’s global reach today.

Top 40 doesn’t equate to frivolous music for Rodgers, not for a long time. “I always talk about a song’s DNA, what I called the DHM: The deep hidden meaning. There is some core truth to a song. Without that, the song cannot exist.”

2. It’s the Simple Things That Count

When Rodgers shared the intro to “Everybody Dance” with his writing partner, Edwards immediately questioned the singing “do do do do” part of the hook.

Rodgers defended the phrasing: “‘Do do do do – it’s the same thing as ‘la la la la.’ The ‘la la’ era is over. We’re in the do-do era now,” and went on to cite the No. 1 song “Fly Robin Fly” and the theme to the dance and music showcase, Soul Train.

The song was recorded in 1977 with Chic’s lead singer Norma Jean Wright and Luther Vandross on backing vocals. Rodgers experienced a crowd’s endorsement of the song just a few nights after recording it. The song’s audio engineer Robert Drake was a DJ at Night Owl in New York City and he spun the fresh track repeatedly. Not only did Rodgers see how it roused people to the dance floor, he heard them sing “do do do do” along with the hook. Chic’s first song hit three Billboard charts.

Excerpt from “Everybody Dance” Lyrics

Everybody dance, do-do-do-do
Clap your hands, clap your hands
Everybody dance, do-do-do-do

3. Turn Rejection into Success

An icon of the gay disco scene in New York City, Grace Jones hoped to get Rodgers and Edwards of the then new band Chic to produce her next album. She invited them to use the back entrance to Studio 54 to gain entry to her live show. The musicians couldn’t convince the security guard that Jones had invited them, and were repeatedly told to “F-off.” They left joking about it, singing “Awww….F-off!” Substituting their “F-off” shout for “Freak Out,” Chic’s third single, “Le Freak,” was born. It became their first Billboard Hot 100 and R&B number-one song. Nearly 10 years later, they did produce a Grace Jones album: Inside Story (1986).

Excerpt from “Le Freak” Lyrics

Like the days of stopping at the Savoy
Now they freak, oh what a joy
Just come on down, to fifty four [yes, that’s Studio 54]
Find a spot out on the floor

Ah, freak out
Le freak, c’est chic
Freak out

4. Lead with the Right Hook

When writing “Let’s Dance” for David Bowie’s career-changing album, Rodgers wanted to write as he often did: starting with the hook. According to Rodgers, Bowie said, “Really? Hooks don’t come first, you build to the hook.” Rodgers begs to differ. “If the hook is the part everyone is going to sing, let’s do it first,” he says.

Here are a few of Rodgers’ hit songs that begin with the hook:

Everybody Dance (Chic)
Dance, Dance, Dance (Chic)
Le Freak (Chic)
Good Times (Chic)
We Are Family (Sister Sledge)
He’s the Greatest Dancer (Chic)
I’m Coming Out (Diana Ross)
Upside Down (Diana Ross)
Let’s Dance (David Bowie)
China Girl (David Bowie)
Notorious (Duran Duran)
Get Lucky (Daft Punk)

5. Keep Working When the Odds Are Against You

Nile Rodgers and musicians at his intimate concert and talk at the McKittrick Hotel in New York City, filmed for Front and Center. Photo: Jim Belmont

When Rodgers was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in 2010 his doctors gravely advised him to get his affairs in order and be prepared for the worst. Rodgers’ response? He started writing songs. As he was recovering from surgery in 2011, the French duo Daft Punk approached Rodgers to record an album with live music, a first for the electronic-leaning group. Rodgers co-wrote three songs for Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, including “Get Lucky,” which rewarded Rodgers with his very first Grammy Awards. Today, Rodgers’ prognosis is 100 percent cancer-free. Learn more about his journey to health, all while working, on his latest video blog.

Excerpt from “Get Lucky” Lyrics

Like the legend of the phoenix
All ends with beginnings
What keeps the planet spinning
The force of love beginning
We’ve come too far to give up who we are
So let’s raise the bar and our cups to the stars

Hear more music and stories from the McKittrick Hotel performance and interview, and see Rodgers and Chic at the Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony on Front and Center: Songwriters Hall of Fame: Nile Rodgers, streaming now on PBS sites and apps. In the New York metropolitan region, it airs March 31 at 11:30pm on WLIW21 and April 2 at 12am on THIRTEEN; check local listings for other areas.