Nile Rodgers on Lady Gaga's Grammy Bowie Tribute: 'It Was All About Art'

"This was my way of thanking a person that really changed my life," says guitarist, musical director for high-tech Grammy performance

"In my heart, I think he would've loved it," says Nile Rodgers of the Bowie tribute he co-created with Lady Gaga for the Grammys. Credit: Kevin Mazur/Getty

One of the clear highlights of Monday's Grammy Awards was Lady Gaga's high-tech tribute to David Bowie, who passed away in January after an 18-month battle with cancer. Complemented by an astounding visual presentation, Gaga ripped through a medley of some of the late icon's most indelible hits, including "Rebel Rebel," "Space Oddity" and "Changes."

To help put together the six-minute, nine-song medley, Gaga tapped none other than Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers — who had worked with Bowie on a number of projects throughout his career, most notably on the 1983 album Let's Dance — to serve as the performance's musical director. For Rodgers, who received the call from Gaga personally, there was absolutely no hesitation in saying yes to the opportunity. "Like, not even for a split second," he said. "I was honored."

In speaking with Rodgers, it's clear that as determined as he was to pay an appropriate homage to his departed friend and peer, Gaga was perhaps even more intent on hitting the right note in her tribute. "I've never seen anyone approach a project with quite this intensity," he said of the singer. "It was almost as if she was doing an all-encompassing film, like when Daniel Day-Lewis played Lincoln or something. She was in it, man!" We talked with Rodgers about how the tribute came together, the intricate technological display put together by Intel and Haus of Gaga, and what it meant for him to honor Bowie.

How did the David Bowie tribute come together and when you were tapped to appear?
So Gaga was set to perform on the Grammys because she was nominated for one of her songs. The song she did for a film with Diane Warren ["Til It Happens to You"]. Then when David passed away, right away — because David is probably her single greatest influence as an artist — she said she'd like to do a tribute to Bowie. I don't know if she was met with a lot of resistance or not, but when it was decided that the Grammys were going to do a tribute to Bowie and she was going to be the person to do it, she then called me because she knew my relationship with David.

What did it mean for you to participate in this tribute?
David's last words to me were in a film tribute that he did to me. It was just a sort of a congratulatory little film that he sent to me and it was just the sweetest thing. My charity, the We Are Family Foundation, were honoring me as the humanitarian of the year and David couldn't make it because Iman, his wife, was getting an award the exact same day 3,000 miles away in San Francisco. He was the person I chose to honor me, and he did this film for me with this speech that was wonderful, and so this was my way of thanking a person that really changed my life, because prior to doing "Let's Dance," I was persona non grata in the rock & roll business. It was after "Disco Sucks," and I don't say this in an egotistical way, but the only Number One record I had was with Diana Ross in 1980. I mean, prior to 1980, we were knocking out Number One records like dominoes! "Freak Out," "Good Times," "I Want Your Love" and "We Are Family" are just coming left and right.

Then after "Disco Sucks," I had to reevaluate my career and I didn't get any success until Bowie in 1982. Now that sounds really corny, but when you're young, and you have no success for two years after everything you had done was successful, it feels like, "Oh, my God, my life is over!" Then the next thing you know, I did "Let's Dance" and then ran through a string of Number Ones. I had Duran Duran right after that; I had Like a Virgin, the biggest album of my life right after that.

Going in, how did you feel about working with Lady Gaga?
I've known Gaga personally for a little over a year now, and our very first two meetings were extraordinary. I don't like to be corny and say that it was so all about art, but man, it was all about art. We were just mesmerized by each other, and I wound up working with her the very next day after meeting her on the same song she was nominated for. But this experience with her was ... I just don't know how to explain it. I've never seen anyone in my life, and I've been doing this for a long time, I've never seen any one artist so committed to six minutes of music. That's all we did! We were only onstage for six minutes. Right up until they said, "3-2-1," she was pumping us up, giving us instructions: "C'mon, guys, this is for David," blah, blah, blah. She was giving us acting lessons like, "Think of this as the most important person you've ever respected in your whole life. Who is that person? Picture that person." It was incredible.

