(Editor’s Note: There’s a special countdown of the 40 Greatest Songs of the Chic Organization at the end of this article.)
What took me so long to do this?
Better yet, what’s taking the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame so long?
Anyone who knows me well knows that my two all-time favorite groups are, altern ately, Earth, Wind & Fire and Chic, two bands with completely different styles who popularized their unique brands of music during the 1970s and partly into the ’80s. The former is one of the greatest groups of the 20th Century and has been in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 2000.
The latter – Chic – has been nominated for the RRHoF more times (ten!) than anyone else in history – a dubious honor that can only mean one thing: they’ve failed to make it each time.
Gives new meaning to the phrase “always a bridesmaid, never a bride,” doesn’t it?
It is with that in mind that I’m dedicating this article to Chic. It’s a tribute to that band, and it serves as a not-so-veiled petition to get them – or at least their creators – into the Rock Hall of Fame soon, like…this year, for heaven’s sake!
Those creators would be legendary rhythm guitarist Nile Rodgers and his late partner, the bass-playing dynamo Bernard Edwards.
Edwards, with his loping bass riffs, gave us the memorable bottom melody for Chic’s “Good Times,” the number-one pop and soul smash from summer 1979 that historians to this day say symbolically marked the end of an era (and the beginning of another). First, it was immediately replaced at No. 1 by The Knack’s “My Sharona” on the Hot 100 – a chart that had seen 12 straight weeks with five different disco songs at the top (and several more weeks before that during 1979). Secondly, “Sharona” entered the Top 40 just a week after the famous Disco Demolition Night (July 12, 1979) at Chicago’s old Comiskey Park baseball stadium and ultimately became the biggest hit of the year in Billboard, topping several disco singles below it, including Chic’s “Le Freak” and “Good Times.”
As for the other era just beginning? I still contend that Bernard Edwards doesn’t get enough props for creating one of the most iconic bass lines of the 20th century, one that became the melody for a little tune (Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight”) that months later served as the foundation for a revolutionary new type of music – rap and hip-hop – that has thrived ever since. (“Good Times” has also inspired many other classics, including Vaughn Mason’s “Bounce, Rock Skate Roll,” Grand Master Flash’s “Adventures on the Wheels of Steel” and Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust,” to name a few).
On the other hand, Nile is still putting his signature guitar rhythms on music tracks. Just last year he was featured on the Duran Duran release, “Pressure Off,” on which he also provided vocals along with Janelle Monae. Also in 2015, he laid down a new Chic tune, “I’ll Be There,” from a rumored new Chic album that has yet to materialize. The single hearkened back to Chic’s old days (with lines like “I don’t wanna live in the past, but it’s a nice place to visit”) and even borrowed loosely from the bass line of the Chic-produced Sister Sledge single, “Got To Love Somebody,” a modest top-10 R&B chart hit in 1980.
More recently, Rodgers topped the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart – a descendant of the magazine’s Disco charts that ran from 1974 to (gulp!) 1987 – with “Kill The Lights” by DJ Alex Newell. The song, with its EDM elements, became Nile’s third Dance Club Songs chart topper in three years, following Chic’s “I’ll Be There” and Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” from 2013.
Oh yeah, there’s that ubiquitous “Get Lucky,” the Daft Punk single produced by Pharrell Williams and featuring Rodgers’ signature rhythm guitar. The Grammy-winning disco tune was one of the biggest worldwide hits (if not the biggest?) of this century, having reached #1 in 32 different countries and serving as an instant reminder that disco music was never really that bad in the first place (and it never really died).
Ahh, disco. I’ve long since concluded it’s a term that defines an era more than it does a genre, for the genre – dance music – has clearly had periods of greater success than it even did during disco’s heyday of 1974-79. Forty-two years of Billboard Dance and Club Play charts can attest to that fact, not to mention all the crossover and mainstream success the music has enjoyed on Billboard’s other charts, particularly the all-encompassing Hot 100.
Nevertheless, disco is that “four-letter word” of music, one that binds all its associated artists of that late-70s period to all things bad: hedonism, rampant drug use, promiscuity. It was also viewed as one that catered more to blacks and gay people than its polar opposite – rock music, the genre whose fans (more pointedly, Chicago radio personality Steve Dahl) somehow felt threatened enough by disco’s presence to organize the Comiskey Park record-burning rally that hastened the end of “disco” as we knew it then.
