The “Chief Rocker” Frankie Crocker, the envelope pushing PD, got caught up in dance music in the mid to late ’70s, and turned New York’s WBLS-FM into a more cosmopolitan radio station by playing a few too many European produced imports. Notably, he broke Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” and launched the disco era in earnest.
Many things happened as a result of that decision, but the overall effect on Crocker was this: his programming propelled WBLS to the number 1 radio station in New York across all demographics, and day parts. And as has been previously documented elsewhere in this blog: he had trouble with authority, and was eventually hired and fired at least as many times as Billy Martin was by the Yankees. It was a hot media story, and it made for interesting listening but in the early winter of ’83, he was in pocket, and on fire.
Always the visionary, he used his clout to organize a black tie event at the Savoy- the world famous venue where Rufus & Chaka Khan recorded three live sides of their double album “Stompin’ At The Savoy”- the set that contained a studio recorded fourth side and featured the band’s last great single: the smash, “Ain’t Nobody”. Additionally, the great Duke Ellington, and Count Basie orchestras wowed patrons there two generations previously.
THE PLACE TO BE
The ocassion was the taping of Frankie Crocker’s Big Apple Awards- a TV show that was a forerunner of the Soul Train and BET Awards, and the music industry showed up in force to dance to Frankie’s tune. The list was A all the way; Hall & Oates, George Benson, Earth Wind & Fire, James “D-Train” Williams, Luther, The Time, Vanity 6, Quincy and so on. Everybody who’d had a hot joint on the station in recent memory, with the exception of, Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye was in effect.
The playa was in the place to be, and arrived early. At the time, I was keeping office hours at Soul City’s legendary diskery, Sugar Hill Records. The label had had a string of hot releases to it’s credit, but the previous summer, we’d turned the heat up and smashed by releasing “The Message” by Grand Master Flash and The Furious 5- the record that signaled rap’s emergence as a serious art form. As the label’s National Director of College Promotion, I was responsible for getting the younguns involved. I was successful in my assignment, and was rewarded with a ticket to the event. I donned a tux, and mingled.
When I walked into the lobby, posted up at the bar were two bona fide legends; Nile Rodgers and David Bowie in white dinner jackets; both of them looking like James Bond before an evening a the Baccarat table in Monte Carlo. I was young but bold, and I walked up to the bar, stood next to them, and ordered, “whatever they’re having”. They both looked at me in a slightly quizzical, and bemused fashion that seemed to ask; “who is this kid?” It was cool, I definitely knew who they were. Especially Nile.
RODGERS & BOWIE
I have often said that Black Music is a river that flows on and on. There have been many tributaries, but the one that flowed from Nile Rodgers was a river unto itself. For the uninitiated, Nile was a founding member of the greatest and most influential band that disco produced, CHIC. And along with his partner, the late Bernard Edwards, he comprised the production team that wrote and produced “We Are Family”; “Lost In Music” and “The Greatest Dancer” for Sister Sledge, “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross and “Chic Cheer”; “Everybody Dance”; “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Le Freak” for his own band.
As a solo producer, Nile was responsible for writing, producing and or mixing songs for Grace Jones, Duran Duran, Bryan Ferry, Carly Simon, Johnny Mathis, Mick Jagger, The B-52s, Debbie Harry, David Bowie and Madonna. Because of Crocker’s support. Nile’s sound was the most pervasive of any of the New York based producers of my late teens and into my mid twenties. His sound was essentially the bridge between the disco/funk era and early hip hop, and he was a damn funky guitar player to boot.
He was a rare breed indeed: a Black Man who emerged from the ultra segregated music business of the ’70s, and the similarly designed radio industry to become a true pop power player and guitar hero. He was the most heralded international musical figure to come out of the ’70s New York club scene, and because he co-wrote, and co-produced the seminal classic, “Good Times” he was personally responsible for creating what may have been the most important musical passage of the disco era: the nearly 3 minute instrumental break in the record that simultaneously ended disco, and launched the rap business. This was the music that served as the backing track for the game changing “Rappers Delight” by the Sugar Hill Gang.
The next time I saw Nile was in the Spring of the following year. I was getting off of work from a Greenwich Village record shop and by chance, I was invited to a birthday party at the Paradise Garage for both New York artist, Keith Haring and the house DJ, Larry Levan. Larry was in rare form, and blazed it. Always in good company, Nile was escorting Diana Ross. There was a performance too, a young, up and coming Madonna performed to track, and sang the record that would make her a worldwide icon, the Nile Rodgers produced, “Like A Virgin” that she would release the following fall.
to be continued….