‘Unknown band’ is opening for Cher in Toronto — but their leader is not worried

Nick Krewen

Special to the Star

April 18, 2019

Nile Rodgers is discovering during the Cher opening slot that Chic’s relative anonymity is working to his advantage.

“We’re an unknown band opening for a big star,” he says over the line from New York. “We walk out onstage — most people don’t know who we are — but by the end of the show they go, ‘Jesus Christ, I know every one of those songs!’ And they have a blast!”

Rodgers and Chic open a pair of Toronto dates for Cher at the Scotiabank Arena on April 22 and November 29 and the band certainly has the hits to do the job.

At the apex of the late ‘70s disco movement, it was guitarist, composer and producer Rodgers and his bass-playing production partner Bernard Edwards who were responsible for some of the genre’s most celebratory anthems as the co-founders of Chic, including such best-selling classics as “Le Freak,” “Good Times,”  “Everybody Dance” and “I Want Your Love.”

A member of both the  Rock and Roll Hall and Songwriters halls of fame, Rodgers’ contributions to modern music since those dance-happy days have been incalculable, ranging from co-writing the Sister Sledge disco anthems “We Are Family” and “He’s The Greatest Dancer;”  producing such game-changing blockbusters ‘80s as David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, Madonna’s Like A Virgin, Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” and – more recently  – capturing three Grammy Awards for his work on Daft Punk’s smash Random Access Memories.

So, after contributing to albums that have sold an estimated 500 million copies and singles that have moved 75 million units,  why is now a good time to resurrect Chic?

“In fact, we’ve never really gone away,” said Rodgers over the line from New York, pushing the tour that promotes 2018’s star-studded It’s About Time,  his band’s first album in 26 years.

“In America, we had this whacky disco phenomenon, but we never had another No. 1 hit as Chic after 1979.

“However, it opened the door and a new career for me to work with other artists, like Diana Ross and (David) Bowie, INXS, Madonna and on and on, but we always went back to Chic.”

Even the death of Edwards in 1996 during the outfit’s second wind didn’t stop Rodgers from creating more music with the band, encouraged by a promoter who told him, “it’s just as much your music as it is Bernard’s,” when he contemplated throwing in the Chic towel.

“Sometimes it takes other people to open my eyes because I don’t see the world as they see it,” Rodgers admits. “But from that moment on, I never stopped playing the music I wrote with Bernard and others. It’s all just as relevant. People respond to it well and it makes me feel good.”

(Rodgers, 66, is no stranger to health issues himself, having fought off prostate cancer in 2010. Then in 2017, an E. coii infection forced him to cancel Chic’s appearance in Toronto, after saying he had never missed “one gig in my life.” While he was in hospital for that, doctors found a growth on one of his kidneys that turned out to be two since-removed cancerous masses.)

While Rodgers’ chugging guitar rhythms are his trademark sound for his own music, he confirmed that his performance and composition techniques were inspired by an unlikely 1960’s source: jazz legend John Coltrane’s pianist, McCoy Tyner.

“When I started composing – especially for dance music – it was during that era where a lot of jazz artists were doing crossover hits,” he admits. “Some of the most influential people who I had been raised around were coming up with hit records that were being played on the R&B & pop charts, which was completely unique in my world.

“And as a composer. I was always trying to make records or write songs that would make my music teachers happy and still make complete strangers happy at the same time.”

He’s also a pioneer in the video game soundtrack field, establishing the Sumthing Else Music Works label and distribution companies for composers in the field that include the Halo and Resident Evil game scoring catalogues.

But Rodgers decided a few weeks ago to shutter the 20-year-old company due to family and other commitments.

“The thing is, you only have so much time,” he explains. “I’m lucky enough to only be able to sleep three or four hours a night, so I have a lot of time to compose and write. But my life right now is fairly complicated: my Mom is going through very severe health problems right now and I’m her caretaker.

“Unfortunately, I’m the kind of guy who tries to do everything. People around me are now trying to make me go, ‘Nile, you can only do this, you can only do that.’ So, I have to choose my time wisely.”

That still hasn’t prevented him from keeping a relatively full dance card. Aside from Chic’s world tour, he’s been meeting with Andrew Lloyd Webber to plan a potential musical.

Rodgers also recently took up the helm as the Creative Director of London’s legendary Abbey Road studios – a position he’s really relishing.

“It is the best position I have ever had in my life!” he declares, “You can look at my Instagram feed to see that since I’ve been here, I’ve worked with everybody from Bruno Mars to Anderson.Paak to Dua Lipa – the amount of people I’ve worked with is staggering. I think the first two weeks I worked there, they said, ‘Jesus Christ – this guy has brought in more artists than most do in two or three years.’”