Last spring we were invited to the home of producer, musician and guitarist, Nile Rodgers in Westport, CT for an interview and photo shoot of epic proportions. Along with us was Liz Derringer, renowned music journalist, who cut her teeth at Warhol’s Interview Magazine and former wife of music legend Rick Derringer. Also joining us was legendary rock photographer Mick Rock, known as “The Man Who Shot the Seventies” for his iconic shots of musicians like Queen, Bowie, Lou Reed and Roxy Music to name a few. It was quite a day that ended on Nile’s bed—listening to some pretty interesting stories. Here they are in his words.
LIZ: I saw you with Daft Punk and you won a Grammy! I was in the audience but I was too far away for you to see me! When you came on I was so excited and so happy for you!
NILE: It’s really interesting because I don’t do what I do, ever, thinking about awards or anything like that and I was trying to explain to Daft Punk that we weren’t going to win and they were looking at me like I was out of my mind. They weren’t looking at me like they were expecting to win. There were looking at it as how I could be so negative after all the Grammys that I’ve won? I said, “I have never won a Grammy!” And they were sitting there while we were in the audience and going, “You’re telling me you didn’t win a Grammy for “Let’s Dance” or “Like a Virgin” or “We Are Family” or Diana Ross’ “Upside Down” or “I’m Coming Out” or “Freak Out?” And they started naming all these songs—and I was like “no! no!” They said, “How is that possible? How could you not win a Grammy for “We Are Family?’” They just could not believe it. So when we won the first Grammy I was thrilled! I was, like, done! I was like “Okay, I got a Grammy, this is awesome!” And then we get a second one and then a third and they win a total of five and Pharrell wins four because he wins for producer of the year. I’m going “This is AMAZING! My little clique!” Between us… all of the technical people and engineers we had a slew of Grammys!
LIZ: How did you get together with Daft Punk and Pharrell?
NILE: I have known Daft Punk for 19 years now. I met them right after Bernard (Edwards) died around 2 years. I met them, when they were having a listening party at Private Eyes or one of those clubs around 21st St. around the corner from the Limelight. So, I went over there to check them out and we met and they told me that they were huge CHIC fans and there were a lot of CHIC samples and ideas on their new album which they played for me and it was amazing. We’ve been friends ever since and have tried to hook up on a couple different occasions but it never worked out until about 17 years later. I think that the 17 year wait was the right thing because you know, Mick (Rock) and I were just talking about something what I call convergence in Rock and Roll and when they called me, they came over to my apartment we hung out, they had some demos. I don’t even know if they played the demos. They told me about the concept and I was like, “Who cares about the songs, I like the concept.” The thing that I always like is when people play songs for me; I almost like it when I don’t like the songs so I can fix them because that’s what I like to do. That’s what I do. The artistic lens that I am looking through is definitely not the same one I looked through at twenty-something and the things that I have to say are more important to me now because I know time is finite.
LIZ: Were you inducted yet, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
NILE: Never. We’ve been nominated nine times. If you look at the way that they talk about CHIC—it’s the lamest thing. If you look at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing, I wouldn’t vote for those dudes either! Let me put it to you like this—there’s no one in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that has done what we’ve done. We’re the only band that’s been number one with the same record, three times! “Le Freak” went number one. The Beatles didn’t even do that shit. “Le Freak” went number one three times in succession. It’s the biggest selling single in the history of Atlantic Records. Bigger than Zeppelin, bigger than the Stones, bigger than anything. No one has ever sold 17 million singles at Atlantic Records! That’s just the beginning—just look at “Good Times” becoming the beginning of hip-hop and our very first single, “Dance, Dance, Dance” was platinum on both Atlantic and Buddha. We were platinum on both labels! They put up one of our songs that was an obscure song as the first song, “Rebels Are We”, from an album that didn’t sell much at all, so when you go to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame it says “Rebels Are We”. I look at it like this—when I bought my apartment, I was really good friends with the Liebers, you know, of Lieber and Stoller, they were getting a divorce. They were moving out of their place so they wanted me to look at their apartment, so I walked around and looked at the apartment, it was fabulous! So, all my life I’ve been a New Yorker and I was a renter, so I didn’t know anything about co-ops or condos. I was a renter or I was homeless. So now, I had millions of dollars and I could afford any apartment that I wanted, so either or Jed or Oliver, I think it was Jed Lieber, took me over to his apartment and said, “Look, we are moving out, and we’d love you to have it.” So, I looked and the board turned me down! I went, “I make more money than half the people in this building! Why did you turn me down?” My attorney
said, “That’s why they made co-ops, so they could keep people out that they didn’t want!” He said, “You can go get a condominium if you want.” Then he said something to me that is a credo that I have lived by ever since, and this is how I feel about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He asked me, “Why do you want to want to live in a building where they don’t want you?” We get nominated all the time. I’ve sold more records than most anyone out there, and everyone out there last year said I was gonna be a shoe-in for Daft Punk.
