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Phone interview recorded November 5, 2011

Speaking with Nile Rodgers is like a breath of fresh air. His enthusiasm--infectious. His passion--undeniable. His storytelling--riveting. And what a story it is. Before gaining prominence as one of the masterminds behind the group Chic, and as producer of major hits by Sister Sledge ("We Are Family"), Diana Ross ("Upside Down") and David Bowie ("Let's Dance"), a young Nile Rodgers had to first endure the drama of drug addicted parents, and the sting of “colorism.” He writes about it all in his new memoir, "Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny."

In part one, of a two-part interview, Nile shares the reasons he decided to write so vividly about his troubled childhood, the rise and fall of Chic, working with Sister Sledge, and his memories of songwriting/producing partner Bernard Edwards. He also reveals to Darnell Meyers-Johnson the one story that was too candid to include in his book ...

Darnell Meyers-Johnson: Good day, this is Darnell Meyers-Johnson for It is always a pleasure to speak to one of the greats, and today I’m about to do just that. This gentleman didn’t just create music—he created a sound that permeated dance floors all over the world for decades. You know him as one of the creative forces behind the group Chic, with hits like “Good Times,” “Everybody Dance,” and “I Want Your Love.” He is duly noted for revitalizing the careers of Diana Ross and David Bowie. His new book borrows its title from another Chic hit: "Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny". Today I am speaking with Mr. Nile Rodgers. How are you, sir? ?

Nile Rodgers: Very well. And yourself?

DMJ: I’m good. I just want to thank you for taking the time out to speak with us; we do appreciate it.

NR: No problem, my pleasure.

DMJ: Without delay I just want to jump right into your new book. Your story is a fascinating one, unlike anything I’ve ever read before. Why did you decide to share your story now?

NR: Basically, honestly, I was tricked into doing this. I got sober about seventeen years ago, so people in the New York Rock and Roll party scene hadn’t really seen me for a long time. So a few years ago I went to a party and, literally, there was a friend of mine who was a literary agent, and he really hadn’t seen me for about thirteen years. When I walked into the party, he sort of cheered up, and he went, “Oh, my God, Nile is here, the guy with all the great stories!” And he didn’t know that I had gone away to a rehab, and I was sort of a different guy. But, of course I started launching into Rock and Roll stories, and I was at a big Rock star’s house, so everybody was cracking up because they knew all the stuff was true, and they know the people. Then he asked me to meet him for lunch, and after lunch he says, “You know, you really should write a book.” And I said, “Look: one, I have no desire to write a book.” And also, because I’m pretty aware of media, and stuff like that, and I was like, “Come on, let’s be honest—in America right now, if you’re not a star, no one’s gonna read your book. Probably every Kardashian has a book deal … come on; who wants to hear this stuff?” And he said, “No, no, no, it’s just a fascinating story. I’ve heard your life story many times, and you should tell it.” So then he asked me if I wanted a ghostwriter, and I said, “Absolutely.” Everybody in the music business has a ghostwriter. Nobody sits down and does this stuff.

And then, he tricked me into writing it myself, and he gave me a little test and he asked me to answer twenty questions, to edit them once, submit them back to him, and don’t look at them. And after I did that, all he did was bind them and send them back to me, and says, “Now ask yourself a question. Read this and see if you think this guy can write.” And I read it, and I thought, “Wow, he’s right. I guess I can write.” Because I didn’t even think I could write. And he said, “Look at this stuff—it’s sort of singing. It’s making sense.” So that’s what happened; he basically tricked me. I did a proposal, and my book proposal is the thing that got me the deal. Literally, I had meetings set up with twenty-five publishers, and fourteen didn’t even want to see me, just because they said what I said: I’m not famous enough, and I’m not in a scandal and you know...

DMJ: But I do find that fascinating though, because of your history. You’re saying that you’re not famous enough, but you have an extended history in the business, and all the hit songs speak for themselves. I’m surprised that those people weren't interested in your story.

NR: No, but they don’t know that, you see, and they’re smart enough to know that they’re selling books in a pop-culture world that is really star-driven. And I notice it: I know when I go to the drugstore and I watch the people on the line looking at those magazines that are just headlines—and that’s what people call “reading” now, is headlines—they read headlines; they don’t read stories, they just read headlines. I haven’t really read any current Rock and Roll biographies, but, typically, when I see them on the shelf, my first instinct is that it’s a book full of headlines, and my agent really did not want me to do that. He said, “Nile, tell the stories the same way you do when you’re at a party.” So I just did that.

