In 1977, disco ruled and Chic was at the heart of it all—a Big Apple band, born and bred on one of New York City’s most famous streets—Sesame Street.
Guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards formed the nucleus of Chic. But in fact, the chart-smashing disco-funk band was preceded by nearly a decade of musical brotherhood.
This lifetime of collaboration began in the groovy universe of post-60s public broadcasting.
Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood
Today, Nile Rodgers is a legend, perhaps even more for his hit-making prowess as a producer than for his musical contributions with Chic. But in 1970, Nile was a young musician coming up on New York’s Lower East Side.
Raised by hippie beatnik parents in Greenwich Village, his home was frequented by fascinating guests like Lenny Bruce and Thelonious Monk. His cousin, Robert “Spike” Mickens, played trumpet for Kool and the Gang. Nile had the pedigree of a future badass.
He landed his first real gig when he answered an ad in the paper. He remembers that audition—for Sesame Street’s live touring band—as “the greatest day of my life.”
Nile was asked to site read “Who Are the People in Your Neighborhood?” He nailed it.
A Side Trip to Philly
Nile Rodgers was actually filling some pretty big shoes. The original guitarist for the Sesame Street band was a guy named Carlos Alomar. Carlos was occasionally joined on Sesame Street by members of his own band—Listen My Brother. Among his backup singers were a young Luther Vandross and Fonzi Thornton.
As Nile stepped into Alomar’s role on Sesame Street, Listen My Brother emerged as a powerful backing unit. By 1974, Alomar and Vandross were in Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios with David Bowie recording Young Americans. This was the beginning of a fruitful relationship between Bowie and Alomar. In fact, no other musician has appeared on more Bowie albums.
Meanwhile, Back on Sesame Street
In 1971, Nile began touring as part of Sesame Street’s live backing band. A year later, Sesame Street hired a new bass player named Bernard Edwards. It was the beginning of a musical partnership that would soon transform pop music. But for now, they were two aspiring pros living on Sesame’s progressive urban streetscape.
Sesame Street was well on its way to establishing a kind of musical legitimacy that far transcended children’s television. With early guest stars like Stevie Wonder, Loretta Lynn, and Johnny Cash, Sesame had genuine street cred. It was the perfect symbiosis of early childhood education, positive emotional grounding, and psychedelic fever dream. Sesame Street was something that everybody could enjoy.
Nile Rodgers recalls an equally nurturing environment behind the scenes:
These people had the biggest hearts and best values for a young musician to be around. The Count never once tried to bite me.
Today, it’s difficult to determine which musicians played on each of Sesame Street‘s many record releases. Big Bird and Grover take top billing. Details on backing musicians are scarce. So I can’t tell you for certain that Nile Rodgers plays on this recording, but I do think it captures the tight, funky interplay that made Sesame Street groove in the 70s.
The Big Apple Band
Sesame Street was only the beginning for Rodgers and Edwards. By 1972, they were performing together in the local scene as the Big Apple Band. Big Apple largely worked as a backing unit, scoring their lone noteworthy hit for a group called New York City. “I’m Doin’ Fine Now” reached #17 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
In 1975, a completely unrelated group called Walter Murphy and the Big Apple Band scored a #1 hit with “A Fifth of Beethoven.” (Some may recognize Murphy’s name for numerous other achievements, including the Family Guy theme song.)
To avoid confusion, Big Apple abandoned their regional name. After attending a Roxy Music concert, Rodgers found himself inspired by the symbiosis of style and substance–glam sensibility with a rock and roll heart. Chic was born in this spirit. Edwards and Rodgers recruited drummer Tony Thompson from the band LaBelle. Chic released their self-tit led debut in 1977.
From this point on, the story is well known. During the brief but heady reign of Disco, Chic was a dominant force. Their first three albums–Chic (1977), C’est Chic (1978), and Risque (1979)–are among the defining records of the era.
With more than 7 million copies sold in 1978, “Le Freak” became a #1 hit and the biggest selling single in the history of the venerable Atlantic Records.