LIZ: Nile, of all the people that you’ve worked with—Is there a favorite? Is there something special? A great story? Maybe you have one or two you’d like to share?
NILE: I’d say the person, who stands out, other than my partner Bernard Edwards, the individual that really turned my life around was David Bowie—and the reason why it’s such a beautiful and extreme and lovely example is because he didn’t have a record deal and neither did I and we did it all by ourselves on our own. We had no one to answer to and all we had was each other.
LIZ: How did you find each other?
NILE: At an after-hours club—I was with Billy Idol. We were drunk, and we came in at like 5 in the morning and we pulled into this place called The Continental, Arthur Weinstein’s old place, and Billy went “bloody fucking hell, that’s David Bo—–wie!” and he barfed when he said ‘Bowie’! He wiped his hand and went “How you doing mate?.” [Laughs] David was completely cool about the whole thing, but by the time Billy barfed and wipe himself off, David and I were already engrossed in conversation because he was living on 25th St. with the Young Americans—with all the people I started out with, so it was all the Sesame Street people (I was the guitar player for Sesame Street)—Carlos Alomar, Luther Vandross— they had become the Young Americans, so it was all my guys. The single that just went number one today on the dance charts is about the beginning of CHIC and it goes, “Life began for me, when a single DJ dropped the needle on our vinyl” and we go…“EVERYBODY DANCE” and that’s Luther and Robin and Diva and David Lasley and everybody and it goes, “I looked out to see people on the dance floor—living proof of my arrival”, because before that I was living on the subway. I was homeless. I didn’t know anybody except these few people and I worked for Luther Vandross and he really couldn’t tell I was homeless, because in 1977 the W. 4th Street subway station had a very large men’s room. You could hang up your clothes; the sinks were big and beautiful. It was designed very well for the times. So, I’d go there and wash up every day and let my clothes hang out and nobody would bother me, it was fine, so I seemed like a normal person. No one realized I was homeless. I used to be in the Black Panthers and all my friends used to say to me, ‘Man, if you want to learn how to live free in New York, hang out with Nile Rodgers!’. We had a band called New World Rising. We were supposed to play at this place which is now Café Luxembourg. At the time, it was called Ungano’s, a place where the Stooges used to play. We were going to be opening for the Stooges and we were like “we’re gonna make it!”, but it was run by two pretty tough guys, Artie and Nicky Ungano. They wanted us to sign a contract and we were like “is our situation quite that complicated?”—so we said no. But we were good friends with Mickey Ruskin. The Velvet Underground had just finished the night before.
It was the end of their summer stint, so he had no one playing and we called him up and asked if we could play at Max’s Kansas City. He said, “Well, how many people are in your band?” We said, “Well, we got more than the Velvet Underground. We’ve got saxophone, organ…”. He said, “I don’t have a cabaret license, you can’t bring in drums.” That’s when we said we have 200 kids that wanted to buy beer and he said ‘OKAY! Fuck the cabaret license, come on in!’. You can look at the history books, they won’t give us credit but that’s how Upstairs at Max’s Kansas City got started, because we were the first ones to do it!
LIZ: I’m surprised we didn’t know each other when we were young! Was there music in your family?