DMJ: And I’m glad that you mentioned that there wasn’t a ghostwriter. I was going to ask you about that because I do think that the book is so well written. I had an opportunity to read another famous music person’s book, who I don’t want to mention, and I had the exact opposite impression with that book. And that person had an assistant helping with the writing. So I’m glad that you talked about that—that you did it yourself.

NR: Well, it took me four and a half years to do it. And the funny thing about it is that the ideology of this book actually started with a completely different idea. My book proposal is the exact same proposal that I gave to a very famous Broadway producer, because I wanted to do my life story as a Broadway show. I didn’t want to write a book. And I went in, and I pitched it, and I thought my pitch was impeccable. I said, “Think about this.” I gave him the outline of my life, which is my proposal. My book proposal and my outline are almost identical, if you look at the two documents. It’s almost funny that I got a book deal, but meanwhile, I couldn’t sell this to a big Broadway producer. And I said, “Think about this”—and this is before "Jersey Boys" came out—so I said, “Think about this: that’s actually my real life.” And then you throw in “Le Freak,” “Good Times,” “We Are Family,” “He’s The Greatest Dancer,” “I Want Your Love,” “Upside Down,” “I’m Coming Out,” “Like a Virgin,” “The Reflex,” “China Girl, blah-blah-blah …” So I said, “It’s like “Mamma Mia!" to the tenth power. If you go see "Mamma Mia!" you get four or five really good ABBA songs, and then the rest of the stuff you don’t really know, but this, you have all the Sister Sledge stuff, all the Chic stuff, Diana Ross, Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran … it goes on and on.” And the producer looked at me, and went, “Well, those songs are really good, but I don’t think the story is that interesting.” And I went, “O-kay…”

DMJ: Wow, that’s crazy, because, like I said, I think the story is fascinating. As I was reading it, I was picturing it actually as a movie, because that’s how fascinating it was to me: It felt like I was reading a screenplay.

You mentioned in the book, at the very beginning, that your family has a history of revealing long-kept secrets to each other, usually around this time of year, at holiday dinners. Did you have any reservations about sharing so much of that in your book?

NR: Oh, no, not at all. My family is so open. Maybe the reason why it’s a good read is because I was fascinated to learn a lot of this stuff, because I interviewed my mom and my brothers, and I went over this. The reason why I know numbers and how much they were charging for the drugs and all that stuff is because they told me. They were, like, “Well, we wanted to get thirty-five thousand dollars for this” and I’m like, “Whoa, really?” I didn’t know any of this stuff. My mother is one of the smartest, most open people you ever want to meet. And she and I, we’d laugh about it. Matter of fact, the only story that I left out—and it was a big decision—is after I did it; it was my mom talking about her three coat-hanger abortions. I said, “Mom, I want you to talk about this stuff, because everybody’s going on about the anti-this and the anti-that, and I was trying to remember how it used to be. Do people remember what little girls used to go through?” And all the young girls in my mom’s immediate family, they all went through this stuff: they all tried to hide their pregnancies from their parents, and they did it successfully. They would hide it right until the point where they started showing. They’d have these coat-hanger abortions. A lot of these girls died; a lot of these babies wind up in garbage cans and stuff.

And when I was doing the research on my book, and I found out where my biological father was buried, I also found out another huge statistic. My dad is in Potter’s Field, which is called the cemetery for the unclaimed dead, because when he died he was a street urchin heroin addict. And when I was doing research on the cemetery for the unclaimed dead I found out that most of the bodies that are buried there every year are dead babies—girls throwing babies in garbage cans and things like that. But in the state of New York, or at least the cemetery where my dad is, there’s some incredible number, like three thousand a year. So when I heard that statistic I went back and I said to my mom, “Tell me the story of your coat-hanger abortions.” And the reason why I left that out of the book is because she is so graphic and she’s so clear, it actually felt like her story, so when I turned it into my publisher, they went, “This is fascinating, but you can’t do this in your voice, because your mom tells it so well,” and I do it as a big quote from her, so it’s like an insert—it’s almost like a compendium inside my book.

DMJ: The book itself starts off talking about your childhood, which wasn’t an ideal one in many ways: you were exposed to a lot in your early youth, particularly witnessing drug use and that sort of thing; you were bounced around quite a bit to different homes and schools. As you look back, was there anything that provided you with a sense of security?

