By Meg Barone
Without playing one note of the iconic music that catapulted Nile Rodgers from a childhood of drugs, truancy and self-loathing to the ranks of American music aristocracy, the musician, producer, songwriter and composer on Monday transported an audience at the Westport Public Library back to the 1970s.
Most of the nearly 150 people who came to the McManus Room to hear Rodgers speak had lived through the disco era. It was in that time period that Rodgers, now a Westport resident, first made his mark on the music industry. He made a mark on people's lives, too.
"I've been a fan of his for 30 years. He is one of my absolute favorite guitarists of all time," said Alan Frost of Westport as he waited in line after the presentation to have Rodgers' autograph his first book, a memoir titled, "Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny."
Gardner Stevens of Norwalk told Rodgers "You're my hero. I don't really have any (others) I can put on my hero list," adding that Rodgers was responsible for much of the music that comprised a "soundtrack" for Stevens' early adult life.
"Casual music fans may not recognize Rodgers' name, but they will recognize his music. In the '70s and '80s he wrote and produced the songs that defined that era, among them "Le Freak," "Good Times," "We Are Family," "Like a Virgin," "Modern Love" and many more," said Joan Hume, the library's director of community relations.
Rodgers first professional gig 40 years ago, at age 19, was as a session guitarist for "Sesame Street." He played in the house band at Harlem's legendary Apollo Theater behind people like Screaming Jay Hawkins, Maxine Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King and other legendary R&B artists.
Shortly afterward Rodgers and professional partner/bassist Bernard Edwards formed the band that became Chic, in name and fashion. They subsequently became world famous.
The list of artists for whom Rodgers over the years has written songs and produced albums is a long list of Who's Who of music legends, including Diana Ross, Madonna, David Bowie, Duran Duran, INXS, Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Prince.
Rodgers admitted he never thought of himself as a front person for a band and often hid in the background of Chic letting "pretty girls sing the music I wrote." He said stars are immediately evident when they walk into a room. "You get caught in the slip stream of Madonna," he said.
Rodgers shared his compelling story with the audience, telling humorous anecdotes about his early existence, born to a 13-year-old junkie, growing up in a dysfunctional family held together by "drugs, crime and love," and battling severe asthma.
"I'm making light of it but my life was very, very sad," said Rodgers, adding that he used music as a coping mechanism. "Somehow music made me feel good," he said.
Twice, as Rodgers was about to make disparaging remarks about school and brag about truancy, he first leaned over the podium in the direction of the first row where 14-year-old Drew Beitman sat in the audience telling him, "Don't listen." But, Rodgers said, "I always loved to read. I was a sponge absorbing knowledge." He said writing about his life for the book "page by page, day by day," was quite a bit different from writing song lyrics. His editor made sure "my words sang off the page."
One person in the audience asked Rodgers what his favorite finished piece of work is. But Rodgers said that's like asking a parent to name their favorite child. But he did admit his favorite experience was working with David Bowie on his "Let's Dance" album.
"He would walk into the studio with completely fresh ears," Rodgers said.
After the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Rodgers said he became closer to his family, and he established the We Are Family Foundation, adopting the name of the hit song he wrote for Sister Sledge. He told the audience the foundation has built almost 30 schools around the world and each year brings teens from other countries to the U.S. for mentoring opportunities. Rodgers said he is very proud of his philanthropy. "I grew up caring about people ... The altruistic part of my life is important," he said, adding that he was a Boy Scout.
Rodgers took time with each person who waited in line for an autograph, patiently posing for photographs and listening to their stories related to his music.
"I thought he was a lot nicer than other celebrities," said Drew Beitman, who brought his guitar to the event and had Rodgers sign it. "Aw Freakout," Rodgers wrote, quoting a line from his first hit Le Freak. "I'm one of the only kids at my school who actually appreciates this kind of music," Drew said.
Nicolette Weinbaum, 17, a senior at Staples High School, invited Rodgers to speak at the school. "He was incredibly inspiring and could benefit so many young people. Millennium kids aren't familiar with him and they should be," she said.
Lisa Alter of Westport purchased four books and had Rodgers autograph each one for friends. "He is a classic," Alter said.