Nile Rodgers Tells the Story of How He Turned David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” from Folk to New Wave Funk

When David Bowie invit­ed Chic gui­tarist and all-around funk/disco gui­tar genius Nile Rodgers to make an album of “hits” in Switzer­land, Rogers remem­bers think­ing, “okay, ‘hits’ with David Bowie, that’s an awe­some project.” The way he dead­pans might make us think he wasn’t super stoked about it, but the fact is, it’s hard to impress Nile Rodgers. He has pro­duced, writ­ten, and played guitar—the very Stra­to­cast­er he’s hold­ing in the video above—on “hun­dreds, maybe thou­sands” of records, he says. What’s one more, with one more super­star?

The album, it turned out, would become Let’s Dance, run­ner-up to Thriller for album of the year in 1984, con­tain­ing such dance­able hits as the title track, “Mod­ern Love,” and “Chi­na Girl.” It was to be Bowie’s best-sell­ing album—as he described it, “a redis­cov­ery of white-Eng­lish-ex-art-school-stu­dent-meets-black-Amer­i­can-funk.” He cer­tain­ly brought the first part of that equa­tion, a tune he strummed for Rogers on his 12-string acoustic that “sound­ed like folk music to me,” the gui­tarist says.

“Since I knew David loved jazz and he under­stood the ver­nac­u­lar, I said to him, ‘David, can I do an arrange­ment of this song?’” (What he has remem­bered say­ing else­where is much fun­nier: “I come from dance music. You can’t call that thing you just played ‘Let’s Dance.’”) Rodgers shows how he sub­sti­tut­ed and moved Bowie’s chords, giv­ing the song its dis­tinc­tive voic­ing. “Run­ning away from funk because of the whole dis­co sucks thing,” Rodgers says, he sim­pli­fied his strum­ming, let­ting a delay effect “make the groove.”

While he may not have gone into the expe­ri­ence expect­ing much more than the usu­al hit-mak­ing col­lab­o­ra­tion, the expe­ri­ence, “changed my life,” he says, “it changed David’s life, and we wound up work­ing togeth­er on anoth­er five projects over the next five years.” In an NPR inter­view last year, Rogers debuted the first demo of “Let’s Dance” with Bowie singing over his new arrange­ment. You can hear just above.

The video at the top is part of Fend­er Gui­tars’ edu­ca­tion­al series, so Rodgers wraps up with an essen­tial take­away for gui­tarists about the impor­tance of “good the­o­ret­i­cal knowl­edge,” the basis of his “Let’s Dance” trans­for­ma­tion from folk to jazz to New Wave post-funk. Sad­ly, we can­not hear from Bowie him­self or from his oth­er famous gui­tarist-col­lab­o­ra­tor on “Let’s Dance,” Ste­vie Ray Vaugh­an. But Bowie also cred­it­ed the Texas leg­end for help­ing him access his inner Amer­i­can to cre­ate music, as he once observed, with a “Euro­pean sen­si­bil­i­ty, but owed its impact to the blues.”

via Boing Boing

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stream David Bowie’s Com­plete Discog­ra­phy in a 19-Hour Playlist: From His Very First Record­ings to His Last

David Bowie Became Zig­gy Star­dust 48 Years Ago This Week: Watch Orig­i­nal Footage

David Bowie Picks His 12 Favorite David Bowie Songs: Lis­ten to Them Online

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Frank Milligan says:

    Ste­vie Ray played on “Let’s Dance”? Wow! There’s some triv­ia for you…

  • Jason says:

    Kin­da fun­ny how they just decid­ed not to men­tion any­thing about Ste­vie Ray Vaughn… The guy is the one who made those “hits” on that album.. and from what I read did­n’t get paid shit for it.

  • Jeffrey Harris says:

    I’ve nev­er been much of a David Bowie fan. I’m a “six­ties guy”. As I was dri­ving today I encoun­tered the demo ver­sion of ‘Let’s Dance’ and I WAS COMPLETELY BLOWN AWAY. The demo is SOOOOO clean and soul­ful. What a funk, What a voice. Thank you David. Thank you Nile. I’ll take the demo over the com­mer­cial release any day!!!

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