NR: A sense of security or insecurity?

DMJ: A sense of security. Because it seems chaotic, but was there anything within it that made you feel a little bit safe?

NR: Actually, I felt sort of unsafe at home. And I didn’t feel unsafe because of my family, per se; I felt unsafe because I was very ill—I had multiple asthma attacks—and because my parents were heroin addicts, as were all their friends, they sometimes weren’t available. So I actually felt a little safer out in the world of strangers. I lived on the subways; I ran away from home at a very early age, and I lived in movie theatres and places where there were people that were awake, because when I was a child junkies looked to me like they were sleeping standing up: they were nodding. But it would happen all the time. You could be in the middle of a dynamic conversation contemplating the films of Alfred Hitchcock, and all of a sudden they weren’t talking, standing there with the ashes dangling from their cigarettes. That was a common sight in my world. So I felt much safer in the world of strangers. We didn’t have any “stranger danger” when I was a kid … they used to say don’t talk to strangers. But I think that the concept was when they meant strangers they meant a person who was walking down the street with a ... I don't know, some mythical stranger. But adults were very helpful.

DMJ: An underlying theme throughout your book, particularly in the beginning, is this feeling of rejection and not fitting in, kind of like what you were just describing. But, at the same time, you were also pretty savvy, and you adapted quickly to different situations. So did you feel as if you were stuck in-between low self-esteem and confidence, or was one clearly more prevalent than the other?
NR: I really suffered from low self-esteem problems, and the main reason is because of what we call “colorism,” so to speak. Everybody in my family are really light-skinned in the typical beautiful sense. My mom was like a model—gorgeous—and everybody looked like that, because when I was younger, I learned that they tried to look like that: they married people that looked like that; they hung out with people that looked that same way. Literally, my mom got pregnant with me after her second period. And she liked my father, but she only had sex with him because her girlfriend was in the other room having sex with his friend. So it wasn’t like she sat there and tried to plan out a pregnancy, and she didn’t have those same types of prejudices. She didn’t think that just because Nile—meaning Nile Sr.—was dark-skinned, that she wouldn’t have a baby with him. She wasn’t trying to have a baby; she was just having sex. She was a virgin and got pregnant. So when the first child in her immediate family came out really dark, like me, it was, like, “Whoa! Where did that come from?” So I was immediately put up for adoption. That’s why my birth certificate doesn’t even have my name on it. It has my mother’s maiden name. It’s funny, I always think about President Obama, and the whole big thing about the birth certificate. I was going, “Man, if I ran for president, I'd really be in trouble …” [feigns aggressive voice] “Show me your birth certificate!” “Well, there’s a little bit of a problem.” Because my birth certificate sounds like I’m a Jewish guy, it says Baby Boy Goodman. My name is Baby Boy.

So it was very, very… I wouldn’t say chilling, but the reality of my life was, as soon as I was born, my mom immediately gave me up for adoption, and she went back to retrieve me a few months later, because I think her maternal instinct got the better of her, and in those days parents had very powerful custodial rights, and the birth mother could operate within the system and get her child back. And that’s what she did. I think there was some strange thing between us, because I probably bonded with the woman who was my first caretaker, my foster parent, because it was some time before my mom got me. And when you analyze my name, which is Nile Rodgers, like my dad, I’m not really a Junior because my middle name is Gregory, and I only found out during the writing of the book that the only reason why my middle name is Gregory is because that’s what the albino woman that my mom had given me over—the woman was an albino who couldn’t have children of her own—and she named me Gregory. I always thought it was odd that my middle name was Gregory, so my name was Nile Gregory Rodgers, when my father’s name was Nile Erskine Rodgers, but they still called me Junior. So when I asked my mom where the name Gregory came from she says, “Well, that was the name that they were calling you, so I kept that name because you seemed to respond to it.”

DMJ: As I was reading the book I did wonder--at any point did you ever have the opportunity to reunite with your original foster mom?

NR: No, that’s something that I’ve thought about a lot, but even if she were alive today, it was so sad for her. That story is really sad, how she was clinging to my mom’s feet and begging her, and saying she’d give her all of her money … because obviously she had bonded with me; at that point I was her son. So the last thing I would want to do is to cause her any further harm. Who knows how traumatic that was for her? Who knows what condition she's in now? Obviously, she’d be older than my mom, because her words to my mother, which my mom imparted to me, were, “You’re so young and beautiful, you can have a million children, and you can have them any time you want. I can’t have any.” So I assume that the woman was considerably older than my mother. So if my mom is now seventy-four, I guess, this woman could easily be eightyish or something. And earlier on in my life I didn’t have any desire to see her, because, of course, it felt to me like that would be cruel.

