CHIC: Classic Soul 1979 Interview

CHIC in England in 1979
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Eric Harlow/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

A Day In The Life Of Chic

By David Nathan

January 1979

SO what actually happens when you have the No. 1 pop, r&b and disco record in the nation? How does an average day transpire and in truth, is there such a thing as an 'average' day? Courtesy of Atlantic Records, we found out! As David Nathan reports from the sunny climes a typical Chic day is by no means 'typical' and it's a lot of hard work!

AFTER what can only be termed immediate success with their debut single and album, earlier in the year, Chic have truly proven themselves to be one of the hottest and hippest entities around as 1979 bows in. With one gold single, one gold album ("Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)" and the group's debut album) and now a platinum single ("Le Freak") and platinum album ("C'est Chic") all under their belt, Chic have truly established themselves as hitmakers par excellence!

So what happens on a typical Chic day? Well, we caught up with Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards the co-founders and producers, arrangers and writers for the team alongside drummer Tony Thompson, keyboardist Raymond Jones, lead singer Alfa Anderson, voclist Luci Martin, keyboard player Andy Schwartz, and violinists Marianne Carroll, Cheryl Hong and Karen Milne whilst they were in Los Angeles taping several TV spots for national US showing in the next few months.

It's a wet rainy evening in L.A., in itself something of an unusual happening, when this intrepid reporter sets foot on Hollywood turf. The location: the Sunset Marquis, a chic hotel (pardon the pun) complete with kitchen facilities, situated in close proximity to famous Sunset Boulevard.  We immediately run into the group's road manager, Stuart Griffin and establish that we'll hook up with the group the following day when they are taping 'The Merv Griffin Show.' In fact, the taping is on the day after that so whilst members of the group are busy doing a little Christmas shopping (one of the few times they've had to do anything like that) and others are hooking up more business commitments, I make sure everyone (well, nearly everyone!) knows I’m in town!

We finally get together for lunch at the Old World restaurant the next day just a couple of hours before the group takes off to tape the TV show.  Everyone is in good spirits anticipating a hectic few months ahead. As soon as they complete an engagement in Pennsylvania with the O'Jays, the group is heading to Europe for the first time and the tour will take in close to eight countries! On top of that, they're considering production commitments which may involve another Atlantic major act, Aretha Franklin.

In between vegetable soup (amongst other delicacies!), Nile and Bernard rap about what's been happening.  "Sure, it feels very good to have overcome alot of the stuff we've been up against since we started. It's been constantly about proving ourselves and we always intended that our music be as big as it is now. At least, we hoped it would be!" Both gentlemen — obviously very astute businessmen as well as being in total creative control of their music — agree that they hoped "Le Freak" would be as big as "Dance, Dance, Dance" and they credit an awareness of what the record-buying public want as being a major factor in the record's overwhelming acceptance. "But, believe it or not, the record company still didn't quite expect it. We got a lot of strange feedback from folks at record company and radio level but we're frankly, concerned more than anything else, about the public reaction — and that's been very positive, right? In fact, when we first played the new album to some folks, they told us they expected it to be more 'disco' and some people even claimed we'd abandoned the disco audience who made us!"

Both Nile and Bernard claim that they've encountered a situation which frequently evolves when so-called 'new' artists start to happen in a big way: "everyone wants to give their input and everyone wants to claim credit for our success! "It's a strange thing in this business: everyone is a critic. But we have to isolate ourselves from all that or we'd go crazy. That leads people to think you're arrogant — so you can't win! But that's not what it is: it's just that we keep a low profile, we just go ahead and do what we feel is right for the public and we make music that we enjoy. And we've consistently had to prove a lot of industry people wrong. Sure, it hurts to have to encounter that apprehension, that lack of belief but it's important that we don't become bitter about it."

They recall that before the release of "Le Freak", "we had a big argument with the record company about lack of support. But we think that they realized the kind of reaction we were getting from live performances, the way the people reacted to what we were doing and that helped. But it's been an uphill struggle, really!"  Needless to say, Chic are now regarded truly as one of the company's major acts despite the fact that they were initially rejected three times in trying to get a deal before one was finally concluded. Nile and Bernard are in no doubt as to what Chic is all about. "It's all in the name if you think about it," they declare as they finish off their food, preparing to go on to the television studios.

