Commodores, The

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Commodores, The

Commodores, The, R&B band with strong pop appeal and some of the biggest crossover hits of the 1970s and 1980s, formed, Tuskegee, Ala., 1967. membership:Lionel Richie, voc, kybd., sax. (b. Tuskegee Ala., c. 1950); Milan Williams, kybd., trmb., gtr. (b. Miss., c. 1949); Ronald LaPread, bs., trpt. (b. Ala., c. 1950); Walter Orange, drm. (b. Fia., Dec. 9, 1946); William King Jr., horns (b. Ala., Jan. 29, 1949); Thomas McClary, gtr. (b. Fia., c 1950).

The singing groups the Mighty Mystics and the Jays came together at the prestigious Tuskegee Inst. mostly for fun and to meet girls. They joined forces in 1967 and picked the name the Commodores out of a dictionary. They became local favorites, so much so that the school sent them to N.Y.C, to play a benefit concert at Town Hall. The publicist for the event was Benny Ashburn. When the band came back to N.Y. that summer, Ashburn set up some auditions for them and then became their manager. Using their business school acumen, they soon incorporated as Commodores Entertainment.

Ashburn booked the group on a cruise ship and around the south of France, mostly because heknew Ed Sullivan vacationed there. The band impressed Sullivan, but he was unable to use them on his family-oriented variety show. They also impressed Ahmet Ertegun, who signed them to Atlantic, but when their debut album failed to sell, they were dropped from the label.

A Motown executive caught their act and asked the group to audition as the opening act for one of their bands. The band turned out to be the Jackson 5. By passing the audition, they found themselves signed to Motown and off on the road for the next year and a half.

The Commodores finally released their Motown debut, Machine Gun, in 1974. The album only reached #138, though the title instrumental track climbed to #22. It was even more popular in Asia and Africa: Nigerian television and radio played the song after the national anthem when they signed off!

The band’s second album, Caught in the Act, reached #26 on the charts, powered by the #19 pop hit (and R&B chart topper) “Slippery When Wet.” The song’s success led the Rolling Stones to invite them to open their 1975 concert tour. They also managed to release Moviri On later in the year, another chart success, propelled by the Lionel Richie ballad “Sweet Love.”

Their next album, 1976’s Hot on the Tracks, continued their winning streak with another Richie ballad, the R&B chart topping, #7 ballad “Just to Be Close to You.” A year later, their fifth album, Commodores, rose to #3. It held two singles that represented the dual personality the group was developing. On the one hand, there was “Brick House,” a slab of funk as sweaty as anything Detroit ever produced. Then there were the ballads, like “Easy,” which hit #4 pop and topped the R&B charts. They followed that with another funky thang, “Too Hot to Trot,” another R&B chart topper that only reached 24 pop. It was clear that their crossover success was based on Richie’s gentler ballads.

After a live album, the band released Natural High in 1978, which sported another Richie ballad, the chart topping “Three Times a Lady.” The hit helped the album go platinum. In addition to all the other pop and R&B accolades, the song earned Richie a Country Songwriter Award from ASCAP. The next year, Midnight Magic, the group’s next original album (and, like the previous three, a #3 on the album chart), produced two more Richie ballads. “Sail On” hit #4, and before it could even slip out of the Top Ten, “Still” hit the charts. It reached #1.

In 1980 the band released the platinum Heroes. While the album only produced the #20 hit “Old-Fashion Love,” the group still had momentum. Richie took advantage of this to further his burgeoning solo career. He wrote the song “Lady” for Kenny Rogers, and it topped the charts for six weeks. He duetted with Diana Ross on the title track to the movie Endless Love. The song topped the charts as well. The Commodore’s momentum continued with 1981 ’s platinum In the Pocket. Although the record only hit #13, it produced the upbeat #8 single “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” and the ballad “Oh No.”

”Oh No” would prove to be Richie’s last hit for the Commodores. He left the band to record his own album and embark on a hugely successful solo career. Around the same time, Ashburn died of a heart attack. Rudderless, the band released another greatest hits record while trying to map out a new direction. Their next original album, Commodores 13, proved to be extremely unlucky, topping out at #103 in 1983.

Desperate to make a change, the group took on their first new member since leaving Tuskegee: English vocalist J. D. Nicholas, who had had his share of hits with the band Heatwave. His first song with the band was Orange’s tribute to recently deceased soul stars Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson. The tune, “Nightshirt,” hit #3, driving the album by the same name to #12, gold sales, and something the Commodores hadn’t achieved, even with Richie: a Grammy award for Best R&B Performance, Duo or Group, with Vocal. However, this hit proved to be a flash in the pan. Although the group continues to perform, they have not achieved their earlier level of success.


Machine Gun (1974); Caught in the Act (1975); Movin’ On (1975); Hot on the Tracks (1976); Commodores (1977); Live! (Motown; 1977); Zoom (1977); Natural High (1978); Midnight Magic (1979); Heroes (1980); In the Pocket (1981); Love Songs (1981); Commodores 13 (1983); Machine Gun/Movin’ On (1983); Nightshift (1985); There’s a Song in My Heart (1985); United (1986); Hot on the Tracks/In the Pocket (1987); Rise Up (1987); Rock Solid (1988); Solitaire (1988); Natural High/Midnight Magic (1991); No Tricks (1993); 3 Times a Lady (1993); Live (Polygram; 1998).

—Hank Bordowitz