Nile Rodgers says Diana Ross was warned that Pride anthem 'I'm Coming Out' would 'ruin her career'

The legendary songwriter, producer and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame candidate Nile Rodgers has always been a crusader for equality. After joining the Black Panther Party at the age of 16 and then meeting his musical partner and chic band mate Bernard Edwards while touring the Sesame Street stage show, he became a leading songwriter in the 1970s disco scene. For the past 20 years, he has led the We Are Family Foundation, which has just launched the Youth to the Front Fund to support BIPOC activists under 30 who are at the forefront of the fight against systemic racism and injustice in America .
Rodgers should also be credited with one of the greatest and most popular LGBTQ anthems of all time, Diana Ross' top 5 hit "I'm Coming Out". Four decades after Rodgers and Edwards wrote it together as the first major music project outside of Chic, the exuberant crossover classic is still a staple for the Pride playlist.
Incredibly, Rodgers tells Yahoo Entertainment that the country's biggest radio DJ, Frankie Crocker of WBLS in New York, warned Ross in 1980 that the song would alienate their fans and destroy their careers. Fortunately, based on a fateful experience at a Manhattan nightclub, Rodgers knew that Ross' fan base included many gay people that Crocker would quickly prove otherwise.
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At the end of Pride Month, Yahoo Entertainment spoke to Rodgers about the lasting legacy of "I am Coming Out" and the future legacy of its "Youth to the Front Fund" initiative.
Yahoo Entertainment: "I'm Coming Out" is one of the most enduring gay anthems of all time. Was it written with this intention in mind?
Nile Rodgers: It's actually a wonderful story. There were a number of clubs near Studio 54 ... and there were two clubs in this area that were very, very, very popular trans clubs. One was called the gilded grape. I usually hopped around in the club there and the gilded grape on Eighth Avenue was totally hot. I went to the bathroom there one night and there was at least on both sides - I always try to make it plausible because people don't believe how many Diana Ross impersonators were hidden there that night, so let's just leave it sound credible and say that there were only three or four depths on either side. Let's say six to eight. So there I was in the bathroom, surrounded by impersonators from Diana Ross. And I was in the middle of producing my first superstar in my life and it happened to be Diana Ross. Imagine you are in a Fellini film - that's how it was.
I looked around and was so excited. I wanted to shout to these people, "Hey, you won't believe it, but I'm producing Diana Ross!" But nobody would have believed me. So I couldn't even get upset. But what I got was motivated. I had an idea. A light bulb went out and I thought, "Wait a minute. If I write a song for Diana Ross and talk about a disenfranchised part of her fan base and somehow do it for her, it would be an important record. “I hadn't thought of that before, and here it was right in front of my face.
So I ran outside and called Bernard. He had fallen asleep dead. I tried to explain the situation to him. I told him it was like when James Brown wrote, "Say it out loud, I'm black and I'm proud." No one had particularly viewed James Brown as the leader of the Black Power movement, but when he wrote this song, it was one of the most powerful political things that could ever happen. So I said, “Nobody really thinks of Diana Ross at the forefront, but the [gay] community and their [gay] fans love and adore them. Let's write this song for you! “And Bernard understood it. It made total sense to him.
How did Diana react when you presented the song to her?
Diana loved it. We never looked at the meaning or the reason why we wrote it - until she played it for Frankie Crocker, who had now become the number 1 radio persona in the world. She left our studio floating, she just loved her album, but when she played it for Frankie it was not a good experience. He told her it would ruin her career. And she came back to our studio feeling depressed and heartbroken. What is really cool about Diana is, of course, that she is elegant even when she is angry. But she comes back and says, "Why are you trying to ruin my career?" And that was out of the blue - an hour or two earlier she had been the happiest woman in the world! But we could see that she had a broken heart. And we said, "Diana, come on. If we really ruin your career, we will ruin our career! You are Diana Ross. We're just getting started. Why should we want to go down in history as the boys who ruined Diana Ross' career? Do you think anyone will ever work with us again? "
Why did Frankie think "I'm coming out" would mean suicide for Diana?
The thing is, we did all of these interviews with her [before we did the Diana album]. … Diana Ross had dictated her entire life to us. For example, she had talked about "Upside Down" and how she wanted to turn the world upside down and turn her career upside down; that was her exact words. She had already known that we write every song about her life. Maybe she got the idea wrong when Frankie Crocker told her what "I'm coming out" means - that she thought we were trying to imply that she was gay. Nothing of the same. Diana is definitely not homophobic, that's for sure. She is one of the coolest people you could ever meet. It was just that she now thought we were saying that she would come out.
