I met Terry about ten years ago at The Montreux Jazz Festival. He was in town for a week with Nile Rodgers and Chic. They were to perform at the Stravinsky Hall for their first time. Terry was not performing, although a gifted rock musician, his rock and roll career had taken a turn to be entrusted with the technical aspect of Nile Rodger’s guitars.
Kind of ironic for the hard rocker that he’s now in charge of Nile’s guitar “The Hitmaker” with which many of the biggest selling Disco hits were written. The guitar had gotten it’s nickname because Nile has written a slew of top selling hits with it. As well as film scores, commercials and video game soundtracks. Nile publicly estimates that he and the old rusted worn Fender Stratocaster have grossed more than two billion dollars worth of music. “Not two million, but two billion!” He stresses. Nile Rodgers is a living musical legend!
On their first trip to Montreux, they were guests of Claude Nobs’ for a week. A welcome break in their tight tour schedule. I asked Terry what they were going to do during the week and he told me “Nothing. We’re off.” I did not realize back then that “off” meant they were not working. We think that touring musicians are on one long paid vacation, when in reality they’re working long hours which often end in very late nights. Then, they get a dawn wake up call to board awaiting buses and planes. So I asked him if he’d like to take a ride up into the mountains above the town.
The next day, he and other band members packed into my car, and saw the glorious panorama for the first time. It’s always fun to show off our Swiss mountains and valleys. Everyone’s faces glow like kids at an amusement park. A few days later I saw those same faces on stage with similar child like joy.
Terry invited me to the concert where Nile Rodgers and Chic performed a series of huge hits I had heard a million times but never imagined it came from the same person. It was my first time meeting the man, my first time being backstage at a big concert, something I dreamed of my entire life.
Nile shook my hand and simply said “Hey man, how you doing.” His huge smile letting the gap between his teeth peak out with genuine enthusiasm. Since then, me and Terry have been great friends, and each time he and Nile played a gig in Switzerland, Terry called me up and say in his thick Long Island accent, “Hey bud, wanna hang out and see the show?”
It had been a year since I last saw Terry and Nile. It was at a corporate party for a famous luxury watch brand in Zurich. These days, bands make their living playing concerts, not selling records. The Internet changed the music business for good and worse. Nile doesn’t need to play concerts for a living, he has been living off of royalties for more than three decades.
In his sixties, he’s not some young rockstar you’ll see in celebrity magazines. The first song he learn to play on the guitar was “A Day In The Life” by the Beatles. He was just a skinny urban black kid with thick glasses. He knew how to read music from his days in school orchestra, but could not get the song to sound right. Then his mother’s boyfriend showed him how to tune the guitar. It was one of the greatest moments in his life when the Beatles’ tune flowed out of his guitar in perfect harmony. Perhaps this is why Nile still plays like a enthusiastic teenager when he’s on stage.
His first instrument was a flute, then a clarinet, but he had asthma, so he switched to the guitar. He moved to California with his mom and discovered hippies, white rock music and drugs. He says the hippies accepted him as a man, even though he was black. Once a member of the Black Panthers, Nile has always had to deal with racism for sometimes the better and mostly for the worse. But the hippies did not just see a black man, they accepted another cool dude who was into music and getting high. Drugs were a big part of Nile’s life. His parents were heroin addicts, he started sniffing glue at fifteen and successfully consumed blizzards of blow for years right under the noses of everyone. He gave up drugs and alcohol after gigging with a friend at a nightclub. He was soaring! Convinced he was a musical god by doing all the rockstar guitar tricks playing behind his back and with his teeth.
Nile’s friend had recorded the concert and invited him to listen to what he had played the following day. Excited, he was convinced he’d played great the night before only to be deeply embarrassed by how bad his musicianship was. He then realized that drugs and booze had fooled him. He says he had cocaine psychosis. Something he immediately decided he would not succumb to. In retrospect, he admits with his signature big grin that if the recording of his performance proved he could play well when completely loaded, he may still be doing drugs and alcohol. Nile is not a hypocrite, does not lecture anyone about drugs and booze. He’s done them all and lives to talk openly about it in his latest book “Le Freak”. Listed on the bestseller’s list, his stories of Jazz, drugs, writing and producing, as well as the great Disco days have been critically acclaimed by the press and read by millions. Not only can the man write great music, he can write prose.
But writing and producing songs is what made Nile Rodgers a living legend in the musical world. It all started one night in New York City. Nile and his partner, Bernard Edwards, wanted to go and see Grace Jones at Studio 54, but the bouncer refused to let them in. They were not yet famous, black and probably high. So he and Bernard turned around, walked away and said to each other, “Awwww fuck off!”, which became “Awwww Freak Out! Le Freak C’est Chic.” Chic had just been signed to Atlantic Records by Ahmet Ertegun, the song became the labels biggest selling single. Bigger than any other act on the label like the Stones or Zepplin.