DMJ: In your book, in the beginning, as you talk about the chapters covering your childhood, you do talk about your biological father, as well as your stepfather and other gentlemen who seem to, at least in some regard, play … if not necessarily a fatherly role, at least they were there as an older male. But you never ended up having children of your own, although you clearly had enough female companionship. Was that a conscious thing to you?

NR: Absolutely. Absolutely. Everybody always tells me that I’d make a great father. Well, I have a charity now called the We Are Family Foundation, and I bring in thirty-five kids every year from all around the world, and I got more kids than you can imagine right now. And even when they have kids, if I’m around, I’ll be some kind of relative to them. I didn’t have many positive examples of typical American family life in my general field of youth, so I never really wanted to have children in a traditional family like that. And I certainly didn’t have the type of ego that says, “If I have a child it needs to be of my blood,” and all that sort of thing. I just didn’t have that thing inside me. If I were to have children or family, I’d probably adopt anyway. So that never hit me; I never had that thing inside me, ever. I came close to getting married once, and even that felt uncomfortable. I was, like, “Wow, what are we doing?”

DMJ: I’m sure many people can relate to that. In terms of your musical abilities in your youth, who began encouraging you? Was there anybody in particular who began giving you positive feedback regarding that?

NR: My musical development happened almost organically. I was part of the New York City school system, which had a very robust and thorough curriculum at the time, music being one of the many subjects that all children were taught. The main reason why there aren’t that many musicians that come directly … actually, there are a lot, but people don’t think of that being the training camp or the breeding ground for music, because everybody had it. So when you think about the numbers, the millions of kids in that system, the small number who actually become professional musicians compared to the amount of kids that are in it … people don’t think of it as a great farm or boot camp, if you will. But, for me, because I took to music, it was.

I used the New York City school system, as well as the Los Angeles school system. Because, in those days, America had a standardized curriculum, so you were learning the same thing in New York that you were in the ghetto in L.A. So basically, what I did was, those were the subjects that I took to—music and science—whereas a lot of other kids take to art or gym and things like that. It’s easy to see how school sports play a role in professional sports, but it’s not that easy to see it in music. In my case, because I gravitated towards music, it worked. Also, with sports programs, you have the alumni who support it, and all that stuff. They typically don’t do that with music, because it doesn’t affect the whole community the way sports do. But it was really the same thing, so if you think about a kid coming up through the public school system, and going on and becoming a high school player and then a college player and then a pro player, that’s what happened to me. It was exactly that same type of thing.

DMJ: Your book covers all the ground that we’re about to jump over, but I want to flash-forward to when you were a part of the Apollo Theatre’s house band, and it was at that time, if I’m not mistaken, that you first met up with Bernard Edwards. But the two of you didn’t seem to connect well in your initial meeting, so I wanted to ask you how did you manage to become creative partners when your personalities didn’t seem to vibe?

NR: Yes, you told the story exactly right. So our first meeting went belly-up, but that’s because our first meeting was just about talking about playing music. Our second meeting was--we were actually playing music together. And we didn’t realize that we were the same people that had met earlier, because that first meeting was over the phone. So once we met with instruments in our hands … and we were playing a gig … we were on a pickup gig, and it was clear from that gig, the guys in charge, even though we were just hired for the night, were Bernard and myself. We sort of took over the band; we helped it become a cohesive unit, and at the end of the night, it was like, “Man, brother, give me your number.” “Yeah, give me your number. Your name is Nile? You’re the dude? You’re that weird dude who called me about the band with the oboe and the recorder?” I was like, “Yeah, I’m that dude.” He went, “Wow, okay. You’re different than I thought.” The next thing you know, we were inseparable. So the first day we met on a job playing music, we were never really apart again. We certainly weren’t apart musically, and we really weren’t apart spiritually; we just had the typical stuff that siblings go through or married couples go though. You get pissed off, and say, “Man, I’m tired of you wearing that green shirt.” It was that kind of thing. So we had a sort of separation for a while, but when we got back together it was like we had never stopped working together.

