Obituary: Bernard Edwards

Pierre Perrone
Saturday 27 April 1996 00:02

Bernard Edwards managed to transcend the ephemeral nature of dance music to create true pop classics.

Unless they're singers like Sting or Paul McCartney, or behave like lechers a la Bill Wyman or Gene Simmons (of Kiss), few bass-players achieve any kind of fame or notoriety in the music industry. With his trademark funky rhythms and supple bass lines, Edwards, the bass-player with Chic, proved the exception to the rule. With his partner Nile Rodgers, he co-wrote some of the most enduring dance tunes of the last 20 years, and went on to produce a host of records for other performers like Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, Robert Palmer and Rod Stewart.

Born in 1952 in Greenville, North Carolina, Bernard Edwards moved to New York when he was 10. While in junior high school, he picked up the saxophone, but soon moved to electric bass. In 1970 he met the guitarist Nile Rodgers, a New Yorker who'd been a member of Harlem's famous Apollo Theatre house band. Along with the powerhouse drummer Tony Thompson, the pair soon became regulars on the soul circuit, forming the Big Apple Band and backing the fine outfit New York City ("I'm Doing Fine Now") on the road.

By 1976, Rodgers and Edwards had started to write their own material, and were helping the singer Carol Douglas to cut demos. After a name and a musical change, from the unlikely Allah & the Knife-Wielding Punks to the more sophisticated Chic, their tapes did the rounds of record companies and, in spite of the early opposition of Jerry Greenberg, the label's president, they eventually landed a deal with Atlantic Records in late 1977.

Mainly conceived as a vehicle for Rodgers and Edwards' songs, Chic also featured the aforementioned Thompson as well as vocalists Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin (who early on replaced Norma Jean Wright), and the creme de la creme of the Big Apple's upcoming talent (Luther Vandross, for example, featured on the group's first three albums). Rodgers and Edwards understood the nonsensical, frivolous nature of dance music and kicked off an amazing series of million-selling singles with the infectious "Dance Dance Dance" ("Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah") which was followed by "Everybody Dance" and "Le Freak", a United States No 1 at the end of 1978 (and, at the time, Atlan-tic's best-selling single with 4 million copies in the US alone).

With their clipped guitar riffs, tinkly piano chords, funky bass lines and cooing vocals, Chic's records sounded deceptively simple but were in fact wonderfully heady concoctions guaranteed to fill dance-floors the world over. The group were on a roll and, following the success of the mellower "I Want Your Love", they unleashed a monster disco record, "Good Times". The distinctive bass of Edwards was at the centre of a truly classic groove, later plagiarised by the Sugarhill Gang in "Rapper's Delight" (the early rap hit for which Chic were eventually credited as co-writers) and by Queen in "Another One Bites the Dust". To this day, the record's booming riff is one of the most imitated by hip-hop and rap crews.

The years 1979 and 1980 were major ones for Rodgers and Edwards, who revived the career of Philadelphia's Sister Sledge, writing and producing "He's the Greatest Dancer" and "We Are Family", an irresistible tune which, over the years, has been rereleased, remixed and become a gay anthem (it's currently featured in Mike Nichols's remake of The Birdcage, featuring Robin Williams and Gene Hackman).

The partners could do no wrong and, while still releasing records as Chic ("My Forbidden Lover", "My Feet Keep Dancing"), they also wrote and produced the Diana album (1980) for the Motown vocalist Diana Ross. The legendary former Supremes singer didn't always see eye to eye with Rodgers and Edwards, and had her vocals brought up in the final mix without their approval. But, whatever went on behind the scenes, Diana was a major success, spawning hits like "Upside Down" and "My Old Piano" and relaunching Ross on to the second stage of her career.

The duo also propelled the French Sixties chanteuse Sheila into the Eighties with "Spacer" (as Sheila B Devotion), before turning their hands to Debbie Harry, producing the Blondie singer's first solo album, Koo Koo (1981). They then resurrec-ted Carly Simon's career with "Why" (from the soundtrack of Soup For One) in 1982.

However, by now Rodgers and Edwards were spreading themselves too thin and Chic's records ("Real People", "Hangin' ", 1983) were reaching lower chart placings than before. What had been the hip sound at the turn of the decade had now become passe.

In 1983 the group split. Its leading lights released solo efforts (Glad To Be Here was Edwards's) and made further inroads into the production field. Rodgers was the more successful, working with David Bowie, Madonna and Mick Jagger, but Edwards was no slouch, producing Robert Palmer's major breakthrough hit, "Addicted To Love", in 1986.

Britain's Duran Duran had always claimed they wanted to mix the Sex Pistols' attitude with Chic's dance grooves, and the bass-player John Taylor and the guitarist Andy Taylor eventually got to work with members of the latter, when Edwards produced the Power Station's 1985 album (on which Robert Palmer sung), as well as Duran Duran's theme tune for the Bond movie, A View to a Kill (1985). Edwards also oversaw several Rod Stewart recordings, such as his 1988 album Out of Order, as well as a reworking of the Isley Brothers' "This Old Heart Of Mine" which saw Rod duet with Ron-ald Isley. In 1990, Edwards co-produced Rod Stewart and Tina Turner's cover of "It Takes Two".

In many ways, Edwards and Rodgers' influence has permeated the dance scene of the last decade, with Jimmy Jain & Terry Lewis and LA & Babyface successively taking over their mantle as hot producers with their fingers on the pulse. Chic's sound also influenced Talking Heads, Heaven 17, ABC and many an Eighties outfit.

In 1992, the group reformed, and Edwards was performing in Japan when he fell ill. He was found dead in his room by Nile Rodgers. He had nearly completed work on a new Power Station album.

Bernard Edwards, bass-player, composer, producer: born Green-ville, North Carolina 31 October 1952; died Tokyo 18 April 1996.

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