The death of Sister Sledge's Joni Sledge is weighing on Nile Rodgers, who co-wrote and co-produced the group's 1979 breakthrough album We Are Family.
"It's really heartbreaking," Rodgers told Billboard backstage before his keynote speech at the South by Southwest conference Wednesday (March 15) in Austin, Texas. "To me, they always felt like our younger sisters. How can they die before us, you know?"
Rodgers considered Joni -- who died March 10 at the age of 60 from natural causes -- as the alpha sibling of Sister Sledge. "She was sort of like the leader of the group, the most outspoken," he explained. "Even though Kathy had that magical voice, Joni was the one who, when you ask a question she's the one who gives the answer, 'cause all four people can't speak. It would be a cacophony."
And even after 38 years, Rodgers still considers the We Are Family album "the best record I ever made." "That was the record that proved we (Rodgers and his late Chic partner Bernard Edwards) could do what we do for ourselves for others, that we could look inside someone's soul and put our version of their truth onto them and superimpose it onto them and create this new entity we believed we understood. There's no filler on Sister Sledge; Every song is awesome. It was a record that was really incredible to us."
Rodgers is currently in the midst of finishing another album -- It's About Time, his first Chic effort in 25 years. The set was previewed by the single "I'll Be There" in 2015 but he opted not to release it in 2016 after the year began with the deaths of David Bowie and continued with others and also included a vitriolic presidential campaign. "I had this great, fun, celebratory record and instead of seeing this positive, wonderful world there was this negative world of dark, dark, dark stuff. So I just felt that it wasn't the time," Rodgers said. And though he's not exactly loving the Trump presidency, Rodgers promises this will be the year the album sees release; In fact, he was in Atlanta this week working on the last song for the set before flying to Austin.
"It hit me that 2017 was the 40th anniversary of Studio 54 and the 40th anniversary of Chic. We started together," he said. "So I'm thinking that's a good omen for putting this thing out soon."
Rodgers said during the keynote that the current incarnation of Chic will be back on the road this year, playing shows with Duran Duran and Earth, Wind &Fire. Before that, however, he'll be attending the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony on April 7 in Brooklyn, though he still has mixed feelings about getting an Award For Musical Achievement for himself rather than being inducted with Chic, which has failed to be voted in after 11 nominations.
"I'm still weird and ambivalent about that," Rodgers says. "It's like, OK, the other stuff I've done achieved more than Chic? We were only successful for two years and only have three albums, but the collective sales and influence is pretty incredible. 'Le Freak' alone, that song went to No. 1 three different times on Billboard." To that end, Rodgers will not bring Chic to perform at the ceremony either. "It doesn't make any sense to me; 'wow, we're OK to play, but not OK to be in?' It's weird, I'm cool; I'm fine with them recognizing the other achievements I've had in music. That's great, and I'm thankful and grateful for it. But it's still…weird."