Diana Ross receives an award for selling her Motown single 'Upside Down' while visiting England in 1980 in London, England. (Photo by Anwar Hussein / Getty Images)
You didn't know what the term "coming out" meant?
She didn't understand that this song was about the gay community. You have to remember that this album was like a documentary for us. We were invited to her apartment and did these interviews, and we only wrote a musical note after the interview with Diana, not a note. She thought it was the coolest because it was the first time in her entire career that someone had sat down, interviewed her and wrote an album about her life. But we wrote the songs about their world with our eyes. So I never told her about [the gold grape experience] because I didn't have to. But unfortunately I had to lie to her because she was so upset about [Crocker's remarks].
What did you tell her
I said, "Diana, there are a lot of things that Bernard and I say you have to ask us what we mean because we speak in slang. We are an R&B band. Whenever we want to start a show, we say, "Hey man, what is our coming out song tonight?" Diana, don't you say to your band, "Hey guys, what song will we come out with? Tonight? "And she says:" No, I've never heard that before. «I say:» Well, we do it all the time! «And that's the only time in my life - and that's a promise - that I've ever lied to an artist. But later I said to her: “Diana, when you start your show, you will never come out with another song, even though you had so many hits. This will be the song you come out to every night. “Have you ever seen a Diana Ross show in the past 35, 40 years? It does! Your concerts always start with "I'm coming out".
Obviously, you've proven Frankie Crocker the opposite. That must have felt pretty good.
Yes, he played this record like crazy. ... It felt great, but you have to understand that we weren't against Frankie Crocker. We were only for Diana Ross. If you write from the bottom of your heart and are sincere and try to write for the artists, try to do the best you can to advance their arc. That was important to me. It had nothing to do with proving that Frankie Crocker was wrong. I was just upset that he thought that and that he said what he said.
It is interesting that this was around 1979, 1980. This was around the time of the "Disco Sucks!" Backlash, which in my opinion was due to a lot of homophobia.
Oh yes, great. And sexism too, believe me - see how powerful women became recording artists during the disco! I mean, Donna Summer just ruled and Gloria Gaynor and Diana. It was just amazing. And what happened is that the disco somehow upset the rock'n'roll power structure that dominated the charts.
Diana Ross with Nile Rodgers. (Richard Corkery / NY. Daily news archive via Getty Images)
And in 1980, you still had great success with a disco song that was aimed at a gay audience. Did you expect it would still be such a pride hymn 40 years later, especially after everything you told me?
We didn't expect it to take that long. But when Bernard and I finished writing, I said, "This song can make gold only through the gay community." We loved it.
Your foundation is named after another hit that you and Bernard wrote at the beginning of your songwriting partnership for a disco act for women, Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" - which also contains a comprehensive, positive message that tests the Time has passed. Tell me about the We Are Family Foundation's new Youth to the Front Fund.
Well, in the almost two decades of the We Are Family Foundation, we've found that there are many youth organizations we support that would likely still exist if they had more resources and capital. Our global team leaders from have made us aware that some of these organizations need this additional help to get over the mountain. That is why we decided to launch the fund to keep these organizations in business and actually help them accelerate their message. ... This movement that is taking place is a worldwide movement, and I think that is because younger people in the world today have so many friends with whom they actually have a real affinity. They have a lot of black friends, they have a lot of gay friends, they have a lot of friends who are disenfranchised. You really understand on a personal level.
I don't know if you saw the clip in which the young girl tries to explain to her mother the "burning house" scenario, in which she says: "Mom, if you came across a burning house on the street, you would ? Throw water on it? "And the mother immediately says:" Of course I would! "And the girl says:" That's what it's about, mom. Our house doesn't burn. The house of the blacks burns. That's what "Black Lives Matter" means. It means not that our lives don't matter. It doesn't mean that other lives don't matter. It's just that our house isn't on fire. Your house is on fire. "I'm not sure if the mother fully understood but I was proud of this girl because I thought of such a metaphor because that's exactly what is going on now, the We Are Family Foundation has been around for 20 years and young people teach us each year how to use the program doing better how to do it better, that's why we launched the Youth to the Front Fund as part of our program for them.

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