Music producer Nile Rodgers said music industry legend, Diana Ross didn’t know I’m Coming Out was “a gay thing” in an interview with the New York Post.
Rodgers and his partner Bernard Edwards were contacted by Ms Ross in 1980 when the star wanted to turn her music “upside down” after her highly successful disco career.
“That was our very first time producing a star,” says Rodgers. “Not only was it a star, it was, like, the star.”
Rodgers and Edwards helped make that superstar even more successful with her classic Diana album – released 40 years ago on May 22, 1980 – which went on to become the best-selling LP of her career with hits such as Upside Down and the gay anthem I’m Coming Out. And perhaps more significantly, it set the template for all of the diva dance-pop that would come after that, from Madonna and Janet Jackson to Beyoncé.
It was a period of transition for Ross being the start of the post-disco era. “The disco era ended in the summer of ’79, and she came out the next year,” Rodgers told the New York Post. “So we had to make a record that wasn’t disco.”
Rodgers and his late partner, Edwards, had proven themselves to be disco dynamos, producing hits such as Le Freak and Good Times for their own group Chic, as well as Sister Sledge’s smash We Are Family. But now they had to show that they were more than just disco, with Ross wanting to court a younger audience. “She didn’t say, ‘Well I’m trying to make an album for the kids,’” says Rodgers. “But she knew that’s what we were doing.”
The second track on Diana, is I’m Coming Out, which Rodgers explained was inspired by Diana Ross impersonators he’d seen at a club in Manhattan.
“All of a sudden a lightbulb goes off in my head,” Rodgers said. “I had to go outside and call Bernard from a telephone booth. I said, ‘Bernard, please write down the words: ‘I’m coming out.’ And then I explained the situation to him.”
Ross immediately loved the song, connecting with the empowering lyrics: “The time has come for me to break out of this shell/I have to shout that I am coming out.”
“But she didn’t understand that that was a gay thing, that that was a person saying, ‘I’m coming out of the closet,’” says Rodgers. “She didn’t even get that.”
At least not until Ross played the song for influential WBLS DJ Frankie Crocker. “He thought that that would be Diana saying that she was gay,” says Rodgers. But Rodgers convinced the singer to stick with the song anyway, selling it as the perfect concert opener to make a regal entrance for the rest of her life. “I said, ‘Diana, this song is gonna be your coming-out song. We think of you as our black queen,’” he says. “And I even wrote a [horn] fanfare. I explained to her that it’s just like when the president comes out and they play ‘Hail to the Chief.’”