Disco will probably mean no more to us by the turn of the century than the 1960 twist craze means to us now. Names like the Village People, Gloria Gaynor and Vickie Sue Robinson will only be answers to trivia contests. But by the year 2000, Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers should have outlived disco to make a major impact on American music.
Edwards and Rodgers may only be two-fifths of Chic, but they make all the band's creative decisions. The two 27-year-old friends from New York City not only composed, arranged and produced Chic's "Le Freak" and "Good Times" and Sister Sledge's "We Are Family," but also played all the bass and guitar parts themselves. "Le Freak" sold 4 million copies, more than any other single in the history of Atlantic Records.
Slouching in their hotel room on Sunday before their Capital Centre show, Edwards and Rodgers revealed that they had just finished composing and producing a "Carmen McRae-like, pop-jazz" album for Diana Ross. They are currently negotiating to produce a rock 'n' roll album for Blondie. From Washington, they return to New York to finish their own-album, "Real People." which they call "our boldest effort to date."
Now that discos all over the country are reverting to the health spas and restaurants from whence they came, Edwards' and Rodgers' boldness should carry them into their next musical phase.In fact, the two originally wanted to be a theatrical rock 'n' roll band like David Bowie or England's Roxy Music. They turned to disco because it was the only avenue open to a young black band in 1977.
Their rock 'n' roll group, the Big Apple Band, came close to several record deals but race was always a stumbling block. "We saw Alice Cooper with those multimillion-dollar deals," recalled Rodgers, "and said, 'That's for us.' We'd have women because rock 'n' roll groups don't have women; that'd be our gimmick. We'd come out with the women and count off the songs: one-two-three, dah-dah-dah!" Rodgers leaned forward in his chair, grimacing and strumming the air as he mimicked the sound of guitar chords.
Edwards also leaned forward. All afternoon, one would pick up a thought from the other and finish it.
"But it just didn't make sense to people," Edwards continued. "A booking agent told us, 'I'd have to book you into the South and Midwest. This is great music, but when they see your picutre, it's not going to work. Coming from New York, it didn't seem like a big thing to us. But they said there was no way it was going to work out there.
"It's just an association Americans are conditioned to. People don't expect black groups to play rock 'n' roll. Jimi Hendrix made it, but that was a fluke -- just one person. Mothers' Finest has run into resistance; Chaka Khan & Rufus have had to change their image to more of an R&B sound.. I can understand. If James Brown were white and he did those splits on stage, it would seem strange. When I see white bands like Tower of Power playing heavy rhythm & blues, it doesn't compute. But then Is say, 'Why not?'"
"So we started to use our brains," said Rodgers, picking up the thought. "What we wanted to do was make records. We didn't want to be a small band playing bar mitzvahs the rest of our lives. So we got into disco."
Though Edwards and Rodgers are best known for their disco hits, they insist they can play jazz, soul and rock 'n' roll just as well. "We've played all kinds of music," argued Rodgers. "Each of our albums has included a jazz instrumental. But that's one of the limitations put on black artists; you're only known for your hits. It's not like rock 'n' roll, where you're known for your whole album."
In their 10 years together in New York, Edwards and Rodgers played jazz clubs, bar mitzvahs, rock 'n' roll beer joints, gypsy weddings, the Apollo Theater and the "Sesame Street" TV show.
Their first four albums contain the boldest music ever called disco.Their slogan lyrics are carried strong, catchy melodies. They overdub the songs with so many singers and musicians that it sounds like half of Manhattan is on the record. This feeling of mass participation reinforces the songs' appeal as anthms for urban youths. Meanwhile, Edwards and Rodgers undermine their own melodies with unorthodox, stop-and-go strings and rock 'n' roll guitars.
In their hotel room, Edwards and Rodgers were dressed like scruffy rock 'n' rollers. Rodgers wore a two-day beard, and unbuttoned black leather shirt, a tiny gold guitar chained to his neck, and striped fur boots. Edwards sprawled about in an open work shirt. By the time they hit the Capital Centre stage, however, they'd shaved and decked themselves out in carefully tucked pastel suits with big shoulders that hint at the Roaring Twenties.This fits their glowing white and chrome/silver art deco stage set.
"I was in the studio with Kenny Lehman," Edwards related, "doing a disco cover version of 'I'll take Manhattan,' and I came up with this great bass line. Kenny's record never came out, so I said, 'Nile, listen to this bass line.' That was the basis of 'Dance Dance, Dance.'" That song quickly became one of the big disco hits of 1977. After that, Edwards and Rodgers hired two women and their old drummer to perform as Chic. "Everybody says we were overnight successes, but Nile and I had been dragging our amps through the snow for eight years. The only thing that was new to us was producing records."
Last year Atlantic Records hooked them up with Sister Sledge, an obscure quartet of actual sisters. "We wanted to prove ourselves as producers," explained Edwards. "We didn't want an established act, because if they had another it, that wouldn't prove anything. We wanted someone young and enthusiastic. We were offered three or four acts, and we chose Sister sledge for those reasons." They proved themselves as composers and producers in "We Are Family."
That led Diana Ross and Blondie's Deborah Hary to approach the Chic team about producing their albums. Rod Stewart told them that he was inspired by "Dance, Dance, Dance" just before he cut "Do You Think I'm Sexy," his biggest record ever. Blondie and Jeff Beck have come to Chic's shows. "Some big rock 'n' roll bands have asked us to play with them," Edwards gloated. "That's important to us, because they recognize we can really play our instruments and aren't just disco robots."
Whatever its musical drawbacks, Edwards and Rodgers both feel disco has had a much underrated social impact. "Whether you are black or white, rich or poor," argued Rodgers, "you came out to see disco."
"It brought people together," added Edwards. "I remember going to R&B shows and you'd never see a white person. At our shows, you never know what to expect. We went out of our way to take our music to people who usually don't hear that kind of thing. We played the Iowa State Fair. We went to Tullahoma, Tenn., and the sheriff liked it so much he escorted us out of town.
"We got pushed into disco, and now we're getting pushed out. I don't know what will happen next. We had a four-year plan, but it all happened in six months."