Adding vocalist Fonzi Thornton–remember Fonzi?–in 1979, Chic released “Good Times.” Again, Chic scored a #1 hit, scorching dance-floors during the hot summer of 1979.
And when Chic’s “Good Times” resurfaced as the root sample in Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” the following year, the band also found itself at ground zero for the popular ascension of hip hop.
In fact, “Good Times” is nothing less then elemental in the DNA of popular music, sampled or referenced as it was in Grandmaster Flash’s “Adventures on the Wheels of Steel,” Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” (1980), and Blondie’s “Rapture” (1981).
Daft Punk also lifted the bass line for “Around the World,” which topped dance charts globally in 1997.
The Chic Family Grows
The much publicized death of disco spared none. Even the mighty Chic struggled to maintain relevance in the early ‘80s. Chic samples tore up the charts. But the band itself was running out of steam. Though 1980’s Real People was a charting success, it failed to produce a major hit.
And yet, 1980 marked another year of incredible success for the musicians at the heart of Chic. That same year, Rodgers, Edwards and Thompson produced and played on Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” and Diana Ross’s “Upside Down.” Both were #1 hits that year.
The writing was on the wall. Greater success lay ahead, but not for Chic. They disbanded in 1983.
Dancing with David
From the ashes of Chic, Rodgers emerged almost immediately as one of the era’s most important producers. Impressed with his studio work for Sister Sledge and Diana Ross, David Bowie sought out Nile Rodgers. Bowie wanted hits, and he believed Rodgers was the man to deliver them.
In addition to producing, Rodgers stepped in to play guitar when Bowie’s longtime guitarist Carlos Alomar–remember Carlos?–proved unavailable on short notice. For a second time, Rodgers had replaced Alomar on rhythm guitar.
Late in the sessions, an unknown young guitar slinger named Steve Ray Vaughan was beckoned to play lead. And once again, Luther Vandross was on hand for backing vocals. The result was 1983’s Let’s Dance.
The album’s title track reached #1 in the U.S. and U.K. on the way to becoming Bowie’s biggest selling single ever. And yet, it was only a prelude to Nile’s greatest success.
Rodgers in the Material World
With her self-titled debut, Madonna emerged from the New York club scene as one of 1983’s most exciting new talents. She envisioned her second album as solidifying her superstardom, and hoped to produce it herself.
When Warner Brothers refused her this freedom, Madonna was granted the right to work with a producer of her choice. She requested Nile Rodgers based on his work with Bowie. Bringing Edwards and Thompson into the studio, Rodgers oversaw production of Madonna’s Like a Virgin. In 1984, Nile Rodgers did nothing less than help alter the course of popular music.
Naturally, this established Rodgers as a premier producer. Collaborations with INXS, Duran Duran, The Thompson Twins, Steve Winwood, the B-52s, Mick Jagger, Grace Jones, and Jeff Beck followed.
And yet, for all of his achievements, Nile Rodgers says that his proudest moment came in 1988. That was when he composed the commercial jingle for Soul Glo from the film Coming to America.
The Rhythm Section
While Rodgers dominated the charts, Edwards and Thompson logged their own success, joining Robert Palmer and several unrelated Taylors from Duran Duran in Power Station. Edwards and Thompson stayed onboard for Palmer’s hit 1986 album—Riptide, as well.
Sadly, Bernard Edwards passed away from pneumonia at just 43 in 1996, ending one of the great, ongoing musical collaborations in pop music.
In 2003, Tony Thompson and former bandmate Robert Palmer passed away within two months of each other. Luther Vandross passed away two years later.
Rodgers Gets Lucky
That got heavy. Let’s end on a good note.
In 2014, Rodgers smashed the charts and scored three Grammys for his work with Daft Punk on Random Access Memories. Lead single “Get Lucky” reached #1 in France and the U.K., and delivered the French electropop duo their biggest American hit.
In 2020, Rodgers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his production work.
The People in Mr. Rodgers’ Neighborhood
Hear how Nile and friends helped shape the sound of popular music for more than a decade…