Nile Rodgers talks living lonely and more before St. Petersburg concert

He brings Chic to Mahaffey Theater on January 18.

Share on Nextdoor
click to enlarge Chic is breaking off the Cher tour for a rare, one-off headlining gig at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida on January 18, 2019. - Jill Furmanovsky
Jill Furmanovsky
Chic is breaking off the Cher tour for a rare, one-off headlining gig at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, Florida on January 18, 2019.

Look at Nile Rodgers’ musical rap sheet or bug his accountant about royalties statements, and you’ll notice that the 66-year-old record producer and composer has had in hand seemingly all of popular music. Sure, his influence on the way the world boogies and reckons with itself is common knowledge to even the most casual fans, but revisiting Rodgers’ list of credits is still daunting.

Hit songs with Bowie, Duran Duran, Diana Ross, Sister Sledge, Mick Jagger and Madonna are mixed in there, and so are cuts with Paul Simon, Alex Chilton, Bryan Ferry, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Quincy Jones, Lady Gaga are more. Keith Urban even makes an appearance as you make that infinite scroll through his credits.

And that’s not counting all of the times Rodgers compositions have been sampled by hip-hop artists.

To say that the world would not be the same without Rodgers is an understatement. Stay on the phone long enough with him, however, and Rogers will remind you that he — along with his Chic songwriter partner Bernard Edwards, who died in 1996 — never set out to be stars. In fact, Rodgers’ conversation with CL actually opened with him gushing about all of the jazz greats who’ve let him into their lives.

“It made me feel like I have the most wonderful life in the world, that these giants that I grew up with can talk about our old friends,” Rodgers said when asked about a recent run-in he had with bassist, composer and McCoy Tyner collaborator Calvin Hill.

The two rapped about Tyner, who played keys for Coltrane, and they talked about post-bop composer Harold Mabern. They went on about Miles and even mentioned composer Jon Faddis, who once said that the lone bleep he blasted on “I Want Your Love” was the most important single note to ever come out of his trumpet.

“They knew how I was superimposing my jazz knowledge into pop and writing pop songs,” Rodgers said. “Getting that kind of respect from guys that I grew up idolizing and even gigging with was so amazing for me.”

And it’s pretty amazing to see Rodgers taking Chic off of its nationwide arena tour opening for Cher just to play a one-off headlining show at Mahaffey Theater. Reviews for recent headlining shows have revealed an all-killer, no-filler setlist that leans on Rodgers’ heftiest contributions to the pop, disco and R&B canon.

“It will be all hits, for sure,” Rodgers confirmed, adding that he knows it’ll be the first time that many Tampa Bay fans will be catching the band. “The people who are true, heavy, Chic fans will appreciate the first time they saw us do this live. It’ll take them back.”

And a walk back through that song catalog is a treat. For Rodgers, songs are like human language. We learn to talk first, and then we figure out how to say something meaningful, even if the statement seems trite on the surface level.

“Once they decipher the lyrics they say, ‘Wow. This guy is talking about something that relates to my life.’ They think, ‘Yes, it’s true — we all are family,’” Rodgers explained. “When I write a lyric like ‘I got all my sisters with me’ it’s because it’s a song specifically for Sister Sledge... but it’s now gone on to be something more universal and bigger than myself, bigger than Sister Sledge.”

Composers are like little babies, he joked. All they really want, no matter what they say, is to be heard.

“Please feed me. Please hold me. Please tell me you love me, whatever,’” he said, laughing. “That’s the way that we communicate.”

One thing that doesn’t get joyously communicated in popular music is the lonely life that a composer — even one like Rodgers — lives. He wouldn’t call it “loneliness,” but Rodgers said that he pretty much has the same routine every day.

“I look at it as just being alone most of the time,” he said of a daily ritual that mostly involves phone calls for work and to family. Rodgers still washes his clothes daily, by hand, in cold water. To hear him describe his lonely life is a bit disheartening when considering how much love his music has brought to fans, but then you realize that this is a man who lives to create and bring joy to others. Rogers admittedly doesn’t think much about death, citing the fact that it’s inevitable, but he does mention the close friends he’s lost over the years.

“Bowie, Prince, Avicii, Michael Jackson; you can’t believe how totally close we were,” he said. “I understand life on this planet, so I go out there, and I give everything I can, every single night. When people call for an encore, it’s impossible. I’m dead.”

Rodgers learned how to read people onstage, but he learned how to be honest during a period of shortcomings and bad luck that landed him in the hospital (cancer, boating accidents) and even AA meetings (a child of addicts, Rodgers himself suffered with substance abuse). He knows we’re not all perfect creatures, and Rodgers doesn’t care if lifting the veil is unprofessional. He does it to let the audience know that Chic is there for them.

“We all have problems or things that we have to overcome in life, so I say, ‘Check this out — here’s a good song to get us through our problems for the moment,’ Rodgers explained.

“I am out there to make the people happy.”

Nile Rodgers & Chic. Fri. Jan. 18, 8 p.m. $39.50-99.50. Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S., St. Petersburg.

How was Calvin Hill when you saw him the other day?

Oh bro, come on. Are you serious?

