while working on what would become the Commodores' third U.S. platinum seller; "In
The Pocket", Richie wrote, produced and duetted with Diana Ross on "Endless
Love", the Academy nominated theme song from the movie of the same name (which,
hardly to anyone's surprise, also went platinum). Once again, rumors of Richie departing
the Commodores spread like wild fire. Officially Lionel said he wasn't, but behind the
scenes he was growing increasingly tired of not having free hands to record and write
outside of the group. Three singles were issued from "In The Pocket": "Lady
You Bring Me Up" (R&B #5, Pop #8), "Oh, No" (R&B #5, Pop #4) and
"Why You Wanna Try Me" (R&B # 42, Pop #66). 1981 was also the year that
Lionel Richie became the first artist in American history to simultaneously appear in the
top ten as a composer, performer and/or producer of three different records: "Endless
Love", Kenny Rogers' "I Don't Need You (which Lionel produced) and the
Commodores' "Lady, You Bring Me Up".
In 1982, although officially still a
member of the Commodores, Lionel released his debut single as a solo artist.
"Truly", which was produced by James Anthony Carmichael. It sky-rocketed to the
top of the U.S. charts, presented Lionel with his first Grammy for "Best Pop Male
Vocal Performance" and an array of other awards. The eponymous LP sold some four
million copies and became Motown's third biggest selling album.
On August 17, 1982, the Commodores'
long-time manager and dear friend Benjamin Ashburn died from a heart attack. Shortly
thereafter, Lionel publicly announced his departure from the Commodores. This was
naturally a terrible blow to the group, but they decided to continue, realizing it was
what Benny - who had been the first to believe in the Commodores- would have wished.
Richie followed up the success of "Truly" with "You Are" which shot to
R&B #2 and Pop #4. A third single, "My Love", reached R&B #6 and Pop #5
in April 1983. Lionel was on his way to super-stardom. Meanwhile, the Commodores released
"All The Great Hits", which in addition to the familiar classics contained two
new tracks. The lead vocals on the first Richie-less single "Painted Picture",
were handled by co-writer Harold Hudson, who was a member of The Mean Machine, the
Commodores' back-up horn and keyboard section on live performances. "Painted
Picture" was issued in late 1982 and made it to #19 on the American R&B charts.
The follow-up "Reach High" came out in January 1983 and there's a little mystery
attached to it. According to A. Scott Galloway's liner notes to the double-CD set
"The Best of the Commodores" (Motown, 1995) "Reach High" was sung by
Kevin Smith, who hailed from Montgomery, Alabama and had been chosen to replace Lionel
Richie during an audition held in Atlanta. However, Jeffrey Singleton, a vocalist and
songwriter from Montgomery, Alabama, sent an intriguing E-Mail to this author in July '97,
where he explained that he in fact sang on "Reach High", not Kevin Smith.
Jeffrey, who co-penned the Reddings last hit "Call The Law", shared that both he
and Smith were auditioned at Web 4 Studios in Atlanta to compete for the part and recalls
learning the song "in the parking lot in Clyde's Winnebago, right before I had to
audition". Whereas Kevin Smith (who came from Los Angeles, not Alabama) was a
seasoned pro that had sung in the Broadway musical "Dreamgirls", Jeffrey had at
the time not done "anything bigger than nightclubs around Alabama". Not only
does Jeffrey claim to be the lead singer on "Reach High", he also says he was
given a contract to replace Richie, but for various reasons, this would be his only
recording with the group. Surprisingly, the funky and bubbly single (which happens to be
one of my favorite post-Richie recordings) didn't chart, but was used as the theme song to
the short-lived NBC sitcom "Teachers Only", starring Tim Reid and Lynn Redgrave.
"13" landed on the shelves in
late September, 1983. The album were, like the two previous singles, produced by the
Commodores themselves, as James Anthony Carmichael now worked with Lionel Richie. The lead
vocals were shared between Walter "Clyde" Orange- who sang on the single
"Only You" (R&B #20, Pop #54)- and Harold Hudson, but guitarist Thomas
McClary proved that he had a good voice too. McClary sang lead on his "Ooo Woman
You". McClary also began writing and producing independently and worked with Klique
and Michael Henderson. Before 1983 closed, the Commodores released a second forty-five,
"Turn Off The Lights", which seems to have failed to chart in the U.S..
Lionel Richie's sophomore
album "Can't Slow Down" was issued in October 1983. The single "All Night
Long (All Night)" not only shot to the top of the U.S. charts, but held that position
in eighteen countries, except in Britain where it landed at #2. Further singles pulled
from "Can't Slow Down": "Running With The Night", "Hello",
"Stuck On You" and "Penny Lover" were all top ten international hits.
"Hello" sold a staggering eight hundred thousand copies in the U.K. and the
album sold well over four million copies within the first ten weeks of release (ten
million copies in America alone). The total sum was 15 million units worldwide! It's been
estimated that "Can't Slow Down" can be found in one in every fifteen British
(and one in every ten Canadian) homes. It is the biggest album in Motown' s history.
Lionel topped both the American album and singles chart at the same time, an achievement
only Michael Jackson had enjoyed before him. Lionel now embarked on his fist solo tour,
with the Pointer Sisters as his support. In November 1983, the plane that Lionel and his
entourage traveled in, nearly crashed in Arizona. The party was heading for a concert in
Tucson, when the plane's wheels collapsed. The first media reports suggested that Lionel
had died in the crash. His reply was "I'm ten times more famous since being assumed
In 1984, Lionel wrote "Missing You" for Diana Ross which was a tribute to the
late Marvin Gaye. The record was an American number one R&B and top ten pop hit. On
the 12th of August, Lionel performed the Olympics in Los Angeles, an event watched by some
two point six billion people (!).
