Nile Rodgers: David Bowie was 'the Picasso of rock and roll'
In his multi-decade career, the late David Bowie collaborated with musicians running the gamut from Brian Eno to Tina Turner to Queen. Among them was was the Grammy-winning recording artist Nile Rodgers, who assisted Bowie on his massively successful album Let’s Dance and its iconic title track. “I’ve always called him ‘the Picasso of rock & roll,'” Rodgers told EW hours after learning that Bowie had succumbed to cancer at the age of 69. “It always embarrasses him, but I say it to his face in public, anytime we’re with people.”
Rodgers opened up about how he came to collaborate with Bowie, who he says “basically bought me back to life” professionally. “Prior to doing Let’s Dance, I had six flops in a row,” he says. “I was completely persona non grata. No one was interested in working with me.” That changed when Rodgers and Billy Idol attended an after-hours party that Bowie was also at. Rodgers says he introduced himself, quickly bonded with the rocker over a mutual love of jazz, and started recording with him less than a month later.
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Initially, Bowie and Rodgers set out to “amass knowledge” by rooting through the record collections of their friends and the New York Public Library to find inspiration. “He had charged me with making a hit, which I thought was peculiar, because the record prior to that was Scary Monsters, which wasn’t hit-like at all, but was very Bowie-esque,” Rodgers says. “I thought we’d be doing Scary Monsters 2, so frankly, I was shocked.”
The sessions blossomed when Bowie showed up at Rodgers’ Manhattan apartment “hiding something behind his back.” After instructing Rodgers that “Darling, I want my album to sound like this,” Bowie “whipped out a picture of Little Richard in a red suit getting into a red Cadillac convertible.” But the rocker wasn’t after a retro sound — he wanted something timeliness. “He wanted a record that invoked the same feeling that that photograph gave me, which was, this photo looked evergreen,” Rodgers says. “That picture told me everything. As soon as I saw the picture, he never had to say another word to me. … Let’s Dance took all of 17 days, start to finish. The easiest record of my life.”
Although Rodgers hadn’t collaborated with Bowie since 1993’s Black Tie White Noise — an album the two began working on during Bowie’s engagement to his future wife, Iman — he says he frequently extended offers for the rocker to perform with him and his band Chic. Such a gig never materialized, but Rodgers says he puts the lessons he learned from Bowie to practice on a regular basis.
“Daft Punk, they’re very much like Bowie in that they see this holistic kind of vision,” he explains. (Rodgers produced the French electro duo’s 2013 smash “Get Lucky.”) “When I was working with Daft Punk, I kept thinking, ‘What feels like Bowie?’ Those guys felt like it! Mysterious, thinking in different perspectives, conceptual stuff. Very few musicians do that sort of thing with me.”