Music legend Nile Rodgers: ‘Guitars shaped my destiny’

As a multiple GRAMMY-winning composer, producer, arranger, guitarist and the co-founder of CHIC, Nile Rodgers has written and produced hundreds of hit records over the past five decades. In December, his impressive collection of guitars, clothes and classic cars will be sold at Christie’s New York in aid of his charitable organisation, We Are Family Foundation.

From his beatnik upbringing and early involvement with the Black Panthers to his contribution to the birth of hip-hop, his time with CHIC and his later work with Diana Ross, David Bowie, Madonna and Daft Punk, Nile Rodgers is one of the few people for whom it would not be a cliché to say his legend precedes him.

Now 69, the artist still works tirelessly, combining his love for music with philanthropy. In 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Rodgers and his life-partner Nancy Hunt set up the We Are Family Foundation — named after the song he wrote for Sister Sledge — to which he will be donating the net proceeds from the auction of more than 160 pieces from his personal collection of guitars, amps, synthesizers, mixing boards, clothing and classic cars in New York next month. ‘To work with Nile Rodgers in helping bring his collection to auction has been a privilege and a thrill’, says Gemma Sudlow, Christie’s Head of Private & Iconic Collections. ‘It’s incredible to work with this talented and magnanimous man.’

‘Every guitar has a unique story,’ says Rodgers, and his collection is a testament to his many collaborations with figures who have shaped the sound of the past 50 years. The guitars in the sale reflect the course of his career, beginning with a Fender Stratocaster Rodgers helped design. It is based on his signature instrument ‘The Hitmaker’, the guitar he has played in CHIC and beyond.

Rodgers describes how he bought the original Hitmaker in Miami in 1973 after he and the band’s co-founder Bernard Edwards were asked to fill in for the opening act on a Jackson Five world tour. ‘The Jackson Five were playing Dancing Machine… and it just sounded so awesome. Bernard looked at me and was like: “Man, will you go get a Strat?” At this point in my life I was playing jazz guitars, and I wasn’t quite convinced.’

But that same night another gig persuaded Rodgers to seek out Fender’s classic model: ‘The band had a kid who was younger than me… he plugged into my gear and he sounded better than me. And I was like: “Wait a minute, what’s going on here?” The only difference was he had a Stratocaster and I was still playing a jazz guitar.’

The next day Rodgers went to a pawn shop and traded his jazz guitar in for the Stratocaster that would become The Hitmaker, an instrument which he used on some of CHIC’s biggest hits, from Le Freak to Good Times. ‘Little did I know that guitar would shape my destiny,’ says Rodgers. who subsequently collaborated with Fender on a line of guitars, of which this one is a prototype, that will ensure the next generation will have access to the instrument that gave him his unique sound.

Released in 1978, Le Freak sold more than seven million copies worldwide and became one of CHIC’s signature hit songs, making Rodgers’s name as a songwriter and musician. But in 1979 a campaign mounted by aggrieved rock fans, with the slogan ‘Disco Sucks’, had a profound impact on his career.

ESP Company Limited, Tokyo, c. 1985, A solidbody electric bass guitar, 400 series. Length of back 16½  in (42  cm). Estimate $2,000-3,000. Offered in The Nile Rodgers Collection To Benefit the We Are Family Foundation on 16 December 2021 at Christie’s in New York
ESP Company Limited, Tokyo, c. 1985, A solidbody electric bass guitar, 400 series. Length of back 16½ in (42 cm). Estimate: $2,000-3,000. Offered in The Nile Rodgers Collection To Benefit the We Are Family Foundation on 16 December 2021 at Christie’s in New York

In 1982 CHIC broke up — though the band would re-form in the 1990s — and Rodgers focused on solo work, releasing his first album, Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove, in 1983. With its elegant cream body and long neck the ESP 400 Series in the collection appears unassuming at first but, as Rodgers says, it is much more than a bass guitar.

‘David Bowie had come to my apartment,’ he explains, ‘and he wanted to hear what I was working on.’ Rodgers played him the new album and, as he did so, began worrying about how experimental it was. ‘As a Black artist there’s only really one lane we can drive down in America. And I knew that none of those songs fit that lane,’ he explains, ‘I was being avant-garde. I was trying to run away from CHIC.’

While Rodgers was fretting over his career Bowie heard something new and exciting in the record. ‘I remember Bowie saying — and this is an exact quote: “If you do a record for me half as cool as that I’ll be the happiest man in the world”.’ This moment, says Rodgers, underpinned by the ‘boom boom boom’ of the ESP bass, led to the two collaborating on Let’s Dance, Bowie’s best-selling album and is still considered a classic record.

These stories, filled with humour and humility, are characteristic of Rodgers’ approach to his success and his love for music: while he has collaborated for decades with the great and the good he remains unjaded because, as he puts it, ‘I’m not just a composer or a producer, I’m a fan of musicians’.

Rickenbacker International Corporation, Santa Ana, 1990. A semi-hollow-body electric guitar, 325v59. Length of back 12  in (30.7  cm). Estimate $1,500-2,500. Offered in The Nile Rodgers Collection To Benefit the We Are Family Foundation on 16 December 2021 at Christie’s in New York
Rickenbacker International Corporation, Santa Ana, 1990. A semi-hollow-body electric guitar, 325v59. Length of back 12 in (30.7 cm). Estimate: $1,500-2,500. Offered in The Nile Rodgers Collection To Benefit the We Are Family Foundation on 16 December 2021 at Christie’s in New York

This respect for his forebears is evident in the number of instruments Rodgers bought for his collection, from a recreation of John Lennon’s favourite guitar, the Rickenbacker 325, to an electric arch-top designed — and later signed — by legendary jazz guitarist Joe Pass. Letting go of these artefacts is like letting go of a part of himself, he explains, ‘Those are just my guitars, but when I’m thinking about them leaving my world and leaving my life, all of a sudden I get this strange connection, maybe like parents feel when their kids go off to college or something.’

But while there is great sadness in the parting, Rodgers takes comfort in the fact that the money they will raise will go to those who need it most. The We Are Family Foundation is dedicated to ‘creating programmes that promote cultural diversity while nurturing and mentoring the vision, talents and ideas of young people who are positively changing the world’.

Rodgers hopes it will grow for many decades, to continue the work of young activists beyond his own time. ‘These are kids who come from nowhere,’ he explains, ‘and you realise how brilliant they are. They just need help. We go around the world and find these kids and help amplify their voices and their messages. I couldn’t think of a better motivator for selling my guitars.’

A 1987 Porsche 930 Targa Turbo Flachbau, Porsche, 1987. Estimate $150,000-200,000. Offered in The Nile Rodgers Collection To Benefit the We Are Family Foundation on 16 December 2021 at Christie’s in New York
A 1987 Porsche 930 Targa Turbo 'Flachbau', Porsche, 1987. Estimate: $150,000-200,000. Offered in The Nile Rodgers Collection To Benefit the We Are Family Foundation on 16 December 2021 at Christie’s in New York

While his philanthropic spirit is undeniable, Rodgers also believes in the importance of passing his beloved possessions on to those who will appreciate them and use them, whether a Porsche ‘Slantnose’ Turbo Targa 911 ST that Gene Simmons of Kiss once almost threw up in, or the 1981 Tokai guitar Rodgers played on Daft Punk’s Get Lucky. ‘For me,’ says Rodgers, ‘I wonder what it was like before it got into my hands. What I’m trying to do is see what it's going to be like in the life of someone else after me.’