Chic: ‘C’est Chic’
By David Nathan
In person interview with Nile Rodgers in the Manhattan office of Atlantic Records’ then-publicist Simo Doe, June 1978
How Chic’s bootlegged single became a disco smash…
REGARDLESS of whether you happen to be one of the many millions of people who now frequent discos on what has become a vast international level, it’s likely that in the last six months you’ve heard either “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yosah, Yowsah)” or “Everybody Dance”. Both records have enjoyed amazing acceptance on the pop and r&b charts as well as having brought many a crowd to its feet in the afore-mentioned discos everywhere, proving that it is possible to reach across barriers and make music that everyone can enjoy.
That is exactly what Chic — a four-man, one-woman — team wants to do. And, the way things are going, it looks like that’s what they’re going to achieve! Spokesman Nile Rodgers (who co-wrote material on the group’s debut album for Atlantic, as well as co-producing with Bernard Edwards an upcoming project on the group’s lead vocalist, Norma Jean Wright) was more than happy to fill readers in on just exactly how Chic came into being.
“Going backwards, Bernard and I have been working together for about seven or eight years now. We actually met because the mother of a girl friend of mine was working at the post office where Bernard was working at the time. We spoke on the phone at that time — which must have been about 1969/1970 — but we were really into different things then. I had this jazz-fusion kind of group, with violins, a whole lot of stuff and Bernard was into that funky, R&B trip. We just never got it together then but a few months later, as luck would have it, we just happened to be at the same gig and we immediately dug each other’s playing — I really thought Bernard was a good bass player. Well, of course, when we were introduced he remembered that we’d spoken on the phone — and here we were digging each other’s music, even though we’d initially felt we were musically incompatible!”
Thus began a long friendship and musical collaboration that saw the duo working behind the group New York City for several years, later gigging with, amongst others, Carol Douglas. “It was in 1972 after the group had had a hit with “I’m Doin’ Fine Now” that we started working with them. In fact, we played at London’s Playboy Club as one of our very first gigs with the group,” Nile recalls.
As part of what became known as the Big Apple Band (of which both Nile and Bernard were focal points), the said duo toured Europe and the U.S. extensively until New York City finally disbanded. “We kept busy when we weren’t on the road with the group by doing demos with people, all kinds of things,” thus gaining a lot of valuable experience that would later hold them in good stead for what was to come. After a brief stint with dance music artist Carol Douglas, the team decided it was time to start doing some things for themselves.
“We needed a new drummer and a new piano player for the Big Apple Band and we auditioned a few people. We heard Tony Thompson was playing with Labelle at the time — in fact just before they got ready to split — and we immediately dug his playing. And then, we had Rob Sabino as our new piano player and he too was excellent. He still plays on all our sessions, even though he doesn’t go out with the group — and we’ve since gotten a new piano guy, Raymond Jones who will probably also work on the sessions as well as go on the road with us.”
The unit was basically together for about eight months (“this was in 1976 — round about the autumn”) before meeting up with the lady who was to become their featured female vocalist: “We had a male singer but basically he was just into solid r&b, soul stuff and it didn’t really reflect what we were trying to get across because we didn’t want our music to have those rigid limitations. We met Norma through a mutual friend and she’d been working previously with people like The Spinners. When she moved to New York in early ’77, we heard her and loved the way she sounded — so we basically had the foundation for Chic.”
The group had already altered its name from Big Apple Band “because Walter Murphy — the guy who had “Fifth of Beethoven” out — had a band with the same name. We came up with “Chic” because, firstly, we wanted a one syllable name — because that always has impact. And we wanted something that would reflect some of the ideas we had staged in our minds for what our actual stage show would be like. We wanted it to convey the idea of having a good time without being frivolous or just campy. We wanted that certain elegance and we wanted to stress that we were qualified as musicians, even though we approached our music light-heartedly, because we feel it’s important that people really enjoy our music as much as we do.”