The concept for Chic was simple. Since black musicians were well accepted in France, they decided to be black guys from France who were called Chic. They would put attractive models on the cover of their record in a very Chic ambiance. No one knew who they were, and that was just the way they wanted it. Chic then wrote and produced “We Are Family” for Sister Sledge. No one really realized it was Chic, except music aficionados. Then Diana Ross came along, and they wrote “I’m coming out” and “Upside Down”. The record was initially refused by Motown Records but when released it was to become Diana Ross’ biggest selling album.
What was next was totally unexpected. It was called Disco Sucks and put Chic as one of the top hated bands. With the help of drugs this American phenomena began to tear apart Chic. But Nile kept working like the Energizer Bunny fueled on Coke and worked with white brit rockers like Duran Duran.
Duran Duran had heard what Nile had done with INXS and their song “Original Sin”. Duran Duran were the big Brit pop band, so high on the charts they could only go down. The press hated them for their success, and it was time for something new. Nile’s signature guitar riffs are unmistakeable on the single “Notorious”. Duran Duran’s biggest selling single which was not found on any of heir records.
He produced the record Arena, which the record label again refused to release because it made Duran Duran sound too black. According to the record executives, it would fail, and they would not pay for failure. Nile just laughs when he tells this story through his big generous smile. The success of the record makes Nile happy, but what really thrilled him about that album was a critic’s comment in Britain’s New Musical Express. “When we thought we could count these jerks off, they have actually produced an album that is worthy of respect.”
Nile was always out to clubs and bars, a coke night owl. He once walks into a bar with a drunken Billy Idol who vomits on the floor only to wipe his pouty lips in great rockstar fashion and says “Hey there’s David Bowie, mate!” Later Nile is at David’s home in Lausanne Switzerland and he’s listening to David play “Let’s Dance” on an acoustic guitar. It’s dark and moody, but Nile works his chord magic, twist and turns David’s composition into something, shall we say “hip”. They end up with Queen’s producer, Davis Richards, in legendary Mountain Studio in the Montreux Casino and record a demo of another mega hit. They finalize the recording in New York, and David has one more surprise for Nile. He has seen something extraordinary in Montreux. A young blues guitar player named Stevie Ray Vaughn. “The moment I heard him play, I realized he was a genius” says Nile, “He played in the space”. You can hear Stevie’s licks on “Let’s Dance” which became David Bowie’s biggest selling album and still is to this day.
Then a little Italian girl from Michigan wants Nile. He produced “Like a Virgin” which was another mega success and yes, Madonna’s biggest selling record to this day. The list goes on, the singles and collaborations are too expansive to list in this short article. Names from Bob Dylan, Cindy Lauper, Grace Jones, David Sandborn, Steve Windwood, The B52s. Movies and video games soundtracks such as Halo are under his pen and guitar pick. Amidst all this, the man has survived aggressive prostate cancer and miraculously found his way back on stage and on a grueling European tour which included Montreux Jazz Festival in 2012. Terry had told me months before he was coming back with Nile Rodgers and Chic. That they would be staying a week and would have time to go and see the panorama once again with new members of the band.
As soon as they walked into Geneva airport Terry called me and said he was on his way. An hour later he and I are having a pizza in the glow of a golden Montreux sunset. The phone rings, it’s the tour manager Pete. When he calls Terry, it’s not always good news, and Terry’s peaceful sunset pizza dinner is unfortunately interrupted. He answers the phone, nods briefly and hangs up. “Pete wants your number.” He says. I propose to drive Terry to his hotel so that I can talk with Pete in person. By this time it’s near midnight and Pete is waiting for us at the gas station across from the venue amongst the crowd of music fans and heavy traffic.
“Alex, what are you doing the next four days? Nile’s photographer/videographer has vanished, he would like you to take over.” I contained my enthusiasm and remained cool and nonchalant. But inside, my heart was ablaze with the fact that Mr. Nile Rodgers himself asked me to film and photograph him and his band’s adventures in Montreux for the next four days. What he and his old friend Claude Nobs had conceived was absolutely unique, perhaps historic. Ten hours of music with fourteen guest artists retracing the history of dance music from Saturday Night Fever to today’s electronic dance music craze. Nile wanted it all documented with pictures and video. It was my lucky day. What I discovered in these next four days was Nile’s work ethic and the incredibly long hours he devotes to his music and to entertain audiences.
