|The story of
the Commodores began in 1967, when Lionel Richie met Thomas McClary in the registration
line at The Tuskegee Institute. Richie played sax, McClary was a guitarist and together
they formed The Mystics, a group that also included William King on trumpet. Their worst
rivals were The Jays, another school-band, from where keyboardist Milan Williams was
drafted when The Jays disbanded. A new name for the group was needed and during a
rehearsal, William King was blindfolded and selected the word "commodore" at
random from a dictionary.
Commodores now comprised seven members: Lionel Richie (sax), Thomas McClary (guitar),
William King (trumpet), Milan Williams (keyboards), Jimmy Johnson (sax), Michael Gilbert
(bass & lead vocals) and Andre Callaghan (drums). As the Commodores' reputation spread
around their home town and nearby Montgomery, The Tuskegee Institute sent them to perform
at a benefit talent-show in New York. There, they were spotted by Benjamin
"Benny" Ashburn, a Harlem-native with a background in public relations. Ashburn,
who at the time worked as a representative for a liquor wholesaler, was a shrewd
businessman. He didn't make any offers, but let the Tuskegee boys know that he saw a great
potential in them. About a year later, The Commodes returned to New York. After struggling
hard while trying to make it on their own, they turned to Ashburn for guidance and he took
them under his wings. The Commodores signed a management contract with Ashburn and he
booked them on every club and showcase he could. Ashburn became the Commodores' mentor,
manager and friend and was to play an integral part in the great future that awaited the
Benny Ashburn arranged an audition for
Atlantic Records in 1969 and there, the Commodores recorded an album's worth of material
from which Atlantic released the Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams-produced single
"Keep On Dancing". It's an irresistible, catchy song and had been a huge R&B
hit for Alvin Cash the previous year. The "Swamp Dogg" Williams-penned B-side,
"Rise Up", sounds very similar to The Bar-Kays' "Soul Finger". The
tapes from those early sessions have re-surfaced -at least in Europe- and are available on
CD from various small labels. It mainly consists of cover versions, such as Sly & The
Family Stone's "Sing A Simple Song", Intruders' "Cowboys To Girls",
Temptations' "I Know I'm Losing You" and Johnny Taylor's "Who's Making
Later that year, Jimmy Johnson, Michael
Gilbert and Andre Callaghan left the Commodores (two were drafted for the Vietnam war, the
third left because he didn't think the group could make it). The trio was replaced by
bassist Ronald La Pread from Tuskegee blues outfit The Corvettes and Walter
"Clyde" Orange who had his own band, The J-Notes. Orange both played drums and
sang lead, a duty he continued in the Commodores. Lionel Richie was too shy and was more
than happy to just blow his sax and sing back-up.
At show at an attorney's convention,
set up by Ashburn, the Commodores made such an impression on Motown executive Suzanne
DePasse that she hired the Commodores to be the warm-up band for The Jackson Five on a
world wide tour. That tour eventually lasted nearly three years and gave the Commodores
stage experience, or rather arena experience. But what they really wanted was a record
contract and in 1972, the Commodores were signed to MoWest, Motown's new subsidiary,
started after the labels' move from Detroit to Los Angeles. Little did Motown know that
they'd just got their hands on what would be one of their biggest act of the Seventies.
naturally wanted to be self-contained, write and produce their own material, but Motown's
policy for all newcomers was to set them to work with company staff. The Commodores
weren't exactly considered a priority and were therefor tossed around between Hal Davis,
Willie Hutch, Norman Whitfield and Jeffrey Bowen. In addition, the new arrivals discovered
that it was hard to get studio time, as the recording facilities were constantly occupied
by Motown's big names, like The Four Tops, Jackson Five, The Supremes or Gladys Knight.
But this was a period of change for Motown and soon several of the label's key artists
departed. The Commodores were handed to Pam Sawyer and Gloria Jones who wrote and produced
their debut single on MoWest "The Zoo (The Human Zoo)", released in March 1972.
It failed to chart and so did their second MoWest single, "Don't You Be Worried"
(backed with the funky "Determination", produced by Willie Hutch). The
Commodores' first single on the "real" Motown label was "Are You
Happy". It was also the first song where Lionel Richie handled the lead vocals all by
himself. The record passed unnoticed, but Milan Williams' frenetic, synthesizer-laden
instrumental "Machine Gun", issued in April 1974, became a huge hit, landing at
#7 R&B and #22 Pop, even charting at #20 in the U.K. That particular track was
produced by James Anthony Carmichael, who from this point on became the Commodores'
permanent producer. Carmichael worked with the Commodores on every album that followed,
until he chose to go with Lionel Richie, when he opted for a solo career in 1982. The
Commodores' debut album, also entitled "Machine Gun", went into the top one
hundred and sold gold in Japan and the Philippines, countries where the Tuskegee group had
toured with The Jackson Five.
