The Commodores

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The Commodores

R&B/Pop group

For the Record

Went Pro

Became Pop Superstars

Bottom Line Began to Drop

Continued After Several Departures

Selected discography


Throughout the 1970s, the six-member Commodores grew into one of the biggest selling acts of all time. Breaking on to the scene with the album Machine Gun in 1974, the Commodores established a style of heavy funk, then moved on to score with a string of ballads. Although the bands members shared in songwriting duties, singer Lionel Richie was singled out into the limelight, so much so that he left the band in 1982. While Richies subsequent solo career soared, a new incarnation of the Commodores that included vocalist J.D. Nicholas continued to make albums of lesser stature that veered increasingly toward a middle of the road style.

The Commodores story began in 1968 on the campus of the Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama when business majors William King, Thomas McClary, and Lionel Richie banded together as the Mighty Mystics because, as Richie later told Rolling Stones Steve Pond, the best way to get girls was to play every party on campus. The trio featured King on trumpet, McClary on guitar, and Richie taking up vocal duties, and were soon joined by

For the Record

Members include William King, Jr., (born January 29, 1949, in Alabama), horns; Ronald LaPread (born 1950, in Alabama, left group in 1986), bass, trumpet; Thomas McClary (born 1950 in Mississippi, left group in 1983), guitar; James Dean J.D. Nicholas, (born April 11, 1952, in Paddington, England), vocals; Walter Clyde Orange, (born December 9, 1946, in Florida.), drums, vocals; Lionel Richie (born 1950, in Tuskeegee, AL, left group in 1982), vocals and piano; Milan Williams (born 1949, in Mississippi, left group in 1988), keyboards, trombone, guitar.

Band formed in 1968 by Richie, King, and McClary at the Tuskeegee Institute, in Alabama; took on manager Benny Ashburn, later to be called the seventh Commodore, 1968; signed with Motown and became opening act for the Jackson 5, 1971; released debut album Machine Gun, 1974; released Commodores, which featured several of the groups biggest hit singles, 1977; appeared in the disco film Thank God Its Friday, 1978; Richie departed for a successful solo career, 1982; released single and album Nightshift with new singer Nicholas, their last for Motown, 1985; signed to Polydor 1986; released United, 1986; released Rock Sollid, 1988; launched Commodore Records, 1992; released Commodores Hits (Vols. 1 & 2), 1992; released Commodores XX No Tricks, 1993; Motown released definitive Commodores retrospective Ultimate Collection, 1997.

Awards: named best R&B Group in both Rolling Stones critics and readers polls, 1978; named act of the year by Performance magazine, 1978; Grammy Award for Best R&B Song by a Group for Nightshift, 1985.

Address: Record Company Motown Records, 5750 Wilshire Blvd. #300, Los Angeles, CA 90036

keyboard player Milan Williams after his band, The Jays, dissolved. After randomly flipping through a dictionary, the four some decided to dub themselves the Commodores, and adopted two more members, bassist Ronald LaPread and drummer Walter Clyde Orange. For over a decade, this lineup would not change.

Went Pro

Although Orange alone was a music major, all of the Commodores boasted rich musical backgrounds, as well as exposure to a wide variety of styles, as most of the sextet had relatives who were band leaders, composers, or performers. Richie, for example, had a grandmother who was a classical music teacher and an uncle who had arranged for the legendary big band leader Duke Ellington. Their earliest performances and recordings may have belied a similarity with upbeat funk acts like Sly and the Family Stone, but their appetite for a wide palette of sounds would soon lead them to form their own sound. People always want to tag us by citing [R&B stars] James Brown and the Temptations as our main influences, Richie later told High Fidelitys Stephen X. Rea. But we also grew up in a pop environment. We listened to [rock acts like] the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, [country singers] Glen Campbell and Merle Haggard as much as we listened to Brown.

The group continued to play an often exhausting number of shows, squeezed into their class schedule, and began to expand their touring orbit beyond Tuskeegee. After packing their equipment into a van and trekking to New York City, the Commodores managed to slate a gig at the nightclub Smalls Paradise. Although the groups instruments were stolen shortly after pulling into the city, the Commodores managed to buy back the hijacked equipment and deliver a show that impressed audience member and talent agent Benny Ashburn. Ashburn immediately became the Commodores manager, and remained in that position until his death in the early 1982.

Guided by Ashburn, the sextet capitalized on their own considerable business savvy and organized the Commodores into a no-nonsense corporation, complete with conduct guidelines and mission statements. The bands members prided themselves in their professional, drugfree behavior and aimed their sights at surpassing the success of the Beatles, one of the biggest selling pop group ever. After an impressive European tour in 1970 and a forgettable debut single was released for Atlantic Records, the Commodores signed with the Motown label in 1971 but refused to adopt the companys slick mode of packaging their acts and use of studio musicians. We were different and Motown didnt know what to do with us, LaPread told Billboard. We didnt fit the standard way of doing things and wed started to write our own songs. When we met up with producer James Carmichael, things changed. Carmichael was won over by the Commodores uncompromising attitude, and like Ashburn, continued to collaborate with the group for the next decade.

Became Pop Superstars

It took three years of finagling before the Commodores were able to release their debut album Machine Gun, but in the interim they continued to make a name for themselves on stage, often as the opening act for Motown label mates the Jackson 5. However, if the Commodores had taken their time getting started, success quickly caught up with them. Machine Guns title cut, a bass-fueled funk workout written by Williams, became a Top 30 single and the album itself went gold shortly thereafter. After more touring with acts like the Rolling Stones and the OJays, the Commodores were able to draw crowds on their own merits and found their name topping the marquis of increasingly larger venues.

For the next two albums, Caught In The Act and Movin On, the Commodores stuck with their aggressive funk sound, which helped lay the foundation for the emerging trend of disco dance music. With all six members sharing the writing duties, the group produced a number of hits, such as Slippery When Wet in 1975 and Brick House, released 1977,. However, by 1977 the group began having immense luck with ballads written and sung by Richie. Aside from their lack of dance appeal, songs like Easy, written in 1977, showed Richies graceful blending of country flourishes with R&B, and he rapidly became identified by the public as the center of the Commodores.

By the late 1970s, the Commodores had become veritable superstars, with each of their albums having sold anywhere from gold to triple platinum status. Much of this success continued to be credited to Richies love songs, with tunes like the number one A Three Times A Lady inciting other performers to seek Richies services. Returning a favor to one of his influences, Richie penned the immensely popular ballad Lady for country singer Kenny Rogers, who also tapped Richie to produce his album Share Your Love in 1980. In addition to Richies allure, the Commodores benefited from their ever-keen business sense. Creating the umbrella corporation Commodore Entertainment, the group had turned a college party band into a multi-million dollar empire. I think of these guys more as businessmen than musicians, Richie confessed to Rea. Were always thinking of the bottom line.

Bottom Line Began to Drop

As the next decade began, the Commodores phenomenal success took a sharp dive, and for some critics, their growing corporate identity was to blame. For critics like Rolling Stones Stephen Holden, the emotion and energy of the groups earlier work had faded into albums like Heroes, released in 1980, which offered bland material intended to appeal to the widest demographics. Although Heroes was in fact the first message album to be released by the Commodores, Holden found the record to be full of unconvincing platitudes, as well as sloppy songwriting. The title tunewhich solemnly informs us that we are the heroes were searching for in an unheroic ageis a pep talk that takes itself so seriously that it depresses more than it uplifts. Holden went on to say, Wake Up Children utilizes simplistic nursery rhymes about pollution and the fate of man in a genteel pop-funk idiom that has no bite.

If Heroes was a relative disappointment overall, the release of In the Pocket put the group temporarily back on track, producing two top ten singles, such as the memorable Lady (You Bring Me Up). Still, the band could not shake off claims of overly commercial, adult contemporary banality from some critics. [T]he Commodores In The Pocket exhibits some of the worst traits of current MOR (middle of the road) R&B: most depressingly, the tiresome me-man, you-lady condescension of the love songs and a lust for upward mobility expressed in the distressing visual pun on the album coverthe Commodores logo sewn onto the right hip pockets of the band members designer jeans. Nevertheless, the Commodores were still given a vote of confidence from record buyers.

Continued After Several Departures

After In The Pocket, the Commodores suffered a series of heavy losses. In 1982, longtime manager Ashburn died of a heart attack, and shortly thereafter Richie left to pursue a solo career. McClary left the following year, to be replaced by singer James Dean J.D Nicholas, but the groups stability was affected nonetheless. After the disappointing Commodores 13 was issued in 1983, producer Carmichael also fled the Commodores camp and the group waited a full two years before releasing their next record.

The album Nightshift, released in 1985, marked a relative comeback for the Commodores, if only on the strength of its title cut, a stirring lament over Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye, two R&B singers whose lives had been cut tragically short. The song was a major hit, winning Grammy Award, and winning over even the most hardened critics. As Mark Moses wrote in High Fidelity, [w]hats distinctive about Nightshift is that this tribute doesnt simply rest on sentimentality: Its arrangements may coo softly, but its percussion ticks with relentless syncopations, its bass relishes long ominous slides. Still, many writers found the rest of Nightshift to be little more than filler material, as did Rolling Stone s J.D. Considine. That the remainder of the album fails to measure up to [the title songs] standard comes as no surprise. Because the Commodores have been unable either to resurrect the hard funk of their earliest hits or the sort of MOR ballads Lionel Richie once provided, the band continues to sound unsure of its musical direction and ends up wallowing in mediocrity.

As Richie grew to become one of the hallmarks of 1980s pop music with albums like the Grammy winning Cant Slow Down, the Commodores all but disappeared from mainstream eyes. By the latter half of the decade, the group was stripped down to a trio, with LaPread and Williams having retired to their families. After releasing the albums United and Rock Solid for Polydor, the enterprising Commodores once again showed their business know-how when they christened their own label in 1992. While the group did release an album of new material in 1993, Commodores XXNo Tricks, the trio primarily rested on the success of their past hits. With two greatest hits compilations released on Commodores Records, the group digitally re-recorded their standards, with Orange and Nicholas singing many tunes originally delivered by Richie. The trio also continued to perform live at state fairs and on nostalgia tours, and in 1998 celebrated what few pop acts can boastthirtieth anniversary.

Selected discography

Machine Gun, Motown, 1974.

Caught In The Act, Motown, 1975.

Movin On, Motown, 1975.

Hot On The Tracks, Motown, 1976.

Live, Motown, 1977.

Natural High, Motown, 1978.

Greatest Hits, Motown, 1978.

Midnight Magic, Motown, 1979.

Heroes, Motown, 1980.

In The Pocket, Motown, 1981.

Nightshift, Motown, 1985.

All The Great Love Songs, Motown, 1985.

Rock Solid, Polydor, 1988.

Commodores XXNo Tricks, Commodore Records, 1993.

Ultimate Collection, Motown, 1997.


Billboard, January 19, 1980; May 24, 1980; July 8, 1989; September 5, 1992.

Gramophone, September 1976.

High Fidelity, April 1980; August 1985.

Rolling Stone, August 21, 1980; September 18, 1980; October 1, 1981; June 20, 1985.

Village Voice, September 17, 1980; September 16, 1981.

Shaun Frentner

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The Commodores

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