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Bernard Edwards, 1952-1996

by Carol Cooper

Bernard Edwards, Tony Thompson, and Nile Rodgers were in Tokyo for the latest in a recent series of reunion concerts when Rodgers discovered his friend and ex-partner lying dead in his hotel room on April 18. By all accounts Edwards was feeling fine right up to the moment he went to bed the night before, when he complained of dizziness and nausea. The multitalented 43-year-old musician never woke up, leaving behind a wife, children, and a world of friends and fans.

"It's really the end of an era," mourned Alfa Anderson, one of the original Chic vocalists whose powerful unison harmonies helped define the group's style. "Bernard and Nile opened doors," adds Fenzi Thornton, still a top-ranked session singer and long a featured collaborator on Chic-affiliated projects. "Bernard was such a gentleman and normally so quiet about his talent that I don't think he ever really got his props. Both he and Nile led the group, but he was the one who really cracked the whip on the road and in the studio . . . and we all really respected him for that."

"He and Nile were trailblazers in so many respects," Alfa affirms. "What stands out most for me right now is Bernard's genuine love and enthusiasm for music as an art form . . . It was never just about money for him."

If it seems odd that money would not be the main consideration for a producer-songwriter whose first commercial singles as cofounder of the Chic Organization went gold and platinum, then you don't really remember Chic's era. Back in the late '70s opportunities for black producers were stereotyped and limited. The hit "Dance, Dance, Dance" was initially rejected three times by Atlantic because company execs thought the whole concept of a sophisticated, black, jazz and rock inflected dance band with a French name was too exotic in 1977. Chic's emphasis on stylized visuals, subversive lyrical subtexts, and musical hybridization displayed flamboyant New Wave sensibilities during a period when black acts were supposed to be anything but New Wave. Their ability to transfer that sensibility to outside productions as diverse as Sister Sledge, Debbie Harry, and Diana Ross was what broke them out of the r&b ghetto as freelance producers. Nile and Bernard made it fashionable for black producers to work on pop and rock acts, paving the way for similar crossover moves by Prince, Jam & Lewis, Foster & McElroy, and L.A. & Babyface.

When the Sugarhill Gang appropriated the "Good Times" instrumental for "Rapper's Delight," it was Edwards's percussive, attitudinal bass line they coveted -- a bass line that dictated the cadence and timbre of rappers' rhymes for the next three years. Whether building tension through the instrumental breaks on "Le Freak," enhancing the subtle menace implied by Debbie Harry's "Backfired," or adding swing to Robert Palmer's "Addicted to Love," Edwards's bass was always the emotional linchpin of all his productions, as well as their single most compelling element. Even Bob Marley was moved during his 1980 tour to mention Nile & 'Nard's production of "Upside Down" as the one disco tune whose universal popularity made him want to apply similar structural dynamics to reggae.

In 1985, when members of Duran Duran were working under Edwards on the first Power Station LP, John Taylor admitted that Bernard's sound was what first made him want to learn bass. Subsequently, Robert Palmer's biggest hit singles were produced by Edwards, including the Chic-influenced Jam & Lewis ditty "I Didn't Mean To Turn You On."

Just last year Palmer returned with the rest of the original Power Station lineup to the New York studio of the same name to complete a long-awaited follow-up. As the musical pendulum swings back toward live bands and mutant r&b, this collaborative futurock offering is probably Bernard Edwards's final contribution to that tradition. But his most important ideas on how best to enhance the mood and meaning of a song linger on.

Published in: Village Voice, 7 May 1996