Nile Rodgers at SXSW: 'Any song that gets to the top 40 is a great composition'

The Chic founder used his keynote address to recall key points in his career, such as meeting Timothy Leary, the Sesame Street band and the merits of Sugar Sugar

A chance meeting with Timothy Leary, Sesame Street, butting heads with Joe Jackson, and a principled jazz guitar tutor were four of the key turning points in Nile Rodgers’s career, according to the Chic founder who was the first music keynote speaker at this year’s SXSW.

Rodgers explained his career path, and said one of the most important moments came when he met Leary and his followers as an impressionable 15-year-old classical musician. “I met this man called Dr Timothy Leary,” he said.

“The day that I met Dr Timothy Leary these people who would eventually be called hippies, they were called freaks at the time, asked me if I wanted to take a trip. I said absolutely. I had no idea they were talking about taking LSD.

“The Doors’ first record had just come out. I don’t know how I ingested the LSD, I honestly don’t know. But somehow it got into my bloodstream and for the next two days we discovered the Doors.

“Two days later I turn up at my grandmother’s house, and my clothes are all funky and tattered and I walk in the door and the police are there, and they’re wondering what happened to me, and the first words out of my mouth are: ‘This is the end, beautiful friend.’ I’d gone from this classical musician to this hippy freak or whatever you want to call them in just 48 hours.”

Rodgers explained how he sees his life and career in music as a collection of chance encounters, such as meeting his music partner in Chic, Bernard Edwards, while touring as part of the Sesame Street band.

From there the pair played together in the group New York City and would eventually open for the Jackson Five. While touring he would often clash with Joe Jackson, the family group’s patriarch who was a notoriously tough manager and who represented the antithesis of Rodger’s newly acquired hippy ideals.

“They used to call me the brother organic,” he said. “This is back in the day, they’re dressed like pimps and stuff, whereas I’m wearing patchwork jeans and platform shoes.

“Michael and I had this amazing connection. I suppose really what I’m getting at is through the fact I kept bumping into these wonderful people and my life just kept expanding, I found that I wasn’t intimidated by stars. I was comfortable with them.”

Another key moment for Rodgers was an argument he had with his jazz guitar teacher about the compositional merit of the Archies’ late-60s hit Sugar Sugar, which Rodgers ridiculed and resented having to play in a boogaloo covers band.

“Any song that sells and gets to the top 40 or top 10, any song is a great composition,” Rodgers recalled. “He said something that changed my life. I asked him how he could say it was a great composition and he said because it speaks to the souls of a million strangers. Two weeks later I wrote a song called Everybody Dance.

“That was so profound to me I wanted to learn to speak to the souls of a million strangers. I wanted to learn how to develop my voice that could communicate with people when I wasn’t in the room. How do I write compositions that will have depth and meaning for people just like Sugar Sugar.”

He also revealed that initially Daft Punk had hoped the song Lose Yourself to Dance would become the big single from the album Random Access Memories which Rodgers plays on. Get Lucky, which went on to become one of the biggest-selling singles ever, was suppose to be the lead-in to Lose Yourself to Dance but eclipsed it.

“Get Lucky wound up being absolutely massive and as terrific as Lose Yourself To Dance was, it just didn’t have that thing that Get Lucky had,” he said.

“Get Lucky had that thing that spoke to the souls of a million strangers. We had a bona fide real hit. I’ve had dozens of No 1 records in my life, but I don’t think I’ve ever had a record that’s No 1 in a hundred and something countries at the same time. It was ridiculous.”


Lanre Bakare in Austin

The GuardianTramp

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