The second single to chart
from "Machine Gun" was a typical, bottom-heavy, Jeffrey Bowen production called
"I Feel Sanctified" (from which Bowen borrowed a substantial part for The
Temptations' "Happy People"). It reached #12 on the U.S. R&B chart in
October 1974. The Commodores then spent the next two years touring the United States and
opened for The Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder. In April 1975, they released their first
number one R&B hit "Slippery When Wet", taken from their sophomore album,
"Caught In The Act". The Commodores were by now rightfully established as one of
the funkiest bands in the land, but felt that in order to reach a bigger and more diverse
audience, they'd have to try something new. And their next effort was indeed very
different from its funky predecessors. For the first time, a Lionel Richie penned ballad
was chosen as the single. "This Is Your Life" (August, 1975) climbed to R&B
#13, but it was with Lionel's "Sweet Love" (from "Movin' On" 1975),
that the Commodores found their winning formula. The single shot to R&B #2 and Pop #5
and the mellow follow-up "Just To Be Close To You", taken from the Commodore's
first platinum-seller "Hot On The Tracks (1976), repeated the success. For the second
single from that LP, the Commodores returned to the funk and it's obvious that The Ohio
Players served as the inspiration for Richie and Ronald LaPread when they wrote
That same year, 1976, the
Commodores supported the O'Jays on a huge, 42-city American tour. It's been said that the
Alabama youngsters virtually stole the show and from here, the Commodores no longer were a
warm-up band, but the headline act. In 1977, they headlined their own American tour,
giving 85 concerts in some 72 cities and embarked on their first, own world tour. It
coincided with the March-release of their "Commodores" LP (re-named
"Zoom" in the U.K.). The concerts were allegedly highly spectacular, with lots
of audience participation, smoke and cannon-fired confetti. Sadly, the tour was cut short,
due to the tragic death of bassist Ronald LaPread's wife Kathy, who succumbed to cancer in
Every band member
contributed to the albums, but Lionel Richie - who by now was the group's primary lead
vocalist- was responsible for writing the majority of the singles. However, the Commodores
returned to their funky roots after Lionel's country-flavored ballad and mega-hit
"Easy". On "Brick House", Walter "Clyde" Orange -who had
handled both the skins and the lead vocals during the group's beginnings- did his thang.
"Brick House" came out in August, 1977 and got to R&B #4 and Pop #5.
"Clyde" was also the lead vocalist on the uptempo stomper "Too Hot Ta
Trot", (R&B #1, Pop #24 1977). That track was later edited and included on the
soundtrack to the 1978 disco-movie "Thank God It's Friday", where the Commodores
co-starred with Donna Summer.
full (studio) version of "Too Hot Ta Trot" was issued on "Commodores
Live", recorded during the massive 1977 U.S. coast-to coast tour. This double album,
issued in October 1977, is arguably one of the finest live albums ever made and has left a
powerful testament to the Commodores' unique showmanship. Thankfully, it's available on
May 1978 saw the release of the
Commodores' fifth album, "Natural High", which sold platinum and spawned their
largest cross-over hit. "Three Times A Lady", written by Lionel Richie, rose to
#1 on both the R&B and Pop charts in June 1978 and became Motown's biggest single
ever. "Flying High", (R&B #21, Pop #38) released in August 1978, was the
second single from "Natural High". It was followed by a "Greatest
In 1979, "Three Times A Lady"
gave the Commodores several international awards, plus the Peoples Choice Award for
"Best Song" and the American Music Awards for "Most Popular Single".
That same year, the Commodores released the "Midnight Magic" album, which did
extremely well in Britain. The hit singles, emanating from Lionel Richie's pen, continued
with the 1979 singles "Sail On" (R&B # 8, Pop #4) and "Still",
which simultaneously topped both the R&B and Pop charts in the U.S.. Milan Williams
wrote the third single "Wonderland" (R&B #21, Pop #25). Also in 1979,
bassist Ronald LaPread (together with Harold Hudson from the Commodores' back-up band The
Mean Machine) produced, wrote and arranged the entire side B of fellow Tuskegee,
Alabama-based 7th Wonder's "Climbing Higher" album. It was time to cross the
Atlantic again. The Commodores performed at the Saarbrücken Festival in Germany, which
was the starting-shot for their second European tour. They were greeted with open arms and
sold out houses virtually everywhere they went.
In 1980, the
Commodores were voted "Favorite Soul Group" at the American Music Awards and won
the Peoples Choice Award for "Best Song" with "Still". Surprisingly
enough, the highly spiritual "Heroes", the Commodores' tenth LP, released the
same year, was a poor seller in the U.K., at least compared to their previous albums, but
went platinum in the United States. The singles "Old-Fashion Love" (R&B #8,
Pop #20) and the title track "Heroes" (R&B #27, Pop #54) were obviously
hits, but not big enough to end the malicious media speculations about the Commodores'
heydays being over. The third single "Jesus Is Love" only made it to a
disappointing R&B #34.
By now, Lionel Richie was of course a
much sought-after songwriter, but had resisted all outside requests until Kenny Rogers
approached him. Richie wrote "Lady" for the country star, which became a top ten
hit, sold sixteen million copies and earned Richie several prestigious awards. It's been
suggested that the other members of the Commodores weren't too happy about the situation,
since the song had originally been written for them and they desperately needed a hit.
Rumors that Lionel Richie was leaving the group were naturally fueled by all of this, but
in every interview, Richie was persistently denying having any such plans.