"The word itself means sophistication and it creates a kind of mystique. We didn't want to be regarded as just another black funk group." That certainly hasn't happened and indeed the group's appeal has obviously developed internationally. They just finished doing some dates in Brazil "which weren't quite as together as we'd liked them to have been" and of course, are preparing for Europe. Perhaps one particularly amazing aspect of the group's development is the fact that they only started playing live earlier in '78 and they've already been acknowledged by their peers and by the public alike as one of the most exciting onstage live attractions to have come along in a very long time.

After a few live dates in February and March, the group will be going back in to work on the next Chic album and they've already started working on material for it.  "It will just continue to be an extension of what we've established as "Chic" music. Our aim is to crossover completely on a consistent basis in all areas — pop, rock, r&b and disco — everything."  Concluding as they rush out, Nile and Bernard do admit that "we originally had a five year plan and the things have just been coming together much quicker than we had ever expected. It just means we can widen our scope even sooner!" And no one's complaining. 

We adjourn now to the television studios where Merv Griffin's national talk show is taped nightly. We get there just in time to catch various members of the group preparing for their second song of the evening. They've already done "Le Freak" to rapturous applause from the live audience and it truly does seem as if Chic has managed to transcend a lot of the usual barriers — race, age, sex — with their music.

We run into violinist Marianne Carroll, one of the trio who add that extra dimension to chic's onstage show, usually to the amazement of the audiences who've never seen a pop-rock-r&b-disco act (!) accompanied by strings! "Well, it's overwhelming!" states Marianne uncategorically. "When I first joined the group, I wasn't really aware of the implications — I mean I didn't know it was going to take off quite like it did. But it's been a lot of fun because it's truly a whole new thing for me."  Cheryl Hong, another member of the string section concurs. She joined the trio on a recommendation and she states, too, that she's found the experience both rewarding and exciting thus far.

We're in what is called the 'green room' watching while veteran Merv raps with one of his guests and Andy Schwartz, who's been involved with Chic since their debut album, raps about the experience of being on the road for the first time with a major unit. "I was on the first album but I didn't do the first tour. then, after we recorded the second album, I decided it might be fun to go out there for the second tour — and that's just what it's been. Sure, it's taken a minute to adjust but I've gotten used to it now.  And really it's like working with a family unit. There's a lot of mutual respect between everyone and that makes working a really enjoyable experience.''

Just prior to the group's appearance for their second song, "I Want Your Love", we catch up with Raymond Jones. Raymond also comments on how being on the road has given him a new perspective: "I've been able to work with a whole assortment of other acts — I mean, we've been on the bill with a lot of different people — The O'Jays, Mother's Finest, The Trammps, Rufus, The Isley Brothers, Heatwave — a real cross section.  Being with Chic has given me a lot of experience and I intend to continue with the group, developing eventually in a capacity as a writer and an arranger, because I want to get involved with other projects whilst I'm with Chic." Since he's been playing since the tender age of five (!), obviously Raymond has a store of talent to call upon!

We rap too, briefly, with Nile again and far from being daunted by the prospect of having a whole lot more work ahead of him, he relishes the thought.  "Frankly, we could do eight different productions a year!" he quips. "Because we work best under pressure and we work with people who know what they're doing — so it's no hassle. It's like with the string parts — I usually write them at 6.00am in the morning if we have a session at 11.00am!  And some of our songs are written in an hour — it depends. "Le Freak" initially came from two chord changes — we just got the groove and boom! there it was! In fact, we wrote that song just after "Dance, Dance, Dance"." Yes, Nile re-iterates, the more work the better!

Then it's time for Chic to reappear before the TV cameras and once again, the reaction is unanimous: everyone digs what they hear! Nile and Bernard then whisk off for a meeting with Aretha Franklin at her Encino home whilst the other members of the team return to the hotel.  