NILE: Yea, my family was big bebop fanatics. My father was also a heroin addict but he died incredibly young. He has a very unique story. He was the most regular black musician who played with a guy named Paul Whiteman who was considered the King of Jazz and he had an all-white orchestra. He started a television show called TV Teen Club out of Philadelphia and it had a young announcer named Dick Clark. My dad was the percussionist and it became American Bandstand! So, the day that I was born, my dad was in Philadelphia playing. He was so in demand because the Latin wave of music had begun to come up from South America. My dad was born in Trinidad, and he was very familiar with these afro-cuban rhythms and because Trinidad basically is pretty much South America! So when the big bands started hiring their percussionists, if you remember, Lucille Ball’s husband was a band leader and he was a percussionist, Tito Puente was a percussionist, so that was that sort of prestigious thing—so my dad was one of those guys. My stepfather is white and my mom is black and my stepfather only dated black woman. He was the fucking coolest guy on Earth. They were both heroin addicts.
LIZ: That must have been a rough upbringing with them being junkies.
NILE: No, it was fantastic.
LIZ: You never got into heroin, did you?
NILE: No, I was a hippie. So, by the time I became of drug age…
LIZ: …you were doing LSD.
NILE: Right. I dropped acid with Timothy Leary at 15 years old. I could almost give you the exact date, not that I remember it, but you can look it up because it was about four days after The Doors had released their very first album. I didn’t know who Dr. Timothy Leary was, I didn’t know what acid was, and I didn’t know who The Doors were.
LIZ: …and your mother?
NILE: My mom was drop-dead gorgeous. She fell pregnant with me at thirteen years old. My mom and I were more like siblings rather than parent and a child, and because they were beatniks, they had a whole different concept of child rearing; they treated me very much like a peer.
LIZ: What was it like working with Mick Jagger?
NILE: Awesome, we were really great friends, in fact, we probably don’t have enough time to give you one of THE best Mick Jagger stories of ALL time! No one can top this one! I just met this woman on Facebook, she was a porn star named Annette Heinz. She worked at this strip joint that we all used to go to called Bernard’s and the strip place SHE worked at was The Melody Burlesque. I used to go out with one of these burlesque girls. The weird thing about the porn/sex industry in NY around that time—there were three or four different types of industries. Regular girls, like Linda Lovelace, would get suckered into this weird thing and the movies would get edited and become these heavy-duty, hard-core sex things. There was that type of movie theatre experience, where people would go with others to watch porn. Then the Super 8 films became popular before VHS and people would buy and watch them at home. Then of course, regular magazines like Penthouse and Playboy, and then the hardcore stuff like Stag and whatever. Then they had the burlesque houses where women really, basically just did strip tease dances. But, this place where she worked invented the lap dance. They never had women touch men until this place, The Melody Burlesque. When I was doing Jagger’s solo album, my girlfriend worked in the peep show business where you’d put money in and the window would come up and you’d watch her dance and talk to her and it would come down and you’d have to keep putting money in. My girlfriend was a girl called Barbarella and she worked at Show World in Times Square. One day, one of these friends of Barbarella used me and Mick as her alibi to prove that she was at this particular nightclub. Mick and I then went to the Limelight and the next day was Jade’s birthday and I remember thinking to myself that he was not going to make Jade’s birthday! Mick doesn’t get lit like me. He was trying to hang with me and I was like, “Mick, I think you need to go home!”, but for some reason he wanted to hang. So him, his bodyguard and me went to Limelight and this girl tried to use us as an alibi. Well, that night she and her boyfriend killed and dismembered a dude, and his bones stuck through the plastic bag and made a blood trail from their house to the truck. We kept thinking to ourselves (and I knew I was with Mick Jagger who was famous) that they sure are making a big deal out of buying us drinks and saying, “We’re here with Mick Jagger!”. So this girl was trying to make a big deal out of the fact that she and this dude were buying Mick Jagger drinks and I don’t realize until months later—until I started to put the pieces together and I see that she is on trial for murder and dismemberment and that it happened the exact same night! No wonder they were trying to make a big deal out of the fact they were with Mick, but they never even got a chance to use that as an alibi because they got busted right away! So when I talked to this girl Annette on Facebook, we talked about that incident, she said, “Oh boy, do I remember it well!”