Yeah, I saw you were stoked on that.

Oh man, it made me feel like I have the most wonderful life in the world. That these jazz giants that I grew up with can talk about our old friends. We talked about McCoy Tyner, Harold Mabern, Miles, everybody. People don't know that part of my life, and it was so great to see him. He's still married to the same woman, and they were at the airport. I was like, "ugh." I was just soaring. I was telling him about Jon Faddis who played on Chic's "I Want YourLove." I remember reading a really incredibly great review in one of the jazz magazine that have long since disappeared. They asked Jon Faddis — I mean, he's great, it's Jon Faddis, come on, give me a break — they asked him, "I know this may sound like the craziest question in the world, but what is that single most important note of music that you've ever played in your life." Jon Faddis thought about it for one quick second and said, "Oh, this record I did with this disco band called Chic, and it goes 'I want your love, I want — beep — your love.'" He said , "That one bit is the most important one note I have ever played in my life."

That is awesome.

So I had Calvin Hill cracking up about that. That was so amazing for me and a young R&B and disco, sort of, dance and pop artist. To get that kind of respect from the jazz guys that I grew up idolizing and even gigging with. It was just that they knew how I was superimposing my jazz knowledge into pop and writing pop songs.

Not bad for the kid who played clarinet for the kid who played clarinet in the golden days of hippiedom and free love.

Haha, yeah. I always thought, "What would I look like playing clarinet." It would be hysterical.

You're also someone whose first song learned on guitar was “A Day In The Life,” and you wrote “Good Times” as a reaction to some pretty crappy times — how often does music still heal you today? Is the motivation to write a new“Good Times” considering the crappy times we're having right now?

Um, I actually think that's what I did.

On this second part of the, essentially, double album you're releasing.

Yeah, absolutely. As a matter of fact, I was just sharing that with a couple of the band members the other day, saying, it just came to me, sort of, in a dream. I jumped up, and I wrote this down. I'm going to interpret this melody, that I think works. Every single day I write little notes to make it more and more Chic-like, but I don't want to go into a diatribe that's just a concept right now.

OK, I love talking concepts, but I also don't want you to get in trouble for giving away secrets.

Help us fill seats at that show, and we'll talk about this later.

Haha. So that show, you're talking about. You're obviously on the Cher tour, opening, but there's the St. Petersburg show where you're breaking off to headline. I’d imagine that there will be a lot of your fans who catch you in Orlando opening for her and on the St. Petersburg headlining gig. I saw the London show was all-killer no filler, past hits. You once sang “I don’t want to live in the past, but it’s a nice place to visit," but how will the headlining set at Mahaffey be different from London or Cher opening slot?

It will be all hits, for sure. The thing is that most people in that market will be seeing us for the very first time. The people who are true, heavy, Chic fans will appreciate the first time they saw us do this live. It'll take them back. The thing is I feel obligated to create this really wonderful Chic experience. I make this joke that we're the Grateful Dead of dance music. We don't have Pro Tools, we don't have backing tracks, we don't do any of that stuff. We can call out any songs we want to call out. Our setlist can be three hours long.

Lionel Richie said to me, when we were opening for him last year, he said, "You're the only band that I know that can play four hours worth of songs where every single person in the audience will know them, but they don't realize that you did it." And I said, "Yeah, I know." That's our blessing and our curse. Bernard and I never thought of ourselves as stars. I like being that guy. I never thought of myself as a star. I always thought of myself as a composer. A very lonely life.

This is how I look at a song. I look at a song, sort of, the way we look at life and human language. We learn how to talk, and then we learn how to say something. Talking is talking, but then we learn how to say something that is meaningful. That's how I've always looked at composition. I learned how to write music, and read music, and play music. But then, at a certain point, I learned how to say, "This is my communications medium. Now I'm gonna use this to say something." That thing may, on the surface, seem trite to a person, but once they decipher the lyrics they see that, "Wow. This guy is talking about something that relates to my life." They think, "Yes, it's true — we all are family." It doesn't make any difference if it's Sister Sledge talking about their particular family, but we're talking about mankind being family. So when I write a lyric like "we are family/I got all my sisters with me" it's because it's a song specifically for Sister Sledge, but it's now gone on to be something more universal and bigger than myself, bigger than Sister Sledge.

That's what all composers really want, I don't care what they say. We're all like little babies. We all want to be heard. Little babies start crying. "Please feed me. Please hold me. Please tell me you love me, whatever." That's the way that we communicate.

Totally, and you mention the loneliness of a composer. You also experienced a lot of loneliness, especially as a child, because of your parental situation. How often are you lonely these days? Is it ever constructive?

My life is extremely lonely, but I don't look at it as loneliness. I look at it as just being alone most of the time. I laugh, and I say that my life almost exactly the same every single day. What do I do? Anybody who knows me will confirm this. I get up, do what I have to do whether it's making phone calls, business, talking to my mom, talking to my brothers, what have you, talking to my friends. I wash my clothes from either the night before, or I wash them, generally, after the show.

By the way, as a sidebar. Did you know that I have everything that I have ever worn since the '70s? I know how to really take care of clothing since my dad was sort of in the haberdashery business, and I wash my clothing, to this day, by hand and in cold water. Even French Vogue said to me that they would love to take pictures of all my clothing.

