Nile Rodgers talks about the creative process and Riverhead’s FOLD Festival

Nile Rodgers

Niles Rodgers poses for a selfie with a fan following a lecture he hosted in conjunction with East End Arts at The Suffolk Theater in Riverhead on Saturday. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

As music legend Nile Rodgers took the stage at the Suffolk Theater Saturday, a video of his professional life played on a screen overhead.

Featuring a fast-paced voiceover from the Chic guitarist, the two-minute introduction gave an outline of his career as a collaborator who has worked with everyone from Madonna and Michael Jackson to David Bowie and Pharrell Williams.

The list of entertainers Rodgers worked with as a songwriter and producer is so long that at one point during the voice-over he could be heard taking an exaggerated breath before going on to name even more A-listers.

On Saturday, he added one more name to the list: East End Arts, which filled the Suffolk Theater with members and local musicians who attended a master class lecture given there by Rodgers.

“For me, the class is an extension of what my life has always been about,” he told northforker in an interview afterward. “People have always been completely altruistic. They don’t mind sharing knowledge and saying, ‘You know how you do this? This is how you do it.’ ”

During his one-hour talk, which was followed by a 30-minute question-and-answer session, the 63-year-old music icon shared stories about how he broke into show business, some of the recognizable guitar riffs he created and the ways he has adapted in order to remain relevant for four decades.

The class, Rodgers told northforker, was a way for him to continue his legacy as an open-source-minded musician.

“I love to come and show people, ‘This is the origin of this particular song and this is the ideology of this motif,’ ” he said. “This is how we created that … And if that hadn’t happened, this wouldn’t have happened.”

That’s been the arc of his career, Rodgers explained, recalling how two of the biggest hits he ever created — Chic’s “Le Freak” and Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” -— were both inspired by experiences he had in the New York City nightlife. The hook for the former was born from getting rejected trying to enter Studio 54. After the doorman turned his band away, Rodgers said, they spent the rest of the evening repeating the line “Awww, f’ off” and realizing there was a song there.

“This was a couple of years before hip-hop, so we couldn’t get that on the radio,” he said. “So we turned it to, ‘Awww, freak out.’ ”

Rodgers said the idea for “I’m Coming Out” came from a night spent at a transgender bar, though he admits he had to sell Ross and others on the fact that the song, which would go on to become a gay anthem, wasn’t about homosexuality or gender identity, but rather a performer taking the stage and having their presence felt. He eventually told Ross that if she trusted him, she would have a hit song to open her shows with for years to come.

“How many of you have seen Diana Ross perform?” Rodgers asked the audience as dozens of hands were quickly raised. “Did she come out to that song or what?”

Most of the audience members who asked questions of Rodgers afterward were local performers of varying degrees of expertise, from a professional musician to a man who just started a band to a teenage girl who wanted advice on how to make the most of her public school music education.

After the Q&A, Rodgers signed records and other items as he chatted with fans for another 30 minutes. He then backed up his reputation as one of the music industry’s hardest workers by doing an hour of press before heading over to the East Wind in Wading River, where he delivered the keynote address at East End Arts’ annual gala.

Rodgers has become a familiar face in Riverhead over the past few years, first through producing the All for the East End charity concert and then through his FOLD Festival, which returns to Martha Clara Vineyards for three nights this August.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said that as a country music fan he attended last year’s festival to see Keith Urban perform.

“But when I left I was a fan of Nile Rodgers,” he added.

This year’s lineup includes Chic, Joe Jonas, Bette Midler, Earth Wind & Fire, KC & the Sunshine Band, the Village People and more.

Rodgers said he wants FOLD to remain in Riverhead for years to come and that he hopes the town’s residents will begin to feel like FOLD is “their festival.”

“When I was a kid the circus would come to town and we would go every year,” he said. “As soon as we left I’d be like ‘I want to go next year’ because it was this revolving thing that came back every year. I want this festival to always come back.”

For tickets and more information, visit foldfestival.com.

gparpan@timesreview.com 

The crowd at The Suffolk Theater on Saturday. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

The crowd at The Suffolk Theater on Saturday. (Credit: Grant Parpan)