DMJ: And, if I also get it correct, just a few years after you essentially reunited he passed away. Is that correct?

NR: That’s correct. We put out a record in ’93, and Bernard died in ’96. We were in Japan doing a big tribute concert to me—I had won an award for Super Producer of the Year—and, on this show, you invite a lot of artists that have been influential in your life, and vice versa. So I had Slash; I had Steve Winwood; I had Simon Le Bon from Duran Duran; I had Sister Sledge, and of course, I had Bernard Edwards and Chic. So we did three sold-out concerts at a big stadium in Budokan—actually we call it an arena, not a stadium—but we did three huge sold-out concerts, the last culminating in a ninety-minute television special. Bernard passed out at the midway point in the show, and he was revived, and he continued playing the show. After the show, we went back to our hotel room, and he passed away. And the way I found his body was the following morning. I was called, and was told that Mr. Edwards wouldn’t answer his wakeup call. It was the worst night of my life. I convinced housekeeping to open his door, and I found him lying there, right away. He was already in a state of extreme rigor mortis, so he had died at least seven hours before.

DMJ: What will you remember most about him?

NR: His unbelievable musicality, and the amount of fun that we had making music. I cannot tell you … I have never laughed as much as I did when I was in the company of Bernard, and when we were making music. So we laughed all the time in general, but when we were making music … oh, man. I wish somebody had just recorded all of the conversations that we had, because it would probably be one of the funniest comedy books and routines ever. We never stopped laughing. As a matter of fact, I put out a box set last year, and in it, I play one of the tracks where we were trying to cut a serious song, a ballad, and it takes us eight minutes to record this four-minute song. But the eight minutes are of us laughing and joking, and it’s hysterical. And it’s really like that on every song; we just happened to save that one because it was probably at the end of a reel of tape. And it was just the funniest thing you’ve ever heard in your life.

DMJ: Well, I’ve got to ask you, obviously, about the group Chic. You guys had enormous success with the songs that I mentioned in the intro and more. What do you consider to be one of the highlights of those years that still stands out for you today?

NR: Probably the biggest highlight, other than getting signed, was during the summer of 1979, during the Disco Sucks phenomenon that happened in Chicago in Comiskey Park. Up until that point, everybody loved us, and after that event we were sort of persona non grata. Nobody would call us; they wouldn’t answer our phone calls, blah-blah blah… it was incredible. It was like we were blacklisted in a matter of hours. So what had happened is that we had a song called “Good Times” out, and it was going up the charts with a song called “My Sharona” by The Knack. Now, the entire music industry seemed to rally behind The Knack as if they were the saviors of Rock and Roll, and Chic--we were the dark under lord of Disco, the music of blacks and gays and women and Latinos ... And I was like, “What is going on?” I saw what was almost like an industry-wide smear campaign, and it was over a record. I kept thinking, “We’re in the same business. Chic and The Knack are in the same business. What is the problem? We’re not against you.” When we put out music, of course we’re competitive, but not competitive to the point of slander and real hatred.

Matter of fact, we got along great with The Knack. When they came into the studio to do their next record, they were in the studio that we lived in, and we became buddies. We even hung out with Sharona—she was actually cool. She was the girlfriend of one of the guys. So it was totally cool between us, but the industry basically carried The Knack on their shoulders to Number One. Now, “My Sharona” was a great song—no disrespect to that—but “Good Times” went on to inspire the first big Hip-Hop record, “Rapper’s Delight,” “Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen, “Bounce, Rock, Roll, Skate” [sic], “Radio Clash,” “New Sensation” by INXS--Tons and tons and tons of records. But meanwhile, no one ever copied [sings riff from “My Sharona”] … it was one of those things; it was a cute ditty with a nice lick. But the spirituality and the musicality of “Good Times” was a groundbreaking thing. It was something that changed our lives, and wound up changing music, and we couldn’t understand why it was met so harshly.

