The musicians

Tony Visconti, who had produced a number of David Bowie’s albums from Young Americans to Scary Monsters… And Super Creeps, had been led to believe that he would be working on Bowie’s next release.

I was asked to record the next Bowie album [after Scary Monsters], and two days before I was due to leave London for New York, he had already met Nile and I was told that he was going to try some tracks out with Nile, which eventually evolved into Let’s Dance. I was a little disappointed, but when I heard it… I really liked ‘Let’s Dance’ and ‘Modern Love’. Of course, it sounds like Bowie singing with Chic, but what a great success it was for him. I’m a big fan of the records that Bowie made without me. There is no jealousy, only admiration.

Although he had not arranged studio time, Visconti had booked flights to New York to work on Bowie’s new songs. Visconti was hurt by Bowie’s late decision to overlook him in favour of Rodgers. Although they worked together in June 1983 during the Serious Moonlight tour, the two men did not fully reconcile until 2001, when Bowie invited Visconti to mix the unreleased Toy album.

After The Next Day, I sent him a letter of thanks and I said, ‘You could work with anybody and I don’t know why you’re working with me but than you anyway. I really enjoyed the ride.’ I haven’t done every one of his albums, obviously, and sometimes I think I’m going to do the next album – like Let’s Dance – and suddenly I’m not!

But it was not the first time. I mean, we’re not married. The music business is the only place you can change partners without cheating, y’know [laughs]. So he’s welcome to change producers. Let’s Dance came as a shock and it was the first time I felt bad about it. But I don’t any more, honestly.

Tony Visconti
Mojo, January 2016

Having replaced Visconti with Rodgers, Bowie chose to work with an entirely new set of musicians. He jettisoned the rhythm section of guitarist Carlos Alomar, bassist George Murray and drummer Dennis Davis, who had been indispensable to Bowie’s sound since the mid-1970s.

I wanted to have a little relief from the guys that I usually work with. I wanted to try people that I’d never worked with before, so that I couldn’t predict how they were going to play. They didn’t have much idea of how I worked in the studio. And as I hadn’t recorded in two years, it seemed perfectly natural ’round about now to try new people. Nile picked up most of the rest of the band for me: Omar Hakim from Weather Report; Carmine Rojas from Nona Hendryx’s band; Stevie and Nile played guitar, and that was the nucleus.
David Bowie
Musician magazine, May 1983

Alomar was, however, approached and invited to play rhythm guitar on ‘Let’s Dance’, but refused after Bowie’s management offered him a lower rate of pay.

I went up to Bowie’s office to negotiate the deal, and Bowie had these new people that he has hired. They said, ‘Well, we don’t want you to be the band leader on this. We just want you to play guitar, and we already have a producer. We’re trying to save David’s money.’ I said, ‘Look, with all due respect to your newly found situation, I’ve played with Bowie since 1973 and my increases have been the same every year. Each time he calls me back, I take a moderate increase. And that moderate increase has brought me where I am now. If you don’t have the respect to do your homework and see how much I was getting paid before, then I’m not interested.’ You see, they were offering me scales. I haven’t worked for scales since 1968. Scales meaning $100 an hour, which is the basic rate that you would give any musician that’s coming from the musicians’ union – minimum payment. I said, ‘If I play one note on this record or if I play every note on this record, my price remains the same. If my name appears on that record then I need to get my money.’ And they said, ‘Oh, no, no.’ So I said, ‘Well, fine, I don’t need this album.’
Carlos Alomar
Strange Fascination, David Buckley

In Alomar’s place, the rhythm guitar work was handled by Nile Rodgers himself.

I was very methodical in my process of recording every song in just one take, maybe two. The result proves it. You will never see three or four versions of ‘China Girl’ or ‘Let’s Dance’. All you have are my demos and the album, and maybe one or two things that we cut at the end of a reel of tape. We cut every track in a day or two and still have the worksheets that outline our schedule of tasks that told us what to do each day. We made the entire album in days!
Nile Rodgers, June 2017
Loving The Alien (1983-1988) book

Bowie threw yet another curveball when selecting a lead guitarist. Having worked with experimental players such as Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew in the past, he turned instead to Stevie Ray Vaughan, a young Texan blues musician whom Bowie had seen playing with the band Double Trouble at the 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival.

