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Good times for music icon Nile Rodgers

By Gary Graff
ggraff@digitalfirstmedia.com, @GraffonMusic on Twi

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Nile Rodgers received perhaps his most crucial music lesson from his guitar teacher when he was a teenager.

The New York native, immersed at the time in jazz and fusion music, arrived at his lesson one day "really grumpy" about having to do what he calls "this boogaloo gig...playing all these bull**** songs, the Top 40 -- including, specifically, the Archies' bubblegum smash "Sugar Sugar." Rodgers expected a sympathetic ear, but he got just the opposite.

"(The teacher) looked at me and goes, 'Whoa, Nile, what makes you believe these are bull*** songs?. What makes you believe you're the ultimate consumer? Any song that sells and gets to the Top 40, gets into the Top 10, gets into the Top 20 -- any song like that is a great composition. It speaks to the souls of a million strangers,'" Rodgers, 64, recalls backstage at the Austin Convention Center while preparing to deliver his keynote speech at this year's South By Southwest Music + Media Conference.

"He really berated me. He was trying to teach me how to not be a snob. I was like, 'Wow,' and two weeks later I wrote a song called 'Everybody Dance,' 'cause that was so profound on me. I wanted to learn to speak to the souls of a million strangers. That woke me up to the power of what we call pop music."

It was a lesson Rodgers learned well.

As the co-founder and architect of the band Chic, the guitarist, songwriter and producer crafted enduring dance-pop hits such as "Le Freak," "Good Times," "I Want Your Love" and more, as well as sister act Sister Sledge's anthem "We Are Family." Rodgers went on to produce and write hits for Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna, INXS, Duran Duran, Lady Gaga, Keith Urban, Pitbull and many others, and his signature guitar riffs have been sampled in scores of rap and EDM tracks; He was even named one of the 50 Most Important People in EDM by Rolling Stone magazine. No wonder the guitar he plays is nicknamed The Hitmaker.

Rodgers isn't just resting on past laurels, either. In 2013 he helped create the Grammy Award-winning "Get Lucky" for Daft Punk, and he continues to lead a reactivated Chic on the road -- touring the past two years with Duran Duran and this year also with Earth, Wind & Fire. In recent years he's received a batch of awards from a variety of organizations -- most recently a 2016 induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame with his late Chic partner Bernard Edwards and, in April, an Award for Musical Excellence from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Clearly these are good times for the man who still plays the song of that name.

"Y'know, how can I complain -- about anything, man," Rodgers, a colon cancer survivor who missed his first Chic show ever on Aug. 13 when he was hospitalized for an undisclosed ailment. "I've had the chance to make so much music and work with so many great, amazing people. Way back when I started I couldn't have dreamt about things working out this way."

Amidst his voluminous credits, however, Rodgers -- who published a memoir "Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny" in 2011 -- is crystal clear about what means the most to him.

"Of all the things I've done, that I'm exceptionally proud of, I'm really proud of Chic," he explains. "We did what we did against tremendous odds. We sold records at some absurd number, and even the fact that when the whole 'Disco Sucks' thing happened in 1979 and everybody was 'Disco sucks! Disco sucks!,' 'Good Times' went No. 1.

"Sure, I've done a lot of records outside of Chic, and, sure, the successful life of Chic was only two years. But everything I've done is based on Chic. David Bowie knew about me because of Chic -- 'nuf said, y'know?"

That's why the Rodgers was "perplexed" by the Rock Hall award earlier this year. He was honored, of course, but he found it "bittersweet" to be singled out rather than celebrated with his band -- which has been nominated for the shrine 11 times without success, the most of any act to date.

"It's sort of funny because you can draw a straight line from the origin of Chic to why they would give me that sort of special achievement award," he explains. "It's really not about me in a weird way. It's about the entity that I created to perform my compositions. That's really what Chic was, but what it wound up becoming was my life and a unit that I just couldn't live without, and it's like that to this very day."

Rodgers has had a new Chic album in motion, the group's first since 1992, for several years. He's worked on plenty of material for the set, to be titled "It's About Time," and even released the single "I'll Be There" in 2015. He's also collaborated on songs for it with Lady Gaga, Elton John, Miguel, Janelle Monae, Disclosure and Anderson.Paak, among others. Over time, however, the tone of the music has been impacted by Rodgers' cancer and recovery, the deaths of friends such as Bowie and Prince, and last year's vicious presidential campaign.

Nevertheless Rodgers hopes to have something out in the near future, possibly even this year.

"I've been doing this one album for such a long time," acknowledges Rodgers, who's also "pretty far along" on a new stage musical he's writing. "It's very reminiscent of Daft Punk's last album; They had bene working on it for eight years before I walked into the studio and we did 'Get Lucky.'

"But this record has to be true to the story arc that is Chic, even though times have changed."

One thing that hasn't changed, however, is that Rodgers is confident there will be plenty of ears waiting to hear what he's come up with next for his band.

"Y'know, don't think your audience is small. Make it big," he says. "Spotify sent me a message almost a year ago saying, 'Nile, you're over three billion (streams) now.' That must mean I have a check coming for $25. (laughs) But I didn't make the music for the $25 check. I really did make the music for the three billion. That's why I'm doing this, to touch that many strangers. "

The 2054 Tour with Earth, Wind & Fire and Chic featuring Nile Rodgers

8 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 22.

DTE Energy Music Theatre, Sashabaw Road east of I-75, Independence Township.

Tickets are $39.50-$125 pavilion, $25 lawn. Call 248-377-0100 or visit palacenet.com.

Web Site: www.palacenet.com

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