For all their talents as musicians, Nile Rodgers and his Chic band mates were the unfortunate casualties – along with several of disco’s other superstars. Yet Rodgers (and his late partner Edwards) pressed on, with each becoming even more prolific in the 1980s as they loaned their talents to famous projects by Duran Duran, Madonna, Diana Ross, David Bowie, Robert Palmer, Power Station and others.
Then in the 1990s, Chic was revived in two ways: first by the band’s founders in a 1992 reunion album, Chic-ism, featuring the #1 Hot Dance Music – Club Play single, “Chic Mystique”; and later by way of several music samples by hip-hop acts. Puff Daddy famously used the Chic-produced “I’m Coming Out” for The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems” and then sampled “Upside Down” for MC Lyte’s “Cold Rock A Party.” Faith Evans’ “Love Like This” borrowed liberally from Chic’s 1979 #1 disco track, “Chic Cheer” and Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” sampled “He’s The Greatest Dancer.”
If one were to consider Rodgers’ complete body of work – from early Chic to today and including samples – he’d surely be in the Rock Hall of Fame by now. As it stands, he’s been stigmatized by the very term with which he had one of the most symbiotic of relationships. The growth of disco in the late ’70s led to Chic’s discovery. Chic’s body of work helped further popularize disco. Then the two – Chic and disco – came to a head in the summer of 1979, just as “Good Times” was peaking and bad times were looming.
But the irony is, Rodgers’ best work are the songs that contain Edwards’ bass, namely, the Chic songs. Together, Edwards’ bass and Rodgers’ guitar – along with precision drumming by the late Chic member, Tony Thompson – formed some of the tightest rhythm tracks of all time. Thompson’s drumming was meticulously timed, with subtle cymbal syncopation and nary a change in tempo (before drum programming took over and made things too perfect, unintentional tempo changes were the norm in ’70s music) as the songs progressed.
All of this was wrapped by the famous bass and guitar, with flourishes of sparse piano, keyboards and strings (plus well-placed hand-claps thrown in for good funky measure).
The Chic female vocalists, namely original member Norma Jean Wright, who was later joined by Luci Martin and then replaced by Alfa Anderson, may be considered disposable now (they were often assisted in the studio by the likes of Luther Vandross, Fonzi Thornton, Diva Gray and Michelle Cobbs and were replaced in 1992 by Sylver Logan Sharpe and Jenn Thomas), but they were essential then – if not for their singing then definitely for the image they helped project and the Chic brand they helped create. Sharpe and Thomas – as talented as they were vocally – didn’t carry the same image as their predecessors did, instead giving the band a more raw, funkier edge. The original singers had a signature sound that was later emulated by early-’80s acts like Change, Narada Michael Walden and the B.B. & Q. Band.
Of course, the turnover situation with the female leads presents a dilemma for the RRHoF when deciding which members to induct – the ones that were there when the big hits were created, or the ones that have sung those hits for the past 20-plus years since the band re-emerged?
Whatever the decision, it’s time for the Chic Organization to get its due recognition. Ten past nominations means that someone wants this group in the Hall of Fame.
After all, we’re talking about Chic…an organization as sophisticated as the music of that era – and the band’s name – demanded.
An organization whose impact on music has been felt ever since.
An organization that did it better than anyone else.
An organization that deserves to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now!
Or at least, Nile and ‘Nard should be there.
But don’t just take my word for it. I’ve taken the time to create a djroblist countdown of the 40 Best Chic Organization songs, which follows below. The eligible tunes were all written and produced by the team of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards between 1977 and 1983. This list only includes those songs billed under the Chic Organization production umbrella and does not include songs that Rodgers or Edwards produced separately from Chic – either together or apart.
I’ve also created a special Spotify playlist, which you can access here.
Please enjoy both.
After all, C’est Chic.
SOMETHING EXTRA: The countdown starts with a song that just missed my top-40 Chic list. It's a near-miss at #41 that I feel still deserves some recognition. I admittedly discovered this song in the late 1990s or early 2000s, many years after its original release and way too late for anyone who describes himself as Chic's biggest fan. In the years since, not too many people that I've played it for have warmed to it, but the song's structure is something for the ages (and something Chic hadn't experimented with before). It starts off as a mid-tempo funk ballad, with Alfa Anderson singing longingly and painfully about unrequited love. Then it suddenly morphs into a signature Rodgers/Edwards/Thompson jam session as Anderson's tone changes to a celebration of found love. It's like Shangri-La around you!