Can you talk about what your conversations were like before the performance as you were putting the whole thing together?
Basically what she wanted to do was to do his career chronologically. Now, we knew that we had time constraints because ... it's not fair to the other artists performing to suck all the air out of the room and take up so much time. She had started out with 17 songs and as the music director, I had to fine-tune that down to nine and say, "Gaga, this is how we should do the nine. This is a way that we could actually do sort of mash-ups." I don't know if you heard this, but we took the bass line to "Under Pressure" and used that to intro into "Let's Dance." It was very reminiscent of when we did the Daft Punk appearance two years ago, how they were able to mix up a lot of their songs into the main song that we were there to play, which was "Get Lucky."

So that past experience was very helpful in putting this all together
That's where the Grammys are very very unique, and so when Gaga and I were trying to make this Bowie tribute representative of her concept of making it chronological, and still pay tribute to all of the phases of his career, I said, "Look, there was this phase, and this phase." At the very beginning there was "Space Oddity," then there was the glam era, the Ziggy Stardust era. She even sort of channeled him. She did the same moves. She had the Kansai [Yamamoto] breakaway robe that they tore off of her. I mean, she had this stuff built in the last day or two. Honestly, right up until they said, "3-2-1," we were making adjustments. And then there was the Intel technology, morphing her face into David, and projecting his face onto hers while she had to keep completely still.

Can you go into more detail about the technological aspect of the performance? It seemed like there was a lot that went into that.
Our rehearsal studio, and this is no exaggeration, very much resembled the NASA control room when they are launching a rocket into space. Everybody was sitting there with a computer and you couldn't tell, but I had sensors on the back of my guitar and Gaga had two rings on her fingers which were also sensors and that was a new technology that Intel developed called Curie, after Marie Curie. These sensors were controlling the imagery behind us, so Gaga and I had specific choreography that we had to do to bring the images together.

"Our rehearsal studio ... very much resembled the NASA control room when they are launching a rocket into space."

As the musical director, how long did it take for you to arrange and work out the medley and learn the respective parts?
Two weeks, and that's because of the technology. If all we had to do was learn songs and we could read music on the show, we could do it in a day, or two hours, but it was much more than that. In the beginning, there were 17 people onstage, all of whom, even Gaga, were reading music. Everybody in the orchestra and in the ensemble were reading the arrangement so the music sounded right, but once you lose that crutch and you have to do it live, it changes the dynamic. We were playing close attention to detail, trying to get the vibes of the songs right and having to change the keys. You know in rock & roll, so many of the songs are built around the actual ergonomics of the instrument. For example, "Rebel Rebel" is played in an open D on guitar and there's no other way to play it normally, but thank God, I can fake it in a different way and make it sound close enough. I'm a jazz guy, so I can figure out a way to cheat it.

Can you talk about the moment when you got to "Lets Dance" and what it was like to revisit that song? What was going through your mind as you played it last night?
It was really, really emotional for me, but for as much as I loved David, and for as much as that song did for my life, at that moment in time, I was there for Gaga. I knew that this meant everything to her and I had to divorce my emotions from it. I mean, we were all crying and stuff at the end. It was really difficult because it wasn't like the type of celebratory thing you can do when someone's alive. In other words, you look at the Lionel Richie tribute that happened and everyone's real happy and he's in the audience and he comes up to participate. .... It would have been really mega if David were alive and we were playing that stuff and he did "Let's Dance" with me at the end. I'd been trying to get him to do that, I can't tell you, for at least 10 years [laughs]. Every time we'd come to New York, we'd call his office and say, "Uh, please let David know that we're playing if he'd like to do 'Let's Dance' with us."

Was it always a flat no? Did he ever at least show up to your gigs?
He would never say flat no. It was always a gracious no. Sometimes he would contemplate it for days afterward rather than a few hours, so I'd say, "Oh, my God, it's gonna happen this year!"

It's almost an impossible question to answer, but what do you think Bowie would have thought of that tribute?
In my heart, I think he would have loved it. I think that because David was such an artist and he channeled characters — and let's go out of the realm of music and let's go into the realm of acting where he had to play the Elephant Man with no makeup, and he had to contort his body and he had to really channel the character. That's what Gaga was doing with this tribute. You look at what he did as an actor and he was living those characters, and Gaga, up until the countdown, she was just trying to channel Bowie without compromising her voice and talent.