Before Chic plays St. Petersburg, Nile Rodgers talks David Bowie, Queen, his songwriting legacy and more

The disco-funk guitarist and legendary pop producer swings through Tampa Bay on a night off tour with Cher.
Nile Rodgers and Chic will perform at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Jan. 18, 2019. Photo: Jill Furmanovsky.
Nile Rodgers and Chic will perform at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Jan. 18, 2019. Photo: Jill Furmanovsky.
Published January 11

Three years to the day David Bowie died, Nile Rodgers couldn’t stop talking about him.

“People don’t know this about David,” said the legendary pop producer and mastermind of disco-funk titans Chic. “Bowie would see things that he liked and he dug, and then he imagined, what would he do if he was doing something like that?”

For example, Rodgers remembers playing Bowie a test pressing of his first solo album back in 1983. Rodgers said he knew the album would be a “complete failure” — and commercially, it was — but Bowie didn’t see it that way.

“Bowie said to me — and this is a quote — ‘Nile, if you make a record for me half as great as that, I would be the happiest man in the world,’” Rodgers said. “I didn’t get it at the time. I was just sitting there feeling sorry for myself, and Bowie was sitting there going, Oh my god, this is going to be my producer!

And he was — not only for Bowie’s Let’s Dance and China Girl, but Madonna’s Like a Virgin, Duran Duran’s Notorious, Diana Ross’ I’m Coming Out and many more all-time dance-floor jams. Rodgers and Chic will play some of those songs on Jan. 18, when they hit the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg for a one-off headlining show amid a nationwide arena tour with Cher.

Surely, given his resume and royalties, Rodgers, 66, never needed to tour again — and given past battles with drug addiction and prostate cancer, one wonders why he does.

“I know, as I’ve always known, it’s finite. I understand that. I get it. But I also know that I’ve had more fun lately, and my shows are better than they’ve ever been, ever,” he said. “I think of ourselves as the Grateful Dead of dance music: We just go out and play. There’s no Pro Tools, there’s no background singing, there’s no dancers, there’s no nothing. We’re just a band playing songs.”

Chic may once have been just a band playing songs, back in the late ‘70s, when songs like Good Times and Le Freak were huge and Rodgers was a regular at New York oases like Studio 54. But more than two decades after the death of influential bassist Bernard Edwards, they’re now billed as “Nile Rodgers and Chic,” in part because Rodgers’ work as a songwriter and producer has eclipsed Chic’s not-so-shabby legacy. More than half of their songs in recent setlists are not Chic songs but Rodgers songs, such as Sister Sledge’s We Are Family or Daft Punk’s Get Lucky.

Rodgers, who recently started a term as chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, said that hasn’t bothered fans in the slightest.

“I was an integral part of the co-writing of those songs,” he said. “All those records, I’m partners on. I get the same royalties that everyone else gets because they recognize it. ... If we play a song like Notorious, in a strange way, it almost sounds more like Duran Duran than Duran Duran, aside from Simon Le Bon’s distinctive vocals. Because I did the track. They didn’t know those chords when I wrote that song. So I play it the way that I wrote it.”

He remains pleased to see how his and Chic’s influence keeps popping up in new ways. Take, for example, the film Bohemian Rhapsody. Remember the scene where Queen bassist John Deacon came up with the bass intro to Another One Bites the Dust in a studio session? The real story, Rodgers said, is that Deacon was hanging out in the studio with Chic when they laid down Good Times, and riffed on their riff for his. Not that he blames Queen or the filmmakers for any creative license they may have taken.

“He probably wouldn’t have said, ‘Oh yeah, I was hanging out with Nile Rodgers at the studio before, when they did Good Times,” he said. “You get inspired by other musicians. So in the movie, that probably comes off as quite real.”

Here’s another one: 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of Sugar Hill Gang’s Rapper’s Delight, the first hit rap song, which was built around a Good Times sample (Rodgers, again, is a fully credited songwriter). There was a time, Rodgers said, when he couldn’t imagine playing over someone else’s music. But not long ago, he was in the studio with Bruno Mars and Anderson Paak, working on a new record that could be released this year, when Mars suggested they loop a sample from a Lenny Kravitz song, the way the Sugar Hill Gang once did with Good Times.

“I was sitting in the studio, shocked,” Rodgers said. “I’ve been writing music all my life, and I’ve tried to make it as original as possible. I was embarrassed to think that I would put up another person’s record and play to it. And then we started playing to it. We made a loop, and I was excited. Bruno was killing it, Anderson Paak was killing it, we were having so much fun, it was really great. And I thought, man, you are never too old to learn.”

On stage or in the studio, he’s still channeling Bowie, still pushing creative boundaries, still searching for one more Good Times, Let’s Dance or Get Lucky.

“I’m actually proud to say that at this age, people are interested in me thinking of next-level stuff,” he said. “They know that next-level stuff doesn’t necessarily work. But when it does work, it becomes, ‘Awwwww, freak out!’

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.