The Chic Organization Top-40 countdown ironically begins with a song that was about as anti-Chic as the band could get. This instrumental beauty was their foray into...jazz fusion, of all things. What's more, it appeared on their first album, when the band was capitalizing on big disco hits like "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)" and "Everybody Dance." "Sao Paulo" was Chic's way of letting the world know early on they weren't willing to be typecast in a disco mold, especially being the talented and versatile musicians they were. Whether their later catalog helped them carry out that expectation is for fans to decide (as you scroll through the remainder of the countdown).
Atlantic and Cotillion Records, homes to Chic and Sister Sledge, respectively, usually did a great job of picking the B-sides for both acts' singles. Of course, it helped that most of their albums' tracks were good enough on their own merits to be considered for single release. "You Fooled Around" was no exception as the B-side for "Reach Your Peak," and was arguably just as good as the single's A-side.
Chic's first two albums included some (at times) very noticeable backing vocals by an up-and-coming Luther Vandross. His singing blended in perfectly with that of Norma Jean, Diva Gray, Alfa Anderson, Luci Martin and later Fonzi Thornton. Vandross' contributions were never more apparent than they were on this tune from Chic's first album. We didn't know the voice well then, but it's clearly Luther belting that Chic chorus, "ooh-hoo, you can get by if you try!," as it alternates with Bernard Edwards' playful baritone lead, which we were also hearing for the first time with this track.
Released in the middle of 1978, "Saturday" was the first single for Norma Jean Wright after her departure from Chic earlier that year. It combined with three other tracks from her self-titled debut album to reach the top ten on Billboard's disco chart. Norma Jean was replaced in Chic by Alfa Anderson, who had been a backing vocalist on the band's first album. Anderson, along with all the other Chic Organization members, contributed music and vocals to Norma Jean's album.
This may be the only song during the classic Chic era where solo lead vocals are provided by someone who was not an official member of the group. Longtime contributor Fonzi Thornton (pictured) sings lead on this pensive mid-tempo ballad. But the best part of the song belongs to Chic founder Nile Rodgers, whose acoustic guitar solo at the end is one of his greatest pieces of work...and that's saying a lot!
Chic's 1981 album Take It Off came during hard times not only for disco, which had been left for dead nearly two years earlier, but for black artists in general. At this point, the only black acts who were crossing over were Diana Ross (whose career Chic had rescued a year earlier), Stevie Wonder, the Commodores, Kool & the Gang and the Pointer Sisters. So it was no surprise that Take It Off and its lead single, "Stage Fright" didn't fare as well as their previous efforts. Still the song reached the R&B top 40 and is a fave of mine.
Ahhh...these were the good times! At least musically. Chic's second album, C'est Chic, was released during tough economic times in the late 1970s, which is partially why Chic's music contained so much hope and optimism for the future. It was their way of saying no matter how bad you have it, someone's got it worse. The tune "(Funny) Bone" - with its title's odd parenthetical placement - was a festive instrumental funk jam, complete with party crowd noises and awash with melodic strings. It was the last track on the album, proving to be a fortuitous setup for the first track on their next album, Risqué ("Good Times").
This was the third single released from the 1979 Risqué album, after "Good Times" and "My Forbidden Lover." By the time of its release in late '79, disco was on a fast decline and the song failed to even make the Hot 100. Ironically, "My Feet Keep Dancing," which featured Luci Martin and Bernard Edwards on lead vocals, was originally slated to be the first single, and likely would have charted had Chic and Atlantic Records stuck with their original plan. But then the world may not have gotten to experience the full effect of "Good Times." Hmmm...
Chic's original lead singer, Norma Jean Wright, left the group for a solo career shortly after their first album, Chic, in 1978. But she remained on good terms with Rodgers and Edwards (at least back then) and enlisted them for her project, essentially making it a Chic one. This lovely track has all the elements: catchy melody, great interplay between Rodger's funky guitar and Edwards' bass, Chic's strings and vocalists, bursts of brass and Tony Thompson's flawless drumming throughout. It should've been a hit!
French singer Sheila (born Annie Chancel) scored minor hits in her native country before catching the disco bug in the late 1970s. It was her one-time collaboration with the Chic Organization that gave her her biggest hit, 1979/80's "Spacer" from her King Of The World album. "Spacer" reached the top 30 on the American R&B charts and has reportedly sold 4 million copies worldwide. Not bad for a one-hit disco wonder here in the U.S.
