NEW YORK – The Barnum Room is a disco where any man who dresses like a woman can feel like a star. Even on this snowy night, the place is filled with Marlene Dietrich types, porky Totie Fields clones and sundry Angie Bowies, all circling around the host/hostess, Eve, who looks like Jean Harlow after an auto wreck.
Nile Rodgers, coleader with Bernard Edwards of the disco band Chic, is loving every minute of it. "I swear, these women are so elegant and beautiful, you'd never know they were men," Rodgers effuses. "I come here all the time. These people are the essence of chic."
Rodgers ought to know about such wonderfully freaky chic. His band's disco single, "Le Freak," has already sold around 4 million copies in the U.S., making it the biggest single in Atlantic Records history. Now the company has realigned its entire musical perspective: in January, eight out of ten Atlantic releases were disco.
Chic is the Boston of the disco world, coming from nowhere just one year ago to share the limelight with such top disco stars as the Village People and Donna Summer. Actually, Chic is not a real band but a two-headed monster (guitarist Rodgers and bassist Edwards, both of whom write and produce all the material), rounded out by a dozen musicians and singers who aren't part of the decision-making process. Despite their current leanings, the two are more rooted in rock & roll than in disco's closest antecedent, R&B. "When I first started [in the early Seventies], all I played was super heavy-duty rock & roll," Rodgers says. "To be a guitarist in a heavy glitter band was the whole thing. To be Hendrix or Jimmy Page was success to me. Life became more real when I tried to get a record deal. There's a hell of a lot of racism in rock & roll. As a black man playing lead guitar, I could never get a record deal. I used to wear these thin leather gloves, because I idolized Mick Ronson. But that could never work."
During this period, Rodgers played Max's Kansas City. He met Edwards, and they tried to make it in the early punk wave, around 1975, with a group called the Big Apple Band. "At that time, we didn't think disco would be so tremendous, so we decided to go with rock instead," Rodgers says. "We were more into those types of dollars. The Trammps did well then, but David Bowie, who was my favorite, was making 8 million times more. Our rock ideas had the same concept as Chic. We wanted high-fashion girls in the band. It had to be semidecadent because we thought that would open us commercially. Roxy Music did that in England, but they're more receptive to the glitter thing than Americans. Americans would rather get into Donny and Marie than Bryan Ferry."
Realizing this, Rodgers and Edwards started gearing themselves toward American tastes, hanging out at discos, looking for a pulse. Eventually, the disco road to riches proved too alluring to pass up. "At first we didn't like disco," Rodgers says. "Then we started going out more and we got into it."
Last summer, Chic locked into the Dr. Buzzard-styled nostalgia craze with their hit yowsah, yowsah single, "Dance, Dance, Dance." They followed it with "Everybody Dance," which became a disco favorite; now riding high with "Le Freak," Chic is committed to keeping up with the trends. "We don't write records for ourselves," Rodgers says. "We keep the people in mind. It's a big preoccupation of ours." They also borrowed from theatrical rock groups to create an immediately identifiable image. "We got the whole concept for Chic from Kiss," says Rodgers. "We wanted to have a group that had the impact on disco that Kiss has on kids."
Like Kiss, though, Chic has incurred the wrath of the music press, who cite their vapid lyrics, anonymous approach and redundant music. "I used to play the blues; now is there anything more redundant than blues?" Rodgers asks angrily. "No respectable journalist would write that blues is the most boring thing he's ever heard, because it's too intellectual. Fifteen years from now, maybe Chic will be thought of as really innovative. Disco is the new black sheep of the family, so everyone has to jump on it. No one says rock & roll is repetitious now. When it first started, everyone said that. Right now, if I were into rock & roll, I'd feel behind the times."
Rodgers realizes that trends come and go, and before the evening ends he makes sure to drive home the point that he's already set for the next time the wind blows. With an open smile, he leans over and says: "I'll tell you, if country & western were the next big thing, I'd be right out there with a cowboy hat on. That," he sighs, "is the way of the world."
This story is from the April 19th, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone.