Savoir Faire: Chic’s C’est Chic at 45

Why the iconic disco group’s second album still matters

Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic (Image: Discogs)

1978 was neither the first, nor last year for disco, but it was a year where the genre was all over the pop charts.

It wasn’t just coming from the Bee Gees or any Gibb-adjacent acts. It was also the year of “Boogie Oogie Oogie”, “Last Dance” and “I Will Survive.” And on August 11, it became the year of Chic.

Chic was the result of fortuitous circumstances. Some years earlier, guitarist Nile Rodgers had traded in an old jazz guitar, a Barney Kessel, at a pawnshop, getting $300 and the cheapest Stratocaster they had in return. That scratchy sound on those instantly recognizable funky riffs came from that Strat, a guitar Rodgers still uses over 50 years later.

In a roundabout way, Jim Henson was responsible for another crucial moment. In the year after Sesame Street’s November, 1969 debut, the first stage shows based on it were put together. It was there that Rodgers met bassist Bernard Edwards. 

The two would hit it off, forming the Big Apple Band. They became the touring band in 1973 for New York City, a group who’d just hit with “I’m Doing Fine Now,” which reached No. 17 on the pop charts. It was a steady gig, but not for long when the group broke up after its second album failed to produce a hit.


AUDIO: New York City “I’m Doin’ Fine Now”

The Big Apple Band couldn’t get a record deal and eventually had to change its name when Walter Murphy, future composer for TV shows like Hunter and Family Guy, had his one hit. Murphy was backed on his disco version of “A Fifth of Beethoven” by His Big Apple Band which topped the charts in 1976.

Rodgers had originally been a jazz player working in pop and R&B, but he fortuitously set foot in a place offering a different kind of nightlife. “I walk into this disco club and everybody was dancing together,” he told Classic Pop last year. “People at jazz clubs tended to pose and act like they understood what was going on, but here, it was intuitive. You had gay, black, Puerto Rican, Asian, everybody having a blast. In a nanosecond, I thought, ‘I want to be a part of this movement.’”

The first three songs he heard that night? Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” and a test pressing of the Village People’s “San Francisco”, sandwiched around Eddie Kendricks’ “Girl You Need a Change of Mind.”

This newer form of dance music became the focus for Edwards and Rodgers. It needed an image to match, the inspiration for which came from two unlikely sources — Kiss and Roxy Music. The former were because of their costumes and the personae they projected. But whereas Kiss’ look owed a debt to comic books and Kabuki theater, Chic came up with something more uptown. A Roxy show, with lead singer Bryan Ferry in suit and tie, pointed Rodgers in that direction, as Chic’s look went for an evocation of Jazz Age glamor.

The next key element would be drummer Tony Thompson, who’d worked in various backing bands. Around that time, they also picked up lead singer Norma Jean Wright, who agreed to join on the condition she also be allowed to pursue a solo career.



The self-titled debut, released in November, 1977, contained their first hit, “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah).” Released in September and powered by a pulsating, insistent groove, it would reach No. 6 on the pop and R&B charts. “Everybody Dance,” dominated by Edwards’ impressively uptempo bass (complete with quick solo) would be another R&B hit reaching the Top 10 in the U.K. and Ireland.

Even with the hits, the album featured two models on the cover, so there wasn’t the recognition factor yet. That came into play with the next circumstance.

Grace Jones invited Rodgers and Edwards to meet with her at Studio 54 to talk about producing her second album. The only problems were (A) that it was New Year’s Eve and (B) Jones didn’t leave their names at the door.

Having had the door literally closed in their faces with a hearty “fuck off” for emphasis, the two gave up and went back to Rodgers’ apartment around the corner from the club’s back door, picking up a couple bottles of champagne at a liquor store along the way.

Rather than talking with Jones, who’d wind up sticking with producer Tom Moulton, the two decided to plug in and play instead.

“You see, music was not only our livelihood, it was also our entertainment and recreation. And since we were feeling bad, we played music to make us feel good,” Rodgers told Sound on Sound in 2005. “We started jamming on the now-famous riff — Bernard and I were particularly good at making up riffs and jamming together. We were really into jamming and we’d often start writing songs that way, sometimes drawing on ideas that were floating around.”

Rodgers, inspired by Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”, started playing a shorter riff, but the words were different on the familiar hook, as they sang, “Aaaaahhhh, fuck off!” instead.

