Nile Rodgers’ Le Freak – Disco, Drugs, and Destiny – Memoir Book Review – We Are Family Reinvented
Chances are you’ve heard Sister Sledge’s classic Pop and R&B track “We Are Family” on the radio, at a wedding reception, or remembered it as the anthem of the 1979 World Series champion, Pittsburgh Pirates. The song was written by musicians Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, co-founders of late ’70s R&B/disco group Chic. While disco eventually died, Nile Rodgers’ musical talents still permeate the music scene today and his accomplishments are remarkable. Rodgers recounts his life in his new memoir, The freaknamed after Chic’s 1978 hit monster.
Nile Rodgers is the son of Nile Rodgers Sr., a talented musician who sadly died penniless in New York due to his addiction to alcohol and drugs.
Rodgers’ mother, Beverly (always by his first name), met Niles Sr. when he was 13 (he was 16). Their first sexual encounter created Niles Jr.
Much of Rodgers’ life involved alcohol and drugs before he even entered the music business. His mother and stepfather, Bobby, were both heroin addicts; and Rodgers was introduced to glue sniffing at age 13, to begin with.
Growing up, Rodgers was moved between New York and Los Angeles to be with his family. He developed his musical talents early on, enjoying many opportunities to perform with industry titans including Screamin Jay Hawkins and Jimi Hendrix.
He met Bernard Edwards while playing at the Chitlin’ Circuit (a chain of black nightclubs stretching from Buffalo, New York to South Florida). Musically, the two could read each other’s minds. They will then create the R&B/Pop group, Chic.
Rodgers shares many intriguing behind-the-scenes stories from the music industry, including the origins of Chic’s hit, The freak. Famous club performer, Grace Jones had invited Rodgers and Edwards to her show at Studio 54, the infamous Manhattan nightclub; and they were refused entry.
The duo moved back to a friend’s apartment next door. There they drank Dom Pérignon, snorted cocaine and stuffed their frustrations on bass and guitar. “Awww-f*** off Studio 54”, turned into “Awww, freak out”, which became The Freak’s catchy chorus.
The freak was an international hit, giving Chic her first seven-figure check for her label’s only triple-platinum single. “The Zen was that by not getting what we wanted, we got more than we ever imagined,” Rodgers says.
Rodgers says he’s worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry, including David Bowie, Madonna and Diana Ross.
In 1980, superstar Diana Ross was looking to reinvent her career. Her label, Motown, teamed her up with Edwards and Rodgers for the project. Despite their best efforts, Motown did not like the results and demanded that the master tapes be returned for their own post-production arrangements.
Devastated, the duo firmly believed that they had produced quality work. In the end, Motown released its original production with trepidation. “Diana” became Diana Ross’ best-selling album of her career, yielding the No. 1 hit, “Upside Down”, and top five pop singles, “I’m Coming out”.
Studio 54 became Rodgers’ number one hangout during his day. It vividly portrays its appeal to serious partiers and the A-list crowd, with sex and drugs galore. “It may seem highly unlikely today, but inside Studio there was a Dionysian sense of belonging and trust. Nothing was taboo.”
Racism is no stranger to Rodgers, as he has experienced it periodically, including during Chic’s rise. He and Edwards visited a Mercedes Benz dealership in Manhattan. “A salesman instructed us to try to gently chase us out of the store. It was clear to him that we couldn’t afford his wares,” he says. His post-chic years saw him accept invitations to parties on Martha’s Vineyard and be turned away from the door by bouncers, due to his dark shade.
The roll call of 9/11 victims brought sad news to Rodgers, as he recognized the name of one of the dead, a woman who had photographed him multiple times for Billboard magazine. Rodgers has received numerous calls from family, friends and acquaintances suggesting he reinvent his classic song “We Are Family” as a tribute to our national tragedy. He compelled, gathering celebrities, singers and rescuers in New York to re-record the tune, much like the 1985 “We Are The World” celebration. He also assembled a version from Los Angeles.
The We Are Family Foundation grew out of the bi-coastal project and is now a successful non-profit organization. He is dedicated to building a global family that strives to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges.
The freak reads the full loop, as Rodgers poignantly describes the circumstances surrounding the death of his longtime friend and business partner, Bernard Edwards. Both were in Japan in 1996 where Rodgers was being honored for his musical achievements. During their long performance, Edwards fell ill, but defied doctor’s orders to cancel the second part of the show.
After their performance, at 1:33 a.m., Rodgers was awakened from a nightmare believing he was experiencing an earthquake. He lands on the ground and eventually falls back to sleep. Hotel staff woke him up in the morning to inform him that Edwards (residing in a room across the hall) was not responding to his alarm clock. Rodgers knocked forcefully on Edwards’ door, but he never answered. Upon entering his room, he and the housekeeper found him dead.
Informing the medical examiner of Edwards’ final hours to determine his time of death, he described his earthquake dream. The medical examiner assured him that no earthquake had occurred. “It was your friend who was leaving you. The time of death is 1:33 am, as you said. Thank you for this information.”
The freak transcends being another complacent musician story. Sober since 1994, Rodgers is busier than ever and is currently working on a project with American Idol finalist Adam Lambert.
Rodgers reminds us of the resilience of the human spirit, that despite turbulent childhood and periods of adult wandering, we can reinvent our lives.
To learn more about the We Are Family Foundation, visit: http://www.wearefamilyfoundation.org.