With his band Chic and later on his own, Nile Rodgers helped define the sound of the late 1970s and early 1980s. From songs like “Le Freak” and “Good Times,” which he co-wrote with longtime musical partner Bernard Edwards, to seminal albums by David Bowie (Let’s Dance), Madonna (Like A Virgin) and Diana Ross (Diana), all multi-platinum smashes he produced, few modern-day musicians can claim a professional past so storied, much of it experienced under the ever-present haze of drugs and alcohol.
Rodgers tells his life story — the good, bad and utterly absurd (like how his “office” at Studio 54 was a stall in the women’s bathroom) — in Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny (Spiegel & Grau), out this week. It’s a gripping account of his rags-to-riches rise, which began in New York City but eventually brought him out west to L.A. His introduction to drugs came early, as both his parents struggled with heroin addiction, but his taste later ran to cocaine and booze, two substances readily available during his and disco’s heyday — and two cultural happenings forever linked in song.
The book is full of surprises as talent meets unbelievable excess at a time before the internet, mobile phones or even compact discs. Among them, these five Rodgers revelations:
He took acid with Timothy Leary and didn’t even know it. As a teenager living in South Central, Rodgers and a buddy were invited to a party in the Hollywood Hills one afternoon, where they both ingested LSD for the first time and spent the next 36 hours chilling with one Dr. Timothy Leary. Twenty years later, Leary would recount the night at a party, describing “two young spade cats dressed in suits,” and leaving Rodgers, a fellow party guest, floored. Rodgers calls it “hippie happenstance — to explain the unexplainable.”
A jam with Jimi Hendrix will only live on in memory… because they got high. Rodgers recalls a night spent in a New York City loft when he ended up jamming with the guitar legend: “We moved and grooved like a flock of birds… The studio was thick with cigarette and cannabis smoke. We were drinking from flasks filled with Almaden wine… I said, ‘This is the greatest stuff I’ve heard in my life….’ ‘Hey man,’ Jimi said, sheepishly. ‘Did anybody record that, man?’ We’d been so caught up in the moment – and of course so high – that no one had thought to roll tape!”
Brett Ratner’s mom helped Rodgers come out of his shell. Who knew? When Rodgers was still coming into his own as a performer, he looked to one of his Miami party pals, Marsha Ratner, as his “muse.” Writes Rodgers: “Marsha was the leader of a pack of fabulous people in that town’s wild party scene. She was also a single mom who reminded me of my own mother.” In a footnote, Rodgers notes that Brett Ratner “is like my brother, friend and son. Our identities are both formed in the color-blind world of art — and he’s as comfortable with Mike Tyson and the Wu Tang Clan as I was with the B-52’s or Duran Duran.”
Rodgers was hired to work on the music for the 1988 film Coming to America, but because of Eddie Murphy’s earthquake phobia, he had to score dailies to avoid impending doom. “Paramount temporarily gave me my own studio, build over the weekend on the lot, to meet an absurd deadline,” Rodgers recalls. “Apparently, Eddie Murphy had been moved by an Orson Wells docu-style movie in which Nostradamus predicts the exact date of the big California earthquake… Eddie insisted that we wrap all his scenes before the Golden State plunged into the Pacific.”
- Madonna was exhibiting diva-like behavior long before she became a household name. Among the many recording studio anecdotes was one detailed recounting of Rodgers’ time working with Madonna on her 1984 breakout album, Like A Virgin. “Madonna’s superintense let’s-get-down-to-business attitude sometimes rubbed people the wrong way,” he writes. “One day, Madonna’s insult slinging went too far. Our assistant had the temerity to go to the bathroom, and she freaked out on him…. ‘Where the fuck is he going?‘ she said loudly enough that he could clearly hear. Unsatisfied, that she’s made her point, she then let off a fusillade from her usual arsenal of one-liners: “Time is money, and the money is mine.'” Rodgers confronted the would-be pop star and the argument turned so heated, he quit the record for what would turn out to be “the shortest producer strike in history.”