Thirty years ago, no one might have predicted that Nile Rodgers would be on the road with Duran Duran in 2016. Yet, this spring the producer and guitarist is playing to capacity crowds in support of the band's latest album, Paper Gods, a surprise hit which recently spiked into the Billboard Top 10 alongside entries from Taylor Swift, The Weeknd and Ed Sheeran.
Rodgers, whose iconic group Chic is opening many of the Duran Duran shows on the current tour, has shared a unique relationship with the British rock stars for decades.
"From the moment we met, we loved each other," he says of the night in 1982 when Chic and Duran Duran first connected at a Meadowlands gig headlined by Blondie and David Johansen of the New York Dolls (a.k.a. "Buster Poindexter"). "We were running around the venue like little kids."
Rodgers went on to produce a remix of Duran Duran's #1 song, "The Reflex" in 1984; he also produced and played guitar on the band's Notorious album in 1986; and, among other projects, he co-wrote and co-produced the recent Duran Duran single, "Pressure Off" with the band, Mark Ronson, Mr. Hudson and Janelle Monae (2015).
Rodgers has enjoyed camaraderie with his myriad clients and collaborators over the years (including Madonna, David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Pharrell Williams and others), but says the "connective tissue" he found with Duran Duran is rare: "They are my second band."
Duran Duran co-founder and bassist John Taylor remembers when the band formed in the late 1970s. On early songs such as "Planet Earth" and "Girls on Film," he wanted to emulate the tight groove he heard Chic's core instrumentalists, including guitarist Rodgers, bassist Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson, play on songs like "Good Times" and "Dance, Dance, Dance."
"It was unusual for a post-punk band from England to be talking about a disco band as a major influence," Taylor says. "Chic were gods. To us, they represented the absolute acme of musicianship, versatility and control."
Musical respect quickly turned to personal admiration when Duran Duran members worked with Rodgers in 1984 and later Edwards and Thompson on the side project The Power Station in 1985.
"Getting to know Chic as people individually was like the journey to acceptance for us as musicians," Taylor says. "What I've always appreciated about Nile is that he doesn't think in genres. Music was open; it was just the language Chic spoke."
In the wake of the huge success of its albums Rio (1982) and Seven and the Ragged Tiger (1983), Duran Duran counted upon Rodgers as a mentor during the Notorious sessions. After guitarist Andy Taylor and drummer Roger Taylor left the band, Rodgers filled in on guitar along with Warren Cuccurullo and suggested drummer Steve Ferrone. Duran Duran returned the favor with emotional support for Rodgers as he grappled with the continuation of Chic after Edwards's sudden death from pneumonia in 1996 and Thompson's passing from kidney cancer in 2003.
Rodgers says he didn't break alliances after Duran Duran's lineup reduced to two original members (singer Simon Le Bon and keyboardist Nick Rhodes) in the late 1990s, nor while John Taylor took a hiatus to work on his sobriety before the five original Duran Duran members briefly reunited in the mid-2000s. As Rodgers dealt with his own addiction issues and later underwent aggressive cancer treatment in 2010, he wrote fondly of his friendship with Duran Duran on his cancer blog, Planet C, and in his bestselling 2011 memoir, Le Freak.
"When I slip, you catch me. When you slip, I catch you. That's how I feel about the artists I work with," says Rodgers.
When the opportunity arose for Duran Duran to record with Rodgers for Paper Gods last year, Taylor said he felt as inspired and determined as he had as a teenager in a new band.
"Even after all this time, the experience completely changed me as a musician," Taylor admits. "For this album, I spent three days in London sitting and playing as close to Nile in the studio as I could get. I came away with blisters all over my fingers and a sense of renewal."
The longevity and strength of the relationship between Nile Rodgers and Duran Duran is an anomaly in the music industry - especially in an era when so many pop music collaborations are one-offs. Taylor chalks it up to a chemistry that can't be replicated, a "pure spark" which comes alive each time they play together.
Every night during the Paper Gods tour, Chic's current touring lineup lays the groundwork for its sonic successors with a string of dance hits. Then when Duran Duran (including original members Le Bon, Rhodes, John Taylor, drummer Roger Taylor and touring guitarist Dom Brown) emerges on stage, Rodgers says, "the love in the room becomes unparalleled."
It's a moment that brings Duran Duran's history full circle, not only for the band, but also for its fans and Rodgers, too. "Ours is a bond that was created for all-time," he says.
Duran Duran and Nile Rodgers on stage at the Hollywood Bowl. Photo by Kristin Burns. Courtesy of Duran Duran.
Duran Duran's U.S. Paper Gods tour makes 21 stops between April and August.