With a new name and with material already ready, the team had put together a total of five tracks with the assistance of engineer Rob Drake. “The first thing we did was “Everybody Dance” and then there was “Dance, Dance, Dance”, “Strike Up The Band”, “Est-Ce Que C’est Chic” and a version of that song from ‘Porgy & Bess’, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”. Naturally, we were somewhat handicapped by not having unlimited funds so we realized that we had to get a record deal to be able to finish off what we’d started.”
Enter the picture one, Tom Cossi, who had one Blood Hollins as a client, for whom Chic had done some studio work. “Blood heard what we were doing and dug it and recommended us to Tom — and he immediately took the tapes to Jerry Greenberg at Atlantic — and we got our deal!”
Of course, it wasn’t all that simple, as Nile recalls, “We’d been turned down by a lot of companies who liked “Dance, Dance, Dance” but just couldn’t seem to relate to that instrumental break in the record! They’d ask us what else we had — and we couldn’t believe it because we really believed that it was a strong piece of material from the very start. In fact, it took us six months to perfect before we came up with the finished version because we wanted it to be the most commercial crossover disco effort we could get. Both Bernard and I had spent a lot of time in discos all over the world — with New York City — so we could really relate to what people wanted to hear there. We made it a point to do that because we wanted to see what people were digging in the discos and the best way to do that is to go see for yourself.”
Nile recalls that prior to getting their record deal, he’d visited the Disco Convention in New York in the autumn of ’77, only to find that copies of the record — still unreleased — were being bootlegged and sold at $15 a copy! “After a while, with companies not really jumping at us for the record, we could have lost confidence but we knew that wherever we’d taken the record to discos, the reaction had been incredible! Then, when we found it was being bootlegged — that really put the seal on it. We knew the record would happen whenever it eventually did get released.”
Fortunately, Jerry Greenberg, Atlantic’s President, heard what seemingly a whole lot of other record executives hadn’t and signed a deal with the group in September of 1977. “Within two weeks, we’d delivered a complete album to Atlantic because we really had it all ready! We used the original rhythm tracks that we’d cut and just re-did some of the vocals on some of the cuts as well as adding all the other things — the strings and so on. We all knew and insisted that the record — “Dance” — was going to be a Top 10 pop record — and fortunately, we weren’t wrong.”
In fact, as soon as it was released, the familiar sound of “Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah” was being heard across airwaves from Los Angeles to Long Island and with the follow up, “Everybody Dance” having met similar response, Chic had arrived. “There are so many things we want to achieve,” Nile notes, “Firstly, we don’t want to be put into that ‘disco’ or ‘r&b’ bag. Anyone who listens to our first album will hear the different things we have on there — like that Brazilian flavoured song on the album “Sao Paolo”, “Strike Up The Band” which is a real soul kind a thing. Now that whole universal concept is what we want to incorporate in our stage show too — we want to give people something entertaining and we want to cover the whole spectrum musically because we all have so many diverse musical influences. That was really one of the problems we’d encountered before — when we tried to work with other producers and arrangers. They could never really see what we were capable of — they wanted to lock us into a particular formula all the time.”
Fortunately, for one and all, Chic have proven themselves with their first record to be more than just another disco band — the mere acceptance of their first album indicates that and is paving the way for the bright future that Nile and Bernard predict. “We’ve already got our material planned out again for the next album — and once again, once the company tells us they’re ready for the next one, they’ll get it within two weeks because we’ve already laid down a lot of the basic rhythm tracks and the ideas — we’ll be ready! And yes, there are a couple of things on the next album that we feel are even stronger than “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Everybody Dance”! We’ve already gotten into that whole thing of having a stockpile of material between us — we write a lot and we base a lot of what we do in the studio on instinct and emotion, rather than just keep going over something a million times.”
Nile continues, “We have a lot of ideas we want to bring into our music — which are going to be evident in our next couple of albums. On top of that, we’re concerned — Bernard and myself — about really becoming more involved as producers. We just finished Norma Jean’s solo album for Bearsville Records — and we’re all very happy with that. And for the future, we want to get into all kinds of things — soundtracks, movie scores, the whole gamut. And we’re all pretty energetic so it shouldn’t be a problem!”
Chic and its mentors seem to have all the right elements going for them: an abundance of talent, strong material, good vibes and a desire to make music that people will enjoy.