"Real People" - both the album and the single - was a case of Nile & Nard realizing that disco's best days were behind them, yet not wanting to let them go just yet. It was 1980 and they were only a year removed from their biggest hits. So "Real People" still contained all the Chic elements (syncopated rhythm, lush strings, sharp vocal delivery). The one key addition was a lead guitar performance by Rodgers that lent itself more to rock than disco. He slyly used that guitar during the bridge to recall the main melody of their earlier hit, "I Want Your Love," a personal reminder that this was the same band you were eating up just a year earlier.
In 1980, I would create my own countdown of top hits - based on personal opinion of course - and "Reach Your Peak" by Sister Sledge topped that chart for four weeks that winter. It was just one of many Chic-based songs to do that in 1979 and '80, as they had already established themselves as my favorite band. This tune offered a slight change of pace for the sisters as it featured Joni, not Kathy, on lead vocals. Still a great tune!
Diana Ross was a superstar before she collaborated with Chic, so it was a surprise when the two forces met in early 1980 to record what would become her biggest-selling solo album. Up to then, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had been firm in their stance not to produce for already established artists. They were more content rescuing careers (see Sister Sledge). Well, in 1980, Ross' career needed a jolt too. And she got it, in the form of Chic-sounding tunes like "Tenderness," which featured all of the elements of any other Chic tune, but with Diana's unmistakable vocals on top.
This was - in my opinion - the best of Norma Jean's solo singles away from Chic, although it was still essentially a Chic tune. Nile and 'Nard and band mates provided all the instrumentation, backup vocals and production, and Norma Jean did all the leads...in other words, just like Chic two years earlier.
The band Chic were clearly a funk/disco/R&B ensemble, but they also managed to add flair, sophistication and polish to their image, just as their name dictated. They embraced affluence, even if they had not yet achieved it. "Est-ce Que C'est Chic" was one of the earliest examples of this, as its French title simply asked, "What is Chic?" The song's lyrics seem to tell a tale of a struggling starlet, and they question whether her desire to make it is really worth all the strife she encounters in life. After this single release (it was the B-side of "Everybody Dance"), Chic would soon find out what it really meant to be stars.
Until I researched the songs for this list, I never knew that Diana Ross made a music video for "My Old Piano." It was the only one she did for any of the singles from her 1980 Chic-produced album, Diana, and the song became a huge #1 hit in England for her. It failed to match the #1 success of "Upside Down" or the top-ten "I'm Coming Out" in the U.S., but it's a classic anyway. Click above to see if Diana actually plays the instrument to which this song pays tribute.
The beauty of this 1980 instrumental tune by Chic lies in three elements: the bass, the guitar and the strings. Nothing unusual there for a Chic song, except the strings are the star this time. No vocals, no problem. Violinists Karen Milne, Cheryl Hong and Valerie Haywood took on the tough assignment of owning all the main parts ("verse," "chorus" and "bridge"). They handled the spotlight with ease.
"Happy Man" was Bernard Edwards' tour de force. It was from Chic's biggest album, C'est Chic, and certainly reflected happier times for Edwards and the group. This was quite possibly the song where Edwards' phenomenal bass playing got its due recognition - a perfect setup for the next album and a song that they'd release only a few months later (Risqué and "Good Times"). The above video captures a fan taking on the difficult challenge of covering Edwards' bass on the track. He does it justice, I might add.
This disco tune is what started it all for Chic in 1977. "Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)" was a million-selling single that reached #6 on both the pop and R&B charts. As it was their first major single, the song doesn't capture all the sophistication of their later hits, and the Chic sound that would characterize their music wasn't as prevalent here as it later became. Can you imagine how different the world of music might be if Nile and Nard had decided to pack it in after this one hit? Still, it is considered a disco classic, nonetheless!
"Pretty Baby" is from Sister Sledge's second album with the Chic Organization, Love Somebody Today, released in late 1979. Musically and collectively, the album stands up to anything the sisters have done before or since. This song is a key reason for that. It comes across as simple, with a repetitive two-note guitar riff by Rodgers and the sisters singing "pretty baby grew into a lady," but the beauty lies in that chord change between the chorus and verses. And once that hook grabs ya, it's over.