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