Nile Rodgers on How Little Richard, Jazz and Museums Shaped David Bowie

"He was compelled to do things that he felt were just the right thing to do," Chic producer says. "He didn't think about whether we would like it or not"

Chic mastermind and David Bowie producer Nile Rodgers remembers how Little Richard, jazz and museums shaped the iconic musician Credit: Chuck Pulin/Corbis

Ever since linking up with Tony Visconti on his 1969 eponymous second album, David Bowie has employed a string of innovative and high-profile producers to help him craft his indelible sound. But the musician found his best-selling success thanks to Chic mastermind Nile Rodgers, who co-produced 1983's disco-rock landmark Let's Dance with Bowie. Fueled by the title track and "Modern Love," the album would go on to sell nearly 11 million copies worldwide and "Let's Dance" would earn Bowie one of only two Number One singles on the Billboard 200.

Rodgers would link again with the singer for 1993's Black Tie, White Noise, but the two had a friendship that went back decades. Following Bowie's death, Rodgers spoke to Rolling Stone about the inimitable musician.

I was introduced to David Bowie's work in the most amazing, romantic way. I was down in Miami Beach around 1975 and they had a nude beach down there. I met a girl who was a photographer in the club that I was working at, and she said, "Let's drop acid and spend the night naked on the beach." I couldn't say no, so we went on the beach and she had a tape recorder and we just listened to Bowie all night long. I had never really heard his music until then except for the occasional big records you'd hear, but it was amazing.

I met him totally by accident, and from the moment we met, we couldn't stop talking to each other. I was with Billy Idol in 1982 and we walked into [New York club] the Continental. He saw David and went, "Bloody hell, that's David fucking Bow…" and barfed and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. By that time, I had already gone over to David because I didn't barf. [Laughs] And I was feeling pretty good and it was the first time I had ever seen David Bowie in real life.

I was at a pretty down moment in my life, but still feeling okay because I could still play and I was making a lot of money and doing a lot of partying. He was at this brand new club where he was the straight-looking guy and we were all the freaky-looking people. It was ridiculous. This was the beginning of club kids and the whole bit and David was just this sort of metrosexual guy in a suit. [Laughs] We were like, "Who is this?" No one recognized him.

"It was as if we were the only two people in that room in the world; no one else existed."

It seems like me and Billy Idol were the only ones who recognized him and I went to him right away. It was a beeline, like a shot, bang. And we never stopped talking until we left. We were just glued together by our love of jazz. I know it sounds weird, because everyone knows him as a big pop star, but it was his dedication to jazz and the depth of his knowledge [that drew me to him]. It was as if we were the only two people in that room in the world; no one else existed.

When David and I began working together, not only did the people on paper not think it would work, he caught a lot of flack from his friends and inner circle and didn't mind sharing it with me. He would actually be perplexed at how shocked they were, because to him, Bowie just thought of people as people. So he couldn't believe it when people would say, "Oh man, you're working with that disco dude," and probably there were other kinds of, "You're working with that black disco dude." Meaning if it were a white disco dude, it might be more okay. He had already worked with Giorgio Moroder on "Cat People" and that didn't seem to make people upset. But working with me seemed to leave a bad taste in a lot of people's mouths, and that was difficult for me.

Switzerland [Where Rodgers and Bowie recorded the demos for Let's Dance] was the first time we actually made music together. But prior to that, David and I did something that I've never done before or since. We walked around New York and visited famous museums and libraries; either people who had great vinyl collections, or we actually went to the New York Public Library and listened to all different types of jazz. It was all types of music that wasn't readily available in the stores, because we just wanted to hear and be influenced by the stuff. We were looking up content just to figure out what would be the inspiration of this new thing that he was looking for.

The first incarnation of "Let's Dance" that he played for me, he walked into my bedroom and he said, quote, "Nile, darling, I think this is a hit." And he proceeded to play a folk song on a 12-string guitar that only had six strings on it. And I was like, "Oh man, this is so weird." And the reason why that was weird to me was because we had been going out to museums and listening to records and looking at photographs and we amassed an amount of rock & roll imagery way before we did one note of music. So I had a visual picture of what the record should sound like.

When David finally realized what the record should sound like, he came to my apartment one day and he had a picture of Little Richard in a red suit getting into a red Cadillac. And he said to me, "Nile, darling, the record should sound like this!" And he showed me the picture. And I knew exactly — think of how crazy this was — I knew exactly what he meant. He didn't mean he wanted his record to sound like a Little Richard record. He said, "This visual thing is what we want to achieve aurally in every sense of the word." Even though the picture was obviously from the Fifties or the early Sixties, it looked modern. The Cadillac looked like a spaceship, and Little Richard was in this monochromatic outfit which then later on became David Bowie in the yellow monochromatic outfit with the yellow hair.

We would basically wake up each morning and ... I would say bin-dive, but we weren't really bin-diving. We had some concept of what we were looking at and what we were going after and it was all jazz. We never listened to pop music. We never listened to another heavy rock band or another heavy R&B band or anything like that. It was all jazz and all photographs of iconography. So he knew it was rock & roll but he didn't quite know what until he found this [Little Richard] picture.

