In 1977, the band Chic was a fast rising phenomenon. But that still wasn’t enough to grant Chic founders Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers access to one of the hottest New York clubs of the time – Studio 54. In response, Rodgers and Edwards penned a song which would not only transform the popular music soundscape and showcase the rising importance of disco in the late seventies, but also enshrined them as household names of innovative songwriting and brilliant production…. “Le Freak”
The origins of Chic came from the collaborative friendship of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards who had met as teenagers in 1970. They had played together in different groups and collaborations throughout the seventies including the Big Apple Band, but it was Chic at the end of the seventies that brought them recognition as some of popular music’s most visionary writers and producers. Chic’s self-titled debut album was released in 1977 under Atlantic records. Then in 1978, they released their second album, C’est Chic, which contained “Le Freak,” their first number 1 hit.
While the band had experienced some success with earlier releases, it was “Le Freak” that propelled the group into the spotlight. With its funky groove and defiant attitude, Le Freak showcased the phenomenal songwriting and production skills of Edwards and Rodgers and asserted the dominance of disco in 1978.
On New Years Eve in 1977, Edwards and Rodgers were invited by a singer named Grace Jones to the popular New York Night Club, Studio 54. However, when they were arrived were denied entry, told that they weren’t on the list. Despite the popularity of their breakout single “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” which was regularly played inside the club, they couldn’t convince the doorman that they were members of Chic and had no choice but to leave. Rodgers recalled:
“On New Year’s Eve, 1977, we were invited to meet with Grace Jones at Studio 54…She wanted to interview us about recording her next album. At that time, our music was fairly popular — ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ was a big hit and ‘Everybody Dance’, although more underground, was doing very well, too — but Grace Jones didn’t leave our name at the door and the doorman wouldn’t let us in. Studio 54 was that kind of place. Our music might be playing inside, but the place was packed for New Year’s Eve and this was early in our career. Anyway, my apartment happened to be one block away, so Bernard and I went there to sort of quell our sorrows. We grabbed a couple of bottles of champagne from the corner liquor store and then went back to my place, plugged in our instruments and started jamming.”
Edwards and Rodgers wrote “Le Freak” with a chorus intended as a response to the doorman of Studio 54 that night. The original lyrics were not, in fact, “Freak Out.” However, they realized that a resounding chorus of “F*** off” wouldn’t be acceptable for mainstream audiences (and “Freak off” just didn’t sound right). They settled on “Freak Out” which changed the feel of the whole song to more of a celebration of identity.
The lyrics of the verses express pride in their music and the dance music scene in which they are involved:
Have you heard about the new dance craze?
Listen to us, I’m sure you’ll be amazed
Big fun to be had by everyone
It’s up to you, it surely can be done
Young and old are doing it, I’m told
Just one try and you too will be sold
It’s called ‘Le Freak’, they’re doing it night and day
Allow us, we’ll show you the way
In this way, the song now seemingly followed in the tradition of songs about popular dance craze songs like “The Twist” or “The Locomotion.” In the height of Disco, Le Freak captured the energy and creativity of this dance music.
So while the song is now seemingly about dance and a celebration of the music…the origin story of Studio 54 is still hinted at in the lyrics. The end of the second verse ends first with a nod to an older style of dance music – swing – with the line: “Like the days of Stomping at the Savoy, now we ‘freak’, oh what a joy” This is a clear reference to the name of a 1933 Benny Goodman song, which, itself, references a famous night club of its era…the Savoy Ballroom. Connecting Disco to the legacy of Swing, Chic’s lyrics then invite their generation to “come on down to the fifty four” and “find your spot out on the floor”
Underneath these clever references, Chic creates an energetic and funky track beginning with the Edwards’ bass. Likewise, Rodgers’ guitar showcases his incredibly rhythmic style. There are two tracks. The first of which is that iconic riff which everyone associates with the song. The other guitar track mostly adds some melodic color – almost like a second bass line. About three quarters of the way through the song, it adds texture by outlining the chords. Together they build a guitar texture that provides the harmonic color while also sounding extremely rhythmic.
The brilliance of this song really lies in the way that Chic builds the track of so many individual elements, some of which really are simple on their own. For instance, the piano part is just holding long chords. Likewise, the Rhodes keyboard is doing the same thing. Neither adds much rhythm (other than a strong pulse at each entrance) but together they build the harmonic texture and color. The percussive elements of the piece are also built of individual elements (a kick, a snare, and those iconic hand claps), in addition to two tracks of Tony Thompson’s driving drums.
All of this together creates an awesome sound. But Chic didn’t stop there. They also added several tracks of strings. The descending lines of the higher strings is the perfect complement with the ascending vocals of “Freak Out!”. Both the main and background vocals are created out of several layers of tracks, which is what creates that thick, almost mystical sound. Further, even the voices add to the interlocking rhythms of Le Freak. The repetitive background of almost-whispered voices singing “Le Freak, C’est chic” builds the sonic texture much like the other instruments of the piece. This is a classic element of Chic’s sound. Their tracks are always incredibly collaborative, with layered voices that seem to express a collective identity to the band (unlike many groups which showcase a solo singer front and center). In “Le Freak” this quality mirrors perfectly the collective voice of the song’s lyrics which offer a call to the dance floor for their own generation.
Le Freak was recorded in January of 1978 at New York’s Powerstation studio. In addition to Edwards on bass and Rodgers on guitar, it features: Alfa Anderson, Diva Gray, and Luci Martin on vocals, with Robert Sabino on piano and Raymond Jones on the Rhodes keyboard. The Chic string section showcased Cheryl Hong, Marianne Caroll and Karen Milne. Tony Thompson provided the drums and Sammy Figueroa provided the percussion elements. Gene Orloff is credited as concertmaster for the song and the track was produced by Bernard and Edwards. Bob Clearmountain was the engineer.
“Le Freak” was released on September 21, 1978 and the song hit the number one spot, not only on the US Billboard Hot 100 but also the Hot Soul Singles chart, the Dance Club Chart and the Cash Box Top 100. It was also an international hit, hitting the top 10 in Austria, Belgium, France, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany and the UK, and holding the number 1 spot in South Africa, New Zealand, Canda, and Australia. The song catapulted Chic to worldwide attention and showcased the importance of dance music in the late seventies. In 2018, it was even selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress for its cultural, historical and artistic significance.
Written by Caitlin Vaughn Carlos
Watch the video below to learn more about Chic’s ‘Le Freak’!