In 1983, Nile Rodgers found himself at a crossroads. Seeking to branch out from the disco sound that he helped popularize with Chic, Rodgers had just produced a solo record that he knew wasn’t going to be everyone’s taste – least of all the rock radio stations that he desperately needed to play it. Buoyed by David Bowie’s encouragement and a picture of Little Richard, the legendary producer pulled out all the stops for The Thin White Duke’s new album. Accompanied by a stunning guitar lick from Stevie Ray Vaughan, its highlight was one of Bowie’s most enduring songs: “Let’s Dance.” In this excerpt from his RBMA lecture in 2011, Rodgers explains the circumstances behind the iconic tune.
A lot of people don’t understand that David Bowie didn’t even have a record deal when we did “Let’s Dance,” He was between record labels. I had just finished my first solo album, which I knew was not going to be a hit. I didn’t think that when I was making it – I thought it was great and innovative – but David came to my apartment one day and we listened to a test pressing. After we got through playing it I got really depressed.
In America [at the time], the only avenue open to me was black radio and my record was so not black radio. I was trying to get away from the disco thing, which I didn’t even understand because Chic wasn’t a disco group – we were an R&B group. I kept thinking, “If I do anything like I had done before, I’m going to be considered disco, so I have to do something drastically different.”
But after I played David Bowie the test pressing, here’s the exact thing he said: “Nile, darling, if you make a record for me half as good as that I’ll be the happiest man in the world.” I was shocked, because it was clear to me on the spot that I’d messed up and was not going to be able to take [my solo record] to the rock stations.
With Bowie, I had the chance to go from being a disco producer to just being a producer.
When we finished "Why" by Carly Simon [a year earlier], I had tried to play that record on the most popular rock station in America. I was the guest DJ and they wouldn’t allow me to play it, ‘cause it was a dancehall reggae kind of record before dancehall reggae was dancehall reggae. So I became aware of the politics slowly but surely and it started to sting. It was clear to me that the black world and the white world... No matter what I had achieved, I was still fighting the exact same battle the day I walked into the record company.
Now with Bowie, I had the chance to go from being a disco producer to just being a producer. David can talk in very abstract terms, but that abstract language was the same language my parents spoke. It’s the same language all the cool jazz people speak, all the artists. So when David and I were doing tons of pre-production on the album that would become Let’s Dance, David summed up rock ‘n’ roll, or what this album was going to be, by a picture he found of Little Richard getting into a Cadillac.
[It was this picture of] Little Richard getting into his red drop-top Cadillac with the pomp, and David held it up and said: “[English accent] Nile, that’s rock ‘n’ roll.” And he showed me the picture and I said: “I’ve got it, I’ve got it.” And we started making this record. Believe it or not, it took 17 days from start to mix done. On the 18th day, there was a bunch of people sitting in the recording studio listening to it like this [leans back]. The 19th day, Nile was out getting drunk, the 20th day, out getting drunk, the 21st day... We never touched this record again. The album was done in 17 days, mixed, delivered. Stevie Ray Vaughan, Bowie, all those solos, everything done.
I think that this record, almost more than any other, captures that enigmatic thing called rock ‘n’ roll. It’s R&B at its roots – it’s R&B, it’s black music. That’s what rock ‘n’ roll was. It changed and all of a sudden it became different. That’s what the picture of Little Richard was... I get passionate about this stuff because I feel that world going away. Maybe it should go away. That’s what we call progress. But this is what I grew up with and when I got with Bowie, he allowed me to be that dude. Before that I hadn’t had that...
I could do this with Bowie; I couldn’t do it with Chic. When you think about this record and you talk about rock ‘n’ roll and musicians are anti-this and anti-that, I’m like: “Guys, what are you talking about?” Everybody on that record, the rhythm section, it’s all black and Puerto Rican people playing Bowie’s biggest rock ‘n’ roll record. Bowie was so keen on that Little Richard thing and the essence of rock, it was like, “This is natural, this is the world I want to live in.” That’s the world I always thought I would join when I signed a record deal.