So when “Good Times” went to Number One, it was, maybe, the biggest moment of my career, because after it dropped from Number One, we never had a hit record again. But the funny thing about it was that one year to the day, one year after “Good Times” was Number One, was Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” A year later. Still, people were using that [sings bass riff] “dom-dom-dom, ba-dom-dom dom-dom-dom.” A year later, and that was already after “Rapper’s Delight” had happened, and “Bounce, Rock …” So “Good Times” almost lived on and on and on, and Bernard and I wound up becoming big producers. I wound up doing Bowie and Madonna and Duran, and Bernard did Duran. Bernard is actually the only producer to ever have a James Bond theme go Number One. He did “A View to a Kill.” So even Paul McCartney and Wings didn’t go Number One with “Live and Let Die,” but Bernard went Number One with “A View to a Kill.” So we both went on to have big careers after “Good Times” and after Disco Sucks, and The Knack never had a hit record ever again after “My Sharona.” Their follow-up single did okay, but it certainly wasn’t a hit. And that’s it. They never had a hit, and “Good Times” lived on, and of course, Bernard and I lived on.

DMJ: Because you were labeled a Disco group, did you feel that Chic was never respected as a quote-unquote “true” band?

NR: Correct. I couldn’t say it better myself. And, not only because of that, but because we were sort of anonymous kinds of people--we didn’t have a standout star, and, as you well know, in the media business, it’s hard for people to decipher complex concepts, so they need somebody to stand out. It’s easier to focus on one person. So even though, traditionally, it’s easier to break groups, but it’s easier to break groups with a front person. So you can have Queen and have Freddie Mercury be the front person. Even though the other people in Queen are super-important to it, if they walked up to you, you wouldn’t even recognize them. But you recognize Freddie Mercury; you recognize Mick Jagger. So that was the thing, that we never really had a front person. And Bernard and I, our personalities were not like Prince. We weren’t stars; we weren't pretty; we weren't those guys.

We were just musicians—we were Jazz, R&B, Funk guys who learned how to write good songs. So we were basically instrumentalists, and in the R&B world, instrumentalists were popular, but not like in the Rock world. In the Rock world, if you’re a popular lead guitar player, sometimes—like in the case of Slash or Eric Clapton, and people like that—you become famous just like the lead singer. But that doesn’t happen in the R&B world. It happened a little bit with The Isley Brothers, but that’s about it. It just doesn’t happen. The musicians themselves don’t become stars, and, since it was our band, we didn’t get the same recognition.

So in the case of a Rufus, and you have a star like a Chaka Khan, even though Tony Maiden and all those guys would do the writing and what-have-you, because you have someone who’s beautiful and sings like Chaka Khan, you can focus on her and make her the star. Heatwave--same thing. You have Rod Temperton and those cats in the band writing the songs, but you can focus on Johnnie, because he's a good-looking guy, great singer. With Chic we didn’t have that. We had what we called “the Chic mystique,” and we wanted our music to be the star, because we knew we weren’t stars. So you mix that with the fact that we didn’t exist before ’77--we came out at the height of the Disco thing; we excelled during the Disco thing … it only seems reasonable and logical that people would associate us with Disco more than R&B, or more than Funk … and because we didn’t have a Philip Bailey, or somebody like that to focus on—or a Maurice White.

DMJ: But it seems as if you guys were cognizant of that, because at one point you did put a young lady there. I guess the purpose was so that she would be kind of like the focus, pretty similar to a Rufus and Chaka Khan kind of thing. But that ended up, I guess, not quite working out?

NR: Well, we always had the concept of the eye candy going on, and it wasn’t to make the person a star; it was to give them something to look at, because we know that performance of music is a visual type of thing, as well as an aural thing. Half of what made Miles [Davis] so cool was not only was he a genius musician and incredible, but you’d like the presentation: he had a certain sense of hip, and a certain sense of cool, and a swagger that was incredible, and you’d love going to check out Miles play. So we knew that we had to have our own sense of swagger that we could pull off; hence the clothing, hence the designers, and putting the girl in Fendi, and even mentioning it in the songs. Now it’s almost funny; you listen to almost any current record and all they talk about is Prada and blah-blah-blah: “I gotta sit back in the Maybach, I gotta do this …” and blah-blah-blah. But when we wrote the lyrics, “Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci,” no one—and I have researched it—you can’t find a Pop record before “He’s the Greatest Dancer” that mentions clothing designers as a lyric in a song. No one. No one ever did that. But when we wrote those lyrics, it’s because we were trying to represent the cutting-edge underground world, and we wanted people to go, “What is that? What is Halston? What is Gucci? What is Fiorucci?” And we thought by rhyming it and having that cool little thing, it would make Sister Sledge cutting-edge, although they didn’t know what they were singing about when they sang it. They had no idea who Halston was, what Gucci was … they may have known Gucci, maybe. Maybe. But they absolutely didn’t know Fiorucci.

