Guitarist Nile Rodgers was honored at this year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony with the Award for Musical Excellence. Pharrell Williams presented him with the prestigious honor. “They just told me a couple of months ago that I’ve sold over 300 million albums and 75 million singles,” Rodgers said during his speech. “I just wanted to have one hit record.”
He went on to state that his work as a producer has been fulfilling, and the award was recognition of the accomplishments that he never would have imagined possible when he began to make music. “This award, which is amazing to me, is really because of all the people that have allowed me to come into their lives and just join their band,” he said. “Be it Mick Jagger, be it Madonna, be it Duran Duran, be it Daft Punk, be it Pharrell Williams, be it Diana Ross, be it Sister Sledge. I mean it just goes on and on and on. Thank you all.”
After accepting his award, he spoke to Rolling Stone about how profound the honor was to him.
What does it mean to you to get the Award for Musical Excellence?
I’m just blown away. I don’t do music for awards or anything. I just do it because I love it. I’ve said many times this is a job I would do for free. I used to panhandle. You know, I ran away from home at 14 years old and I was on the streets. Basically on Eighth Street just begging for spare change. I went on my first audition for Sesame Street. I didn’t know it was Sesame Street. They just said guitar player wanted for traveling band, and it was Sesame Street and I got that job and ever since then I’ve never looked back.
What does it mean for you to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
I still don’t know. I mean – I was thinking maybe it was affirmation since after the whole disco reaction back then. To get an affirmation that you are rock & roll and this is rock & roll.
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What makes it sort of odd to me is that we were a rock & roll band before we were an R&B band. We’re working musicians first of all. That’s how we make a living. So, when we did our first rock & roll stuff, it’s because our lead singer had just left Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s funny that we’re here with Journey; we were trying just to be a funkier version of Journey. Our lead singer had that vocal style like Corey Glover or Ronnie [James] Dio.
So, we had our thing together and every record company kept our demos because they thought our songwriting and our playing was amazing. Then, when they saw that we were black, they were like, well you don’t fit your music and we were like, what do you mean we don’t fit your music? There was one Puerto Rican guy in our band who looked white and they kept thinking that it was his band. He was like, “Look I just joined the band, it’s their band.”
Is that when you discovered Roxy Music?
Yeah, I went to England with another band that I worked with and I got stranded there and I saw Roxy Music for the first time and I was like, I’ve never seen a rock & roll man get dressed up, because whatever we wore in the morning is the same thing we wore all day long. So these guys got all dressed up and I said, “Well, let’s do the black version of that.”
Then, when we came home, we started to try to put together these sophisticated looking people who would play this black R&B music. We met Tony Thompson, who had just left the group Labelle. So we knew that they were into this fantasy fusion, like weird clothing stuff, and that was cool. Then, we met this guy named Rob Sabino and Rob Sabino’s best friend was a guy named Ace Frehley. Ace Frehley was in Kiss. We went to see Kiss and went, “Holy shit, look at these guys!” Their fans were going crazy. They didn’t have a record deal, but as soon as they took off their makeup, no one had a clue who they were.
So, Ace and I would sit down and have drinks together and people were just walking by him and I’m like, “They were frenzied over you and now they don’t even know you” and he was like, “Yeah, that’s how we want it.”
We thought, well we don’t look like stars. What can we do where we can have the anonymity of Kiss and the sophistication of Roxy music? So we invented Chic and Chic is a mashup of Roxy Music and Kiss. … We were going, “This shit makes total sense. Let’s do this.” Our first song was a hit, and we never stopped.
You’ve done R&B, disco, EDM, rock. Everything is rock & roll and it’s a nice testament for them to recognize you for that.
Not only is everything rock & roll but when I first met [Chic’s] Bernard [Edwards], he hung up the phone on me because I told him that I wanted my band to be a cross between Fairport Convention, Country Joe and the Fish, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Grateful Dead. And he slammed the phone on me and he said, “Man, lose my number.”
But look at what happened. Here you are.
And what’s great about it is that every single act that I’ve ever produced, I’ve produced way more rock acts than I’ve produced R&B acts. Way more. I play on every record I produce, whether the band has a guitar player or not. They could have two guitar players, I still play because my philosophy is that [when I produce] I join the band. If my guitar can’t make your record better, I’m not your producer. Just get someone else. That’s what I do. I communicate through music. I do my arrangements, sometimes I write on piano, but the guitar is my voice that I speak through, and I believe that if that voice is a voice that adds something, I want it to be on that person’s record because I believe it will make it better.
Chic still isn’t in yet. Are you still holding out hope that they’ll get in the Rock Hall?
Of course. If you think about achievements and what people have done if you’re in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, like, OK, so I’m in for musical excellence. Chic is fucking musical excellence personified. It’s funny, I was watching Neal Schon play and I kept thinking to myself, when I was a kid this was what I loved. All the virtuosos. Chic is a band of virtuosos. You can’t play that shit. If I go out and ask half the dudes that I love and think are amazing to play – if you used to watch Jaco Pastorius sitting on the edge of the stage watching us play – you were just mesmerized with what we played.
But we make it sound like it’s all poppy and simple because that’s what we’re into. We’re not into ego-tripping and watching me play these lengthy solos. Now and then, someone asks me to do that. I’ve played on records where because of music videos someone else is taking the solo and they’re known for being lead guitar players, people think that’s them playing the solo. With Cyndi Lauper you have Rick Derringer who’s a monster. Like, that’s me playing; Rick Derringer is just doing the video.
I loved what you said about how you’ve worked with everybody in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Look, everybody on that stage tonight, I was going, “Oh shit, Snoop Dogg is my friend.” Tupac I’ve known since he was a kid. I was in the Black Panthers with his mom. We were in the same branch. When they put up the picture of the Harlem branch, Afeni and I were in the same branch. So it was like Tupac, Snoop, Treach from Naughty by Nature, and then they showed every rock band. Jackson Browne is one of my best friends. When I played at Live Aid and I saw Joan Baez and she said hello to me and Richie Havens said hello to me, I was crying. I was like, Joan Baez knows who I am. It was the greatest day of my life.