Nile’s concept for his evening called, “Nile Rodgers’ Freak Out Dance Party” was to have music play continuously for ten straight hours. To relive the first time he walked into a nightclub and heard continuous music from the moment he walked in, to the time he left the discotheque. That experience had changed his take on music. He decided to evolve from Jazz to Dance Music he had heard playing in clubs. I will be bold and say that perhaps Dance Music evolved from Jazz thanks to Nile. That his dance riffs are in fact complex jazz chords, that he made jazz accessible to white audiences and into music people could dance to. He and Dance Music continues to evolve thanks to the DJs who sample Nile’s master chord strokes. Dimitri From Paris has remixed many of Nile’s songs for today’s dance floors with a masterful stroke of French genius. Although the songs are old favorites, Dimitri’s mixes has refreshed them into trendy club favorites.
Is Nile bothered that he will always be associated to the word “Disco”? No. Disco music changed his life. After all, the word probably came as an abbreviation of Discotheque, a French word where a library of “disques” (which means records in French) are played continuously. Like a “biblioteque”, French for library. Disco is probably a French word like “chic”. Initially Nile wanted his concert, an homage on the evolution of Dance Music, to go from Tavares and Saturday Night Fever hits, to DJ Felix Da House Cat. From eight at night to six in the morning, but to his surprise and midway through rehearsals, a new law had been signed to ban live music to be played after four in the morning by Montreux’s municipality. Again, Nile just shrugged and smiled and went about his business to give the audience the opportunity to dance until four in the morning.
It was lots of work, but his confidence in his musician’s ability to play and get the job done gave us time to explore the mountains above Montreux and attend a party at Claude Nob’s chalet in Nile’s honor and his guests. The party was prematurely interrupted for Nile as he had to deal with the oncoming presence of Madame Grace Jones. We left the party early, winding down the serpentine road from Claude’s chalet in my car.
On the last rehearsal day, all the guest stars who were all friend’s of Nile were present. The list included young British singer-songwriter Elly Jackson of La Roux. Alison Moyet of Yazzoo, DJ Ultra and DJ Scarlett Etienne as well as Manchester guitarist Johnny Marr formerly with The Smiths. All the rest of the guests, Marc Ronson, Dimitri from Paris, Tavares, Taylor Dane, Martha Wash and Cerrone were all present at the sound check which served as a last rehearsal.
The only missing person was miss Jones, who made her appearance on stage at three in the morning when Nile announced to the awaiting audience, “Grace where are you?”. She appeared from behind a black curtain like a lion from the darkness in a tribal like Missoni outfit delivered just for the evening’s performance, and Nile announces, “Ladies and gentleman, GRACE JONES!” The evening was a success even though it had to end at four. The band was able to sleep-in the next morning, as their next show in England was cancelled.
Before they leisurely left in the early afternoon, I was treated to lunch by Peter in the company of my dear friend Terry, the Hitmaker by his side as always. Peter was very happy with my photos which I sent to Nile on a nightly basis so he could post them on his Facebook page. He’s an is insomniac. When he’s not playing his guitar or on the phone, he’s on-line with his blog, Facebook and many emails. But this morning when everyone was boarding planes to the next gig Nile was watching last night’s performance with Claude on his giant screen under the eaves of his chalet in the comfort of old discarded Swiss Air first class airplane seats. Once again, musical history has been recorded in the tiny Swiss city of Montreux. It will be archived with the many other thousands of hours of musical treasures in Claude’s vault to perhaps come out as a concert DVD.
But with what I filmed, Nile and I have decided not to wait for a concert video, but to make a documentary of the historic event. I told Nile that I had filmed so much material, we could probably make a film. He wasn’t convinced at the time, so I started to edit with the material I had and sent short cuts to Nile. It did not take long for him to be convinced we had something special. So during the past three years, we have been making our “little movie” as he first called it. Now it is a full feature film. Nile’s enthusiasm for the project has been unwavering. We are on the verge of releasing a major work of musical history. Claude and Nile planned to host another night at this year’s festival, but all came to a regretful end at the announcement of Claude’s death this past winter.
An event such as this will never happen again. The Montreux Jazz Festival will continue, as well as Nile’s musical contributions, but the two visionaries will not be united again. The concert was truly unique. But the music continues to live-on and evolve. Just listen for Nile’s music. It’s everywhere. You will hear it on the radio, in a movie, on a commercial and most certainly sampled by some young hot producer or DJ spinning music all nightlong in discotheques around the world. He has won three Grammys by working with French pop duo Daft Punk. The sound of Chic is unmistakeable on mega hit “Get Lucky”. His familiar guitar style gives their music that organic groove he is so gifted with.
It did not occur to Nile that this concert would be the basis of our film. Nor could he forsee that his old friend Claude would have a fatal skiing accident a few months later. It was Claude’s last dance. Three years later, we have our documentary. And in this period we have lost Ahmet Ertegun, David Richards, Claude Nobs and Terry Brauer. This is in their memory and a tribute to Dance Music. The music that changed Nile’s life, is the music never stops. Nile’s music lives forever, so stay tuned for the movie, it is simply titled “The Music Never Stops”.