C’est Chic, encore
It was while watching the series of YouTube mini-interviews with the collaborators on Daft Punk’s new album, Random Access Memories, that I started thinking about Nile Rodgers and found myself catching up with The Hitmaker, Martyn Stevens’s hour-long bio-documentary on the co-founder of Chic, made last year for BBC Wales. One of the people Stevens interviewed was Norma Jean Wright, Chic’s first lead singer when Rodgers and Bernard Edwards put the band together in New York in 1976. Norma Jean sang on “Dance, Dance, Dance”, their first hit, and then became the first singer to have them serve as the writers and producers on her own record, thus becoming the precursor of David Bowie, Madonna and many others.
Her first single with them, “Saturday“, became a club hit and still sounds great. It has all the Chic trademarks, including a characteristic of their earliest records: as well as Rodgers’s rhythm guitar licks, Edwards’s tentacular bass lines and Tony Thompson’s perfect four-on-the-floor drumming, there was often a distinctive keyboard or tuned percussion sound. In the case of Chic’s “I Want Your Love”, for instance, it was a set of tubular bells; with “Saturday” it was a vibraphone, played by the jazz musician Dave Friedman. On the original 12-inch disco mix, you don’t hear much of Friedman for almost four minutes: he restricts himself to sounding the chord changes, the traditional role for the vibes in Motown-and-after soul music. But then, at 3:56, he eases out of the rhythm section with a solo that adds a lovely cool new flavour to the track, a kind of mentholated sophistication. It isn’t jazz, exactly, but there’s no surprise that it comes from a guy who studied at Juilliard and recorded with Chet Baker, George Benson and others. (In the same year that he laid down his part on “Saturday”, he also recorded an album for ECM with Double Image, the band he co-led with his fellow vibist Dave Samuel.)
Nile Rodgers has done many wonderful things, but I still love that early stuff. If you haven’t already seen it, here’s the BBC documentary, in full: http://youtu.be/VVmAXWZu_PQ
The most disappointing omission from that documentary was Norma Jean’s ‘I Like Love’, a nothing kind of song, but notable from 3’04” for an entire minute of Nile Rodgers. Strings come in halfway through, but otherwise it’s just that sublime rhythm guitar and a bass drum. There’s a shorter cameo from him on Steve Winwood’s 1997 cover of ‘Family Affair’. I interviewed Winwood not long after for a radio documentary I was making about Viv Stanshall, and told him afterwards how much I enjoyed those moments. He grinned and said, ‘What’s the point of having Nile Rodgers on a record if you don’t let him be Nile Rodgers?’
Is it reasonable to assume that the majority of the crowd enjoying the transcendentally uplifting experience that was Chic’s Friday night Glastonbury set would have spend the previous 30+ years dismissing Nile Rodgers’ oeuvre as mindless disco trash?
May I put in a word for the 12″, also on Bearsville, of “High Society” backed by “Hold Me Lonely Boy”. Chic are my favourite band, and, whenever I listen to them, it’s usually the bass of Edwards I lock onto above all else. Jamerson of course is supreme, but, I think Bernard stands beside him. All his work is wonderful, but, on the post tap dance fade on the 12″ of “My Feet Keep Dancing” there is a 5 note run at 5′ 21″ which I would nominate as my favourite moment. Ever played “A Warm Summer’s Night” to anyone who didn’t fall in love with it immediately ?
Chic were magnificent. I was lucky enough to see them live in their prime in 1979 (although I think minus the sublime Ms Wright). I can remember a gorgeous At Last I Am Free and an epic and almost brutal My Feet Keep Dancing. They were loud too!
As for Mr Friedman, the Double Image record on ECM is a real beauty and as far as I know never reissued.