In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards couldn’t get into the club. It was New Years Eve, the last night of 1977, and Rodgers and Edwards were the two leaders of the rising disco band Chic. Grace Jones, the headlining act at Studio 54 that night, was thinking about making an album with Chic, and she’d invited them to meet up with her, but she’d forgotten to leave the duo’s names with the doorman.
So it didn’t matter that Grace Jones really did want to meet with Chic. It didn’t matter that that Chic were making hit records. It didn’t matter that Studio 54 was regularly playing those hit records. The members of Chic were not getting into the club that night. Fate had different plans for them. Rodgers and Edwards bought a bottle of champagne from a liquor store, went back to Rodgers’ apartment, and jammed out a song about how pissed off they were at the Studio 54 doorman. That song, initially titled “Fuck Off,” would become the biggest smash of their career.
Nile Rodgers, born to a 14-year-old mother, grew up in the bohemian hotbox of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His father, an Afro-Cuban percussionist, wasn’t around much. Rodgers’ mother eventually married a beatnik academic, so Rodgers grew up around people like Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. As a teenager, Rodgers, then a Black Panther, learned guitar and got good fast. At 18, Rodgers was working as a touring guitarist with a Sesame Street live show, and that’s where he met the bassist Bernard Edwards. The two were the same age, and they quickly locked in together, finding a creative partnership long before they found their sound.
Rodgers and Edwards met in 1970 and immediately formed a group called the Big Apple Band with drummer Tony Thompson. Together, they tried out a bunch of different genres of music. Rodgers loved Roxy Music and KISS, and he wanted to play theatrical and immersive glam rock. That never quite worked out, and the musicians toyed around with a few different genres of music, like jazz fusion and punk rock. (For a minute, Rodgers and Edwards apparently had a band called Allah And The Knife-Wielding Punks, which is just a great name.)
This was mid-’70s New York, and Rodgers and Edwards eventually found out that, if they were ever going to make any money at music, they had to go disco. Rodgers didn’t even like disco at first, but it was the one genre of music where races and genders freely mingled, and he discovered that he could make it sound cool if he did it his way. In 1976, “A Fifth Of Beethoven,” a record credited to Walter Murphy & The Big Apple Band, hit #1. “A Fifth Of Beethoven” was really a solo record, and the two Big Apple Bands had nothing to do with each other. (In later pressings, “A Fifth Of Beethoven” would be credited to just Walter Murphy.) Rodgers and Edwards changed their band name to Chic, and almost immediately, they found their stride.
On the strength of their first demo, Chic signed to Atlantic. Their first single, 1977’s “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah),” was a hit with DJs, and it eventually went on to peak at #6. (It’s a 9.) At the time, Rodgers and Edwards were still playing around with different musicians, and they hadn’t yet solidified a lineup. One of the vocalists on “Dance, Dance Dance,” for instance, was future superstar Luther Vandross. (Vandross’ highest-charting single is the 1994 Mariah Carey duet “Endless Love,” a cover of a 1981 Diana Ross/Lionel Richie song that will appear in this column. The Vandross/Carey “Endless Love” peaked at #2, and it’s a 5.) Eventually, though, Chic found their voices: Two singers named Alfa Anderson and Diva Grey, who trilled together with a sort of flirty burlesque silliness.
Nile Rodgers, a great storyteller, has spent plenty of time over the years recounting the night when he and Edwards couldn’t get into Studio 54, when they wrote “Freak Out” instead. The best version I’ve seen is in this Sound On Sound piece:
We were so pissed off at what had happened. I mean, it was Studio 54, it was New Year’s Eve, it was Grace Jones, and we were wearing the most expensive outfits that we had — back then, in the late ’70s, our suits must have cost us a couple of thousand bucks each, and our really fancy shoes had got soaked trudging through the snow. So “Fuck Off” was a protest song, and we actually thought it was pretty good — “Aaaaahh, fuck off!” It had a vibe.
It did have a vibe. “Fuck Off” became “Freak Off” and then “Freak Out.” Rodgers and Edwards had the idea to turn it into a Chubby Checker-style dance-craze record. The Freak was not an actual dance, and the members of Chic had no dance in mind, but they wrote the song about it as if this really was a step that people could learn. Anderson and Grey sang about this fictional dance with a certain relish, describing the Freak in terms that basically make it sound like cocaine: “Young and old are doing it, I’m told/ Just one try, and you too will be sold.” They even included a shoutout to the club that wouldn’t let them in: “Just come on down to the 54/ And find a spot out on the floor.”
In its finished state, “Le Freak” is barely a song. Those lyrics, almost purposely silly, simply fill space. Anderson and Grey sing with a playful energy, delivering those lines in a gossipy cadence. But it’s all there to build up to the hard-smash chant of the hook: “Awwwww, freak out!” And anyway, the vocals aren’t really the dominant element on “Freak Out.” Instead, the thing you remember is the groove. And it is a monster groove.
Bernard Edwards’ most famous bassline wouldn’t arrive until later, but you will never hear bass much better than what Edwards does on “Le Freak.” Edwards work on the song is just nuts. Edwards basically plays lead on “Le Freak.” His riff is supple and intricate. It’s got personality, and it switches up a bunch of times, especially on the song’s extended five-and-a-half minute version. (That’s the best version of the song, but the single edit still rules.) But Edwards’ playing is also simple and rhythmic, and it serves that groove.
Everything serves the groove. Rodgers’ guitar is a spidery funk crawl, a streamlined and evolved version of the Isaac Hayes chicken-scratch. Tony Thompson’s drums are stark and instinctive. Rodgers and Edwards, producing the song themselves, put tons of force behind the song’s handclaps and, near the end of the song, add some booming bass-drum thuds that they recorded in the bathroom at the New York studio known as the Power Station. Even the strings are part of the beat. While so many other disco producers used strings for added melodrama, Chic’s strings are there to build tension or to add icy little shivers. Everything pulses.
“Le Freak,” a song that started off its live as a fuck-you to a nightclub doorman, would become a foundational hit. It lingered on the charts for months. Twice, other records knocked it out of the #1 spot. Twice, it returned to reclaim the spot. For more than a decade, “Le Freak” would reign as the highest-selling single in the history of Atlantic Records. And even beyond its commercial impact, that “Le Freak” groove would resonate.
Disco wouldn’t keep dominating the charts forever. When “Le Freak” hit, disco, at least in its pure capital-D form, only had about a year left on top. But the high-stepping plastic funk that Rodgers and Edwards pioneered would last a whole lot longer, sticking around in ’80s synth-funk and new wave. A lot of the time, Rodgers and Edwards, both working as producers and songwriters, would have their hands in the songs that borrowed from the Chic model; in those capacities, both of them will be back this column. But after “Le Freak,” Chic weren’t done. The follow-up single “I Want Your Love,” for instance, peaked at #7. (It’s a 9.) And Chic will be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: “Jack Le Freak,” a 1987 acid-house remix of “Le Freak,” peaked at #18 in the UK. Here it is:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: In 1996, on the night before Bernard Edwards suddenly and unexpectedly died of pneumonia, Chic performed “Le Freak” at Budokan in Tokyo, with Slash guesting on guitar. Here’s video:
(As a member of Guns N’ Roses, Slash will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 2010’s Toy Story 3 where Ken models his outfits for Barbie while “Le Freak” plays on the soundtrack:
THE NUMBER TWOS: The Village People’s knowing, horny disco perennial “YMCA” peaked at #2 behind “Le Freak.” It’s an 8.