'I'm Coming Out': Nile Rodgers says he lied to Diana Ross about meaning of song as she thought it would end her
The disco-funk legend said that the song was originally vetoed by radio supremo Frankie Crocker, who told Ross that releasing the gay pride anthem could be career suicide
In a recent interview, the multi-platinum-selling singer-songwriter and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Nile Rodgers made a startling revelation about the Top 5 hit song 'I'm Coming Out,' which he had co-written for Diana Ross in 1980. The disco-funk legend revealed that he and his Chic bandmate Bernard Edwards had written the song, a long-celebrated gay pride anthem, as a statement of empowerment for the often marginalized LGTBQIA++ community.
Rodgers confessed that he had been inspired to write the Pride staple after seeing numerous Diana Ross impersonators at a Manhattan gay nightclub called the Gilded Grape and realized that the new song would definitely strike a chord with these fans. The beloved 67-year-old musician talked about his brainwave, revealing he said to himself — “'Wait a minute. If I write a song for Diana Ross and talk about a disenfranchised part of her fan base and sort of make it for them, this would be an important record.' This was something I hadn't thought about before, and here it was, right in front of my face."
He then convinced his Chic bandmate Bernard Summers to help him write the track — "I told him it would be like when James Brown wrote, 'Say it loud, I'm Black and I'm proud.' No one had particularly thought of James Brown as a leader in the Black Power movement, but when he wrote that song, that was one of the most powerfully political things that could have ever happened. So I said, 'No one thinks of Diana Ross necessarily on the frontlines of this, but [the gay] community and her [gay] fans love her and idolize her. Let's write this song for them!' And Bernard got it. It totally made sense to him."
However, once they wrote the song, which Diana Ross immediately fancied, they soon ran into some opposition courtesy of radio supremo Frankie Crocker, who was a radio DJ for WBLS in New York then. Rodgers said, "Diana loved it. We never delved into the meaning or why we wrote it — until she played it for Frankie Crocker, who had now become the No. 1 radio personality in the world. She left our studio floating on air, 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." Apparently Ross was not aware that "I'm coming out" could be taken as someone announcing their homosexuality. The lyrics go — "I'm coming out / I want the world to know / Got to let it show."
He then spoke about the aftermath of that shutdown, where Diana Ross tried to make sense of what had just happened. Rodgers revealed: "She came back to our studio crestfallen and heartbroken. Of course, what's really cool about Diana is that even when she's pissed off, she's still elegant. But she comes back and she says, 'Why are you guys trying to ruin my career?' And this was out of the clear blue sky — an hour or two before, she had been the happiest woman in the world! But we could see she was brokenhearted."
Both Chic bandmates immediately made their stance clear — "We said, 'Diana, come on now. If we really ruin your career, we're ruining our career! You're already Diana Ross. We’re just starting out. Why would we want to go down in history as the guys who ruined Diana Ross’s career? Do you think anyone's ever going to work with us again?'"
Apparently the misunderstanding stemmed from the fact that the song might be taken to be Ross's own personal coming out song. Rodgers admitted - "So she may have misconstrued the idea when Frankie Crocker told her what 'I'm coming out' meant — that she thought we were trying to imply that she was gay. Nothing of the sort. 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 that we were saying that she was coming out."
So Rodgers had to both pacify Ross and clarify his position with a little bending of the truth. He said he told her, "Diana, don't you say to your band, ‘Hey guys, what song are we going to 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 this is a promise — that I have ever lied to an artist."
He continued, "But later, I said to her, 'Diana, when you start your show, you will never ever come out with another song ever again, even though you've had so many hits. This is going to be the song that you come out to every night.' Well, have you ever seen a Diana Ross show in the last 35, 40 years? That’s what she does! Her concerts always start with 'I’m Coming Out.'"
Looks like this was a great example of all's well that ends well, because the song went on to be widely embraced by Diana Ross fans and the LGBTQIA++ community, staying in the Top 5 of the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart for two weeks in November 1980.