“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,” Rodgers said. “So ‘Fuck Off’ was a protest song, and we actually thought it was pretty good — ‘Aaaaahh, fuck off!’ It had a vibe. I was thinking ‘This could be the anthem of everybody who gets cut off on the street by a cab driver or any kids who want to say this to their parents.’ You know, ‘Hey, I wasn’t saying it, man! I was just playing the record.'”

As the night went on, 1977 turning into 1978, “fuck off” changed into “freak off” before the aha moment of “freak out”. The pair had the groove with the hook, knowing the song needed a break. Even if they had no idea what a “Le Freak” dance would be, it began to write itself.

“Normally, whenever we wrote a song about dancing, this was a euphemism for something else. It could be about making love, life, whatever,” Rodgers said. “We never specifically wrote about dancing, except maybe on our first record, ‘Dance, Dance, Dance.’ Therefore, in this case, even though we were saying something along the lines of ‘Come on, baby, let’s do the twist,’ you’ll notice that the lyrics aren’t like those of a classic dance song, telling people what to do.”

By the time they stopped playing that night, they felt they had a hit, leading them to scrap their planned lead single.

Edwards and Rodgers gave “He’s the Greatest Dancer” to Sister Sledge instead. A top 10 smash later sampled on Will Smith’s 1998 hit “Gettin Jiggy Wit It,” it would have been their biggest record if the follow-up single hadn’t been that 1979 album’s title song, “We Are Family.”


VIDEO: Chic “Freak Out”

“Le Freak” remains an irresistible dance anthem, instantly recognizable with Rodgers’ guitar, then with Edwards taking over on the extended break. Its tightness is a reflection of Chic’s approach, which was to have the music down before recording vocals. The track heard on the song to this day is the one that the singers (Alfa Anderson on lead) heard when they came in to add their parts.

“With Chic we never did guide vocals, and no vocalists ever heard the song before they recorded any of our records, even if they were stars — Sister Sledge never heard ‘We Are Family’ until they got to the studio, and Diana Ross never heard ‘I’m Coming Out’ until she got there. Hearing these records for the first time, the artists were excited by them and wanted to prove they could do a good job,” Rodgers told Sound on Sound.

The song sold over four million copies in the U.S. and seven million worldwide, the biggest-selling single in Atlantic Records’ history. Not bad considering some at the label weren’t sold on it in the beginning. It spent six weeks total over three stints at No. 1 (alternating with Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and the Bee Gees’ “Too Much Heaven.” “We always say, by not getting what we wanted, we got more than we ever could have imagined,” Rodgers told Radio X last year.

The other centerpiece single would be “I Want Your Love.” While “Le Freak” was driven by that guitar riff, Edwards’ bass took center stage here, aided by strings, horns and tubular bells.

The crowd braying “Disco sucks!” clearly weren’t paying attention. “I Want Your Love” may have been smooth, but it wasn’t slick to the point of being soulless. These were players who came up through jazz, rhythm and blues, finding joy. This wasn’t pandering, it was delving into a sound that, Studio 54 gatekeepers aside, had its roots in a party where everybody was invited. And Edwards and Rodgers were going to bring some funk to the gathering, aided by Thompson’s precision without unnecessary flash.

The self-titled debut had a pair of strong singles, but where C’est Chic bettered it was in improving material beyond the hits.

Chic C’est Chic, Atlantic Records 1978

“Chic Cheer” is danceable brand marketing for a group whose writers and producers also worked under the name The Chic Organization. C’est Chic was the second in a stretch of seven straight years where they released albums. Edwards and/or Rodgers also produced David Bowie, Madonna, Carly Simon, Sister Sledge, Debbie Harry, Sheila and B Devotion and Johnny Mathis in that period.

By the time the group started recording C’est Chic, Wright was gone. Most of the same musicians, after recording Chic, recorded Wright’s album Norma Jean. That album was on Bearsville, with label conflicts leading to her departure.

Anderson, one of the first album’s backing vocalists, stepped into the lead spot. Musically, the album featured the core group of Edwards, Rodgers and Thompson aided by session players and backing singers, many of them returning from the first album. Among the backing vocalists was Luther Vandross, in his pre-fame days when session work and commercial jingles paid his bills.

The vocals were just as precise as the music, crucial in an album driven by feel more than lyrics. This was dance music, unapologetically so.

