Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny
By: Niles Rodgers
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Publication Date: October 2011
Reviewed by: Bill Alberts
Review Date: September 8, 2011
There’s no doubt that Nile Rodgers had an unconventional upbringing and that this unusual childhood helped shaped the man he would become. Somehow, through all the turmoil, absent parents, bicoastal living, and rampant drug abuse by the adults around him, he emerged as an extremely talented musician who wrote countless chart-topping tunes for both his group, Chic, as well as musical superstars such as David Bowie and Madonna. Le Freak is the absolutely mesmerizing story of how Rodgers did it.
To say that Nile Rodgers grew up in a dysfunctional, unusual family would be an understatement. His mother Beverly was barely a teenager when her son was born. His biological father was absent for most of young Nile’s life; instead the youngster had a stepfather to teach him about life. Bobby Glanzrock, Nile’s stepfather, was White, Jewish, wore the best clothes and had style to spare while his mother was a bright, beautiful African American. What kept the unusual pair together was their appreciation for good clothes and the fact that they were junkies.
To young Niles, whose parents had little time for him, his life was “normal.” He had no boundaries, watched television whenever he wanted, called his mother by her first name, and by his teens, was pretty much on his own. With just a guitar strapped to his back and musical talent galore (which the author credits to his biological father), Rodgers chronicles how he met his long-time partner, Bernard Edwards, a bassist for a band on the ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’ and how their careers exploded with the rise of Disco.
While their initial interaction didn’t go too well, “Nard” Edwards and Rodgers soon hit it off and would be together for many years. Rodgers chronicles how their band Chic rose to fame during the Disco era, how they suffered through the “Disco Sucks” backlash, his big break writing for Diana Ross, as well as his time working with David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran, Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, and so many others.
Throughout Rodgers’ amazing career, he had a growing drug and alcohol problem which he addresses with candor in Le Freak. Convinced, at the time, that he wasn’t an alcoholic because he never drank that “brown stuff” (whiskey), his drug use was never in question. Encouraged early in his career while hanging out at such places as Studio 54, where drug use was an accepted norm, Rodgers used and abused many drugs. Through the years, Rodgers spiraled deeper and deeper into drug and alcohol abuse until the day came when the Grim Reaper called. Ever wonder what a drug-induced psychosis is like? You’ll undoubtedly never want to learn for yourself after reading Rodgers’ account.
Rodgers writes with a clear, captivating voice that never seeks sympathy for his sometimes rough life, but rather adds a bit of humor and self-deprecating wit to the dialogue. The reader gets to meet musical celebrities up close and see what they’re really like while working on an album. We meet Madonna as she goes ballistic on an assistant who had the temerity to take a bathroom break. We get a glimpse of Bowie’s genius as he plays a little tune on his twelve string guitar (that only had six strings); Rodgers didn’t particularly care for the song, but with a little tweaking from Rodgers, it was turned into the mega-hit “Let’s Dance.” Rodgers also includes little tidbits on how he tweaked songs to make them go from a “B Side” song to a hit. He discusses, without getting technical, how/why he might rework a tune, what he felt wouldn’t work, and what might work for one artist, but not another.
Quill says: A well-written, fascinating look into the life of a very talented musician/writer. If you're fascinatied by the music industry (and even if you're not!), this book is one you don't want to miss.