David and I talked for hours and hours about our music, about funky Texas blues and its roots – I was amazed at how interested he was. At Montreux, he said something about being in touch and then tracked me down in California, months and months later, calling at 4:30 in the morning. It was get-up-and-make-sense-quick time! That’s sort of the way on which the album came together, actually. It was the most fun I’ve had in my life. David works quickly because he knows exactly what he wants.
Stevie Ray Vaughan
Musician magazine, May 1983

Let’s Dance was the first Bowie album on which the singer did not play any instruments. He was, instead, happy to delegate to Rodgers and the session musicians. “I don’t play a damned thing,” he told Musician. “This was a singer’s album.”

He saw the world as a very valuable place. He would get all this inspiration from just things that were around him. He saw Stevie Ray Vaughan playing at Montreux Jazz Festival and incorporated him into ‘Let’s Dance’. None of us had ever heard of Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the next thing you know, he’s injecting this thing from real-life experience, into an album with a person and a band he had never played with. And just says, ‘Let’s see what happens.’
Nile Rodgers
Rolling Stone, 12 January 2016

Nile Rodgers also brought in session players he had worked with on previous projects, including Rob Sabino, Sammy Figueroa, and brothers George and Frank Simms. He also recruited some new musicians with fine pedigrees, such as Weather Report drummer Omar Hakim and Stevie Wonder’s bass guitarist Carmine Rojas. He did, however, choose to overlook other Chic bandmates whose reliability had been compromised by drug use.

Thought I had my regular Chic keyboardist Rob Sabino, my other go-to players, bassist Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson, were not on the first session. They’d become less punctual during the last few Chic records. Tony and Nard were so unreliable from drugging, and I was afraid they’d be late for a recording session where David was watching every penny like a hawk.
Nile Rodgers
Le Freak

Chic’s Tony Thompson was brought in to play on three of the Let’s Dance songs, although Rodgers was reluctant to reveal the division of labour.

If you look at Chic album credits, we never specify what song anyone plays on, and that is because Bernard and I wanted everybody to go out and be successful. We used to say to them ‘Look, if no one knows what you did, but they know that you’re on it in some way, I don’t care if you lie and tell people “Oh yeah, I did that song.”‘ We used to tell them to do that all the time, and they did. Like with David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, no one knows what songs Tony Thompson played on because I never put that in the credits. They say ‘Drums: Omar Hakim and Tony Thompson.’ So, when you see the video and you think ‘Oh, that’s Tony playing on ‘Modern Love’,’ I go ‘No, that’s Omar Hakim playing on ‘Modern Love’. Tony Thompson is playing in the video because he was on tour with Bowie.’ So, we did that purposely and I still do that to this day. I just want it to be a sort of communal effort. And I admit that I love looking at credits and saying ‘Oh shit, that’s who played bass on that song,’ but with Chic it’s more about the collective organisation, it’s not about who played what on what.
Nile Rodgers
Sound On Sound, April 2005

Bernard Edwards, meanwhile, was brought in only to play on ‘Without You’, the part for which bassist Carmine Rojas was struggling with.

Prior to that session, I had bet David that Nard would finish the song in fifteen minutes. He did it in thirteen. I was never more proud of him in my life, and it happened on the last day of basic recording. David shrugged his shoulders in approval and disbelief, and I thought to myself: ‘Chic Organization. That’s how we do it! One take, fifteen minutes. These rhythm tracks are done.’

Bernard quietly packed up his bass and walked out. He was pissed off that I hadn’t called him for the rest of the album, but he knew that I was proud to show off his genius. David was so impressed with my guys that he took almost everyone, including the background singers, the Simms Brothers, on the Serious Moonlight tour that followed.

Nile Rodgers
Le Freak