“(Funny) Bone” forewent singing altogether, the only voices heard are indistinguishable sounds of happy partiers. There were strings, but it felt like all it was  missing was the horn solo to be a successful follow-up single to “Rise” for Herb Alpert the following year.

Edwards took a turn on lead vocals on “Happy Man”, a song whose title wasn’t the least bit ironic. He really is a “happy man, happy man, that’s me/Happy man, for you all to see/Happy man, and the world is my home/Happy man, with a style of my own”, set to a slower rhythm, with the bass again taking the lead.

With its lush strings and co-lead vocals (from Anderson and Edwards), “Sometimes You Win” rolled along like it was made for groups on a weekend night on a Bay Ridge dancefloor with multi-colored lights.

Chic didn’t ignore the need for the couples to slow dance, either. The instrumental “Savoir Faire” glided by on strings that sound imported from Philadelphia International and a tasteful extended guitar solo that’s a strong reminder that Rodgers wasn’t just a masterful supplier of rhythm parts.

“At Last I Am Free” was the long, quiet storm morning after the night of disco good times. It’s the bittersweet comedown, the rare moment where sadness encroaches on the good time vibes. As good as Anderson was on it, if there is a song on C’est Chic that screamed for a Vandross star turn, this was it.

The inclusivity Rodgers felt in that disco club came through in Chic’s music from the get-go, but especially as they became more consistent on C’est Chic.

If everybody was welcome, there were those who turned down the invitation. Chicago disc jockey Steve Dahl, angered at losing his job when the station he worked at switched from rock to disco, took out his anger at his next station, railing against the music and mocking it at every opportunity. He acted as if white straight male rock was the only “authentic” music. He even recorded a novelty record to the tune of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” where the payoff was the Tony Manero stand-in melting all his gold chains to make a Led Zeppelin belt buckle, as you know, one does when you have a foundry in your apartment.

It culminated in Disco Demolition Night, a promotion where fans could get a ticket to a Chicago White Sox doubleheader for 98 cents if they brought in a disco record that Dahl, in a pseudo-edgy display of rage complete with military outfit cosplay, would blow up in between games. It turned into a shitshow, with more fans than expected, some without paying, getting in. They brought in albums by Black artists, disco or not. The explosion left a crate in the outfield. Those fans, fueled by beer and irrational anger, stormed the field and tore it up further. The resultant riot led to the White Sox being forced to forfeit the second game.

The backlash on ugly display that night was heard by labels, who almost instantly refused to refer to music as disco, changing it to dance music. 

Chic would be caught in the backlash, as they didn’t have a Top 40 hit in the ’80s, only cracking the Hot 100 three times. This happened even as their outside work became a huge success for another superstar. “Well, it happened and then we had one of the biggest records of our career with Diana Ross! [1980’s Diana]. But by that time Chic was toxic. Even my friends were bad-mouthing us. It was really not a nice period,” Rodgers told the Guardian in 2014.

Back cover of C’est Chic (Image: Discogs)

But that was in the future. C’est Chic went platinum, setting the stage for the 1979 follow-up, Risqué. If that album would be Chic’s greatest moment artistically (and also a smash hit), C’est Chic isn’t far behind. 

It’s where Chic got the formula down, its smooth grooves holding up all these years later. 

All the reflexively anti-disco people were content to miss the bigger picture. A lot of the rock they’d insist was “the only real thing” could be just as corporate and devoid of feeling as any of disco’s worst could be. And if only someone had been there to play them “Love Touch” or the Great American Songbook albums, their complaints about “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” would have grown a lot quieter.
And if it’s not an album one looks to for lyrics, is it any more shallow than any number of songs with “Rock” and/or “Party” in the title were?

There’s a reason Chic was the biggest disco act not attached to the Gibb Brothers in 1978 and 1979. Things came together for a reason. Edwards and Rodgers were stellar craftsmen at that point. They knew how and why the best disco worked and were able to translate that, with the help of Thompson, Anderson and a similarly committed group of singers and additional musicians, into a move-worthy platter that’s still as inviting in 2023 as it was in 1978.

Just as they intended.






Kara Tucker

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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love—music. She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

One thought on “Savoir Faire: Chic’s C’est Chic at 45

  • August 14, 2023 at 1:57 pm

    Omitted from this article are my two fellow musician friends who are great horn players that played with Chic – Ellen Seeling on trumpet and Jean Fineberg on sax and flute.


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