DMJ: I was going to ask you about Sister Sledge. Because of your success with Chic, you guys got that opportunity to produce them, and I was going to ask you, what it was like working with them. I understand there was a little bit of tension?

NR: Yeah, there was a little bit of tension, because of even the lyrics in that song in particular, “He’s the Greatest Dancer.” We have a philosophy when it comes to our songwriting, which we call DHM: every song has to have a core truth—a deep, hidden meaning—that even if the people see one thing, we know what the song means to us. So if you don’t understand the hidden meaning, it’s okay; you can have it mean whatever you want to you. But the song has to mean what it does to us, or else we can’t do it. So “He’s the Greatest Dancer” was a song about this guy who was so fantastic that even a group like Sister Sledge, who were church-going girls who would not have a one-night stand, that he was so powerful and so enthralling that they would reset their moral compass for him.

So we had written a lyric that went: “my crème de la crème/please take me home,” and they asked us, quite nicely by the way, to change it to “my crème de la crème/please don’t go home.” And we went, “You can’t say that.” They said, “Why not? It’s our record. It makes sense; it sounds the same.” And we said, “No, but you don’t understand—that changes the core truth of the song. You can’t just say ‘my crème de la crème/please don’t go home,’ because now what’s happening is now it’s your song … it’s now you saying, ‘Please don’t go home, please don’t go home.’ No, it’s the other way around—it’s you superimposing your thoughts on him: ‘my crème de la crème/please take me home.’ It’s ‘He’s the Greatest Dancer, not ‘I’m Watching the Greatest Dancer.’ It’s not like, ‘Oh my God, that guy over there is the greatest dancer.’ It’s ‘Oh what, wow, he’s the greatest dancer that I’ve ever seen,’ and now, you explain how great he is by giving the whole back-story, beginning ‘One night in a disco in the outskirts of Frisco/I was cruising with my favorite gang.’ And then you get to that point: ‘He wears the finest clothes/the best designers, heaven knows/Oh from his head down to his toes/Halston, Gucci, Fiorucci/He looks like a still/That man is dressed to kill/Oh, what, wow, he’s the greatest dancer that I’ve ever seen.’

“It’s like everything about him is so overwhelming and so powerful, you, Sister Sledge the church-going girls who wouldn’t have a one-night stand, would, because that’s how powerful and magical this is. And if you don’t sing that like that, and you don’t believe that, the fans won’t either.” Well, sixteen-year-old Kathy Sledge, she totally got it, and when you listen to that song, this girl … it was great that she was the youngster, because she being sixteen; the older girls were fighting, but she pulled me aside, and asked me if I thought it was going to be a hit, and I told her it was going to be a super-hit. And people don't realize, because “We Are Family” was so big, but “He’s the Greatest Dancer” was a platinum single. We sold more than two million singles of that record. That was the perfect breakout record, and had we released “We Are Family” first, I’m not so sure that that record would have sold as well as it did, because “We Are Family” was such a big song, so perfect. In those days, black artists never got more than two singles, but on that album, we got four singles: we got “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” which set up “We Are Family,” and then, we also got “Lost in Music,” and then, we got a song called “Thinking of You,” which actually went Number One in England.

DMJ: And I think, in your book you said that you consider that production on that particular album to be one of your best?

NR: It is the best; it’s our finest hour. Because we had to stand outside of ourselves, visualize an artist, and bring their light into fruition and into focus to a world that hadn’t seen their light. Sister Sledge had "Love Don't You Go Through No Changes on Me," but you know as well as I know—and they know—that that record didn’t set them up for what was about to happen. We didn’t use any of that record, and that was a great record, but we didn’t use any of their juice from that record to push “He’s the Greatest Dancer.” “He’s the Greatest Dancer” was a single event that sort of rose on its own merit, and that’s because when that record was delivered to DJ’s, and it had that [sings guitar riff] the DJ’s loved the music. It was just one of those kinds of records that people really liked before they completely understood it.

About the Writer
Darnell Meyers-Johnson is a New Jersey based music journalist and creator of The Meyers Music Report ( Previously, he served as Entertainment Editor for the now defunct publication Nubian News and as Editorial Coordinator for When not conducting interviews or writing liner notes, Darnell hosts a weekly radio show, Vocal About Jazz, which streams online every Saturday from 12-2pm, EST on and iTunes.
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