Heck yeah.

But of course I said, "No." Once I do that, it doesn't mean anything. Hopefully I can be like Bowie, and after I pass away you guys will think it's something incredible because no one has a clothing collection quite like mine. I have the stuff from before I made it. I wasn't thinking about being a star — I just liked the stuff and always wanted to keep it in my life.

It should go in a museum. You mention your dad, and you mention your mom. I know she has the stage four alzheimer's. I was wondering if a certain thing ever happens to know. You have a tremendous work ethic and a pathological need to play music. You’ve been chuckin’ on guitar riffs forever now. When you’re onstage, do you go into a meditative state? If so, what’s on your mind these days?

That's so funny you mention that because nowadays, and this is sort of a show-spoiler, but a few weeks ago I started playing the intro to "Le Freak." It started as something I did with Earth, Wind and Fire, but now what I do is I start playing jazz, doing whatever I feel like. I'll play classical. I'll do whatever I want to do, and the thing that makes it sort of cool is because it starts to morph into "Le Freak," and once they start to realize what it is they go bananas.

They freak out.

Haha, no pun intended.

Wow, sorry, did not mean to do that.

Haha, so I start playing anything and then it morphs into "Le Freak" because the guitar riff is so distinctive — even more so than "Good Times" in a strange way. So when they hear [starts to sing riff], the place goes bananas and the whole arena just goes bananas. That's the meditative state that I go into. I'll play jazz. I don't care how avant-garde it is because I know that it will morph into "Le Freak."

Since Fran will probably will kill me if I go over, I want to tell you that this will probably be my last question. Looking at the old Chic photos, just two of you are left. You’ve cheated death a bunch between cancer, boating, your heart, the list goes on. Your cancer diagnosis kick started you more than anything as far as mindset goes. You’re in remission, and you’re also a longtime recovering addict — music is your entertainment, but how difficult is the fight and race against time these days?

I honestly don't think about at all because it's inevitable. I mean, look at all of the people who I've lost in just the last few years. From Bowie, to Prince, to Avicii, even Michael Jackson. These were people who were super great friends of mine. You can't believe how totally close we were. I understand that life on this planet is, you know, it is what it is. So I go out there, and I give every thing I can, every single night. I always tell my band that I don't leave anything on the stage. When people call for an encore, it's impossible. I'm dead.

The other day we played so hard and so long, that finally, you know, it's the end, and we've played this huge set, so I thought, "Well, I don't have anything left on the setlist." I thought that I threw everything at the audience, and I realized that I was lying, so I started doing push ups. I figured, it's show business, let me put on a show, what the hell. I figured, here's a 66-year-old dude is doing push ups. I started doing them with one hand, thinking about Jack Palance doing one-handed push ups at the Academy Awards a few years ago. The whole place cracked up. Some of the people got the joke. Other people just thought it was entertainment, but it was great.

I am out there to make the people happy. The one thing I can absolutely promise you is that Chic shows are designed to make the audience family and feel like one, big, happy family. As I say quite often, Studio 54 was the most magical place in the world because once you got in, you belonged to this special club. That's why at a Chic show, we have people, as many as we can, come up on the stage and dance with us during "Good Times." We may even do something different, in your market, at the begining, something that we've never done in America. We want to try new things. We're real musicians. We're not locked to any dance or choreography, click tracks or anything like that. We just play, and we do anything that we want to do. We have that freedom.

If we have the right setting, and if I read the crowd correctly, which fortunately I do most of the time — and I have to be honest with you, it's simply because of cancer and AA. I've talked, and talked, and talked to rooms full of strangers. I'm an inherently shy guy, but I've learned how to talk to rooms full of strangers about my shortcomings, or bad luck — whatever you want to call it — and I don't mind being honest. It's OK. We're not all perfect creatures. I don't mind that, and I don't think that it takes away from show. I actually think that, even though it's considered unprofessional, I do that to let the audience know that I am there for them and that we all have problems or things that we have to overcome in life, so check this out — here's a good song to get us through our problems for the moment.

Well, it was crazy to hear you talk about, not loneliness, but being lonely because I think your songs have been a bright light for a lot of people. Fame, I'm assuming, is a strange situation, but I hope that feeling lonely never becomes too overbearing because there is an entire world out there that you've changed for the better. So thanks for that and thanks for your time today.

Well, if you can help us sell tickets for this show because I promise you, no one will leave disappointed. The only people who will leave feeling disappointed are the ones who say, "I wish they played longer." What are you gonna say? Read our reviews, they're like "Jesus Christ, my feet are hurting."

Haha, well thank you so much.

No thank you, I really appreciate it. Cheers.


About The Author

Ray Roa

Read his 2016 intro letter and disclosures from 2022 and 2021. Ray Roa started freelancing for Creative Loafing Tampa in January 2011 and was hired as music editor in August 2016. He became Editor-In-Chief in August 2019. Past work can be seen at Suburban Apologist, Tampa Bay Times, Consequence of Sound and The...
Scroll to read more Show Previews articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.