When he showed me that picture, I knew that he wanted the record to sound modern and timeless and be rock & roll-based. And what he called rock & roll was the original definition of rock & roll, was race music, was black music; it was that music that was taboo. It was music that the people liked, but the critics would say, "Eh. What is this colored music?" I got all of that in that one photograph.

"He saw the world as a very valuable place. He would get all this inspiration from just things that were around him."

It took all that time for us to settle on that photograph. That was it. After that, I don't think we talked about anything. Because we had looked at the Henry Mancinis, and the Quincy Jones, and the Oliver Nelsons, all of these great jazz arrangers and composers and so-and-so, and then finally it all came down to this Little Richard photo in the red suit.

I actually pinched the horn line for "Let's Dance" from Henry Mancini's theme from the TV show Peter Gunn. We had listened to all these arrangers from Oliver Nelson to Neil Hefti to … just, everybody. I recently saw an article with Tony Visconti talking about how much David Bowie likes Stan Getz. He and I were listening to what some people would call "cornier" type of jazz to the most avant-garde stuff.

"Let's Dance" was special. Every now and then you do something that you like; you think that it's good and you have to think about the public, the way it's going to be accepted, the way the critics are going to discuss it. This particular song seemed to have everything artistically you want in a song ... but something that felt like you had never heard it before. And because of David's love of jazz, when I reharmonized it and put it in b-flat minor 13-chord — which I defy you to find in any pop song — it was such a drastic move, David loved it. There wasn't an ounce of pushback.

He was compelled to do things that he felt were just the right thing to do. He didn't think about whether we would like it or not. He just thought that it was something that he felt like he had to do. But the fact that he accepted it so readily shows you that, how could we have gotten through that record that fast had we not been on the same wavelength?

In the studio, you would see David lying on the sofa saying, "Nile, go to it." [Laughs] Because most of the songs on Let's Dance had already existed. So he knew what the songs were, he wanted to be surprised. He wasn't breathing down my neck, telling me, "Change this, change that." He wanted to walk in and see what magic had taken place. So, for most of the album, he wasn't in the room with me. He was in another room and then he would come in and I actually like that approach.

He would take ideas from everywhere. He would have a little cassette tape recorder and he would say, "Just listen to these two bars." And I would write those two bars out and change those two bars into a chord progression or riff or an arrangement.

"His legacy is going to be massive because he taught us how to mix theatre, dance and mime with music. They weren't just songs."

He was my support system in the same way [Chic co-founder] Bernard [Edwards] had been my protector. I always am the weird hippy guy with the weird hair and the weird clothing and the weird suits. I didn't quite fit in with everybody. So when people were berating me behind my back and telling David, "You shouldn't work with this guy," he was the guy who would say, "No, this guy is great. He's terrific, he understands music on a high level."

If you look at the projects David asked me to do, I have to think that this stuff was really, really sacred. Both he and I had no record deals when we did Let's Dance. I think the fact that I was known for such commercial stuff, in a way, was maybe a little uncomfortable to him, but still cool because he knew the real me. But he knew that I always wanted to try and make commercial music out of the most avant-garde stuff. That's just how I'm wired.

So we got together again and he was marrying Iman – who was my friend too – to do [1993's] Black Tie, White Noise. The working title was The Wedding Album. I was trying to turn it into a very, very, very commercial piece of work. He, on the other hand, was trying to make this artistic statement about this period in his life. That was a little bit uncomfortable, because we were butting heads, but I think we did a wonderful album.

His legacy is going to be massive because he taught us how to mix theatre, dance, mime, all sorts of things, with music. They weren't just songs. David Bowie made artistic statements and he made holistic statements with those songs.

He saw the world as a very valuable place. He would get all this inspiration from just things that were around him. He saw Stevie Ray Vaughan playing at Montreux Jazz Festival and incorporated him into "Let's Dance." None of us had ever heard of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the next thing you know, he's injecting this thing from real-life experience, into an album with a person and a band he had never played with. And just says, "Let's see what happens."

David didn't know anyone on the album Let's Dance other than myself and engineer Bob Clearmountain. Everybody else was a complete stranger. This was a person who was not afraid to experiment and say, "I will put it in the hands of this guy, Nile Rodgers, who I just met." It used to make him very uncomfortable when I called him the "Picasso of rock & roll." He saw the world the way we see it, but then he saw it from another twisted perspective.

Here's the thing I most treasure about David Bowie: It's no secret that there was a little bit of a rift between us because after Let's Dance, he was on cover of Time and I don't think my name was even mentioned once. So I was like, "Man, every time he talks about music, he's always talking about his old stuff, but he's on the cover of Time because he just sold a gazillion records and it wasn't because of [Bowie's 1980 album] Scary Monsters."

A few years later, I was getting an award and they chose David to give it to me. He came up onstage and said, "Ladies and gentleman, I'm proud to give this award to Nile Rodgers, the only man on Earth who get me to start a song with a chorus." It almost brought tears to my eyes.

As told to Jason Newman