This faithful reporter gets together with Luci, Alfa, Karen and Stuart, the roadie, to have dinner at the elegant Cyrano's on Sunset Boulevard and in between mouthfuls of avocado vinagrette, Alfa and Luci discuss the meteoric rise to fame that Chic has enjoyed. But first, a few words from Karen who 'discovered' Chic through an ad placed in her apartment building! "Yes, I saw the ad and, at first, I wasn't even going to bother. I'd been in New York for three months," relates Karen, "and I figured I'd just take a chance! It's definitely been a challenge, because it's a whole different energy — I mean not playing classical music and not having to wear long, black dresses!" Karen says she fell right into the whole Chic thing "because everyone is warm, it really is like a family thing".

Both Luci and Alfa concur. Says Luci: "Sometimes all the activity makes things a little strenuous, especially when you've got a full day, complete with soundchecks, interviews, performance, everything all in one day can be rough! Right now, we've been doing weekend gigs so we do get to go home during the week a lot more than we did on the first tour. But, no, I'm not surprised at the success just at the pace at which things are moving."

She agrees that "the music is good so I'm not surprised people are digging it, I just didn't think it would hit so quickly. And the success hasn't really changed anyone because everyone appreciates the fact that we're able to do what we enjoy doing — which is singing, entertaining and communicating. And that keeps everyone pretty level-headed."

Alfa states that, obviously, time on the road doesn't help in developing personal relationships but "you realize and expect that when you first get into a business like this. That's what you know you have to sacrifice. But it isn't a problem as long as you keep a proper perspective on your life.  Sure, my friends have been freaking out but I keep reminding them that I'm still the same me! I didn't change, it's just their perspective on me that changes. But being on the road is fun and it hasn't been a problem. The only thing is that you miss a real home-cooked meal every now and again!" Both ladies admit that this second tour is perhaps even more exciting than the first. "Now that we've got a couple of hits under our belt, it's that much more exciting to come out onstage to roars of approval. And those standing ovations — sure, it's a great feeling and that's why we don't get tired from our work — it's rewarding to see everyone's reactions!

Following our meal, it was time to retire and that was basically our last get together before most of the members of the group flew back home to New York to prepare for their upcoming European tour. However, Nile and Bernard — obviously becoming seriously in demand as record producers (they just finished the Sister Sledge album for Atlantic) — stayed behind for further meetings with folks in L.A. and in fact, we caught up with Nile at a lunch held by members of Atlantic Records' publicity staff on the West Coast just prior to Christmas and he reminisced about the time he spent in England when he was touring with the group New York City — all of which happened of course before the advent of Chic:  "Sure, I'm looking forward to going back there and, this time, we're really gonna kill 'em!" Nile states.

All of which only left us with one more member of the group to catch up with: drummer Tony Thompson. Due to mix-ups at the hotel, he appeared to have checked out when he was there all the time so we only got a chance to rap when everyone was back in New York. Unfortunately, most of the members of the group had contracted a serious bout of flu so after rehearsals prior to their engagement with The O'Jays, Tony decided in the interests of health we should rap on the phone.  Having played in the past with Labelle, Tony feels that there's a big difference between what he's doing now and what he did then. "I've learned a helluva lot from Nile and Bernard, they've been great people to work with. They're two people who really know what they're doing and what's making his whole experience so good is that everyone is on the same wavelength — nobody's looking up to anyone."  Tony attributes several factors to the success of Chic: "Personally, I had faith in the folks involved all the way. What I think has helped us is that we've known what we wanted and we've stuck with what we believe in because, certainly, there have been times when it's been rough."  Tony contends too "that you've got to know about this business — it's not just about creativity" and allows that with the level tht Chic are reaching "there are just so many areas that we're going to be able to get into — like movie scores, films, all kinds of things."  Personally, he feels that "I've opened up a lot musically because I've been working with people from so many different musical backgrounds and it's been great. It's all helped along by the fact that the personalities gell and that too has contributed a great deal to Chic's happening."

SO there you have it: a day-spread over a few days — in the life of what promises to be one of the most exciting units to come along in many a year. Obviously, Chic have found the formula — and basically what it comes down to is that they're giving the people what they want — and who can argue with that?

 

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