In the Commodores' camp,
further personnel changes were taking place. In August 1984, guitarist McClary followed
Lionel Richie's example and opted for a solo career. McClary recorded a self-titled album
on Motown, from where the singles "Thin Walls" and "Man In The Middle"
were drawn. (Lionel Richie sang background vocals on the first-mentioned, which also was
the only single to chart). J.D. (James Dean) Nicholas, who replaced Johnny Wilder in
Heatwave, met the Commodores during a taping of the American TV show "Soul
Train". Nicholas came on board on what looked like a sinking ship, but in late 1985,
the Commodores proved beyond a doubt that they still had what it takes to write a hit
record. "Nightshift" was produced by Dennis Lambert (the man responsible for
ex-Temp's Dennis Edwards' smash "Don't Look Any Further") and was to be the
final Commodores' LP to sell gold in the United States (at least to date). The microphone
was shared on the title track -by Orange and Nicholas- and the single raced to number one
R&B and three on the Pop charts. Just as the group collected their first and only
Grammy award for "Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group", they announced
their departure from Motown and signed with PolyGram. Motown was quick to issue two more
singles, "Janet" and "Animal Instinct", but both failed to reach the
upper echelons of the charts.
In 1985, Lionel Richie and
Michael Jackson wrote "We Are The World" for the USA for Africa project, where
46 major artists united to help the suffering people of Africa and The United States. The
single was a number one hit and sold more than two million copies. On July 13, Lionel
performed the track at the Live Aid gala. The theme song from the "White Nights"
movie, "Say You Say Me" was Lionel's first own single that year. Released in
October, it became his ninth, consecutive, self-penned number one hit (beating The Rolling
Stones by one, a group that has been making records approximately twice as long as
Lionel). This is an achievement only matched by Irving Berling. Lionel won a host of
honors, including a Grammy for "Album Of The Year" and "Award Producer Of
The Year", plus six American Music Awards, ASCAP "writer of The Year",
ASCAP "Publisher Of The Year", The Golden Globe Award "Best Song" and
The Tuskegee Institute Honorary Doctor of Music Degree. He was also Academy nominated for
"Miss Celie's Blues (Sister)", which Lionel co-wrote with Quincy Jones and Rod
Temperton for Steven Spielberg's movie "The Color Purple".
In June 1986, Lionel delivered his long
overdue "Dancing On the Ceiling" single and album."Love Will Conquer
All" was the second, chart topping single. After "Ballerina Girl", issued
in November, Lionel embarked upon a Pepsi Cola-sponsored American tour. His support was
Sheila E and the show was titled "Lionel Richie's Outrageous Tour". The staging
was highly spectacular, with ten feet high modular hydraulic units that moved around
during the performance. Add some twenty tons of equipment: one hundred and fifty
computerized swiveling lights, six hundred stationery lights and to top it off, a
The humorous "Goin' To
The Bank"¨ was the Commodores' first effort on PolyGram. It did much better than the
last Motown singles and landed comfortably at number two on R&B charts in September
1986. Once again, the Commodores headed for Europe to back up the single and the
subsequent album, entitled "United". The LP was an, at least temporary, reunion
with James Anthony Carmichael, who co-produced "Talk To Me" with William King
and "I Wanna Rock You" with Milan Williams. The follow-up single "Take It
From Me" struggled to R&B #38 in January 1987. The group was dissatisfied with
the way PolyGram handled them and blamed the wavering sales on poor interest in marketing
on the labels' account.
In March, 1987, Lionel Richie released
"Sela", before taking his elaborate show to the U.K.. He performed at the
Birmingham NEC, and the Wembley Arena. The first Wembley performance took place in April
1987 and was an event that is still talked about. A second date was added on May, 6 in aid
of the Prince's Trust, attended by the Prince and Princess of Wales.
After "Dancing On The
Ceiling", Lionel didn't record a new album until "Back To Front", a
"greatest hits" CD with three new tracks, which was
released in 1992. The single "Do It To Me" was a #1 R&B hit (#21 Pop) in the
States. The follow-up "My Destiny" charted at R&B #56, but never entered the
Pop charts. In the U.K., the situation was reversed, as "Do It To Me" landed at
a modest #33, whereas "My Destiny" was a top ten hit. "Back To Front"
sold 9 million copies worldwide and platinum in the U.S. A third single, "Love, Oh
Love", was released in November, 1992 and made it to #52 in Britain. For some reason,
none of the new songs that had been recorded for the set were produced by Richie's
brother-in-arms James Anthony Carmichael, but by Stewart Levine, who had previously worked
with Womack & Womack, among others. "Back To Front" was to be the last album
Lionel recorded for Motown.
The death of his father, a divorce and
the loss of a friend to AIDS, brought on a four year period of silence, but in 1996 Lionel
re-surfaced with "Louder Than Words" on Mercury Records. The majority of the
album was produced by Lionel and James Anthony Carmichael. Lionel also worked with Jam
& Lewis (on three tracks) and with David Foster. The first single was the Jam &
Lewis collaboration "Don't Wanna Lose You". A meeting between two great writers
took place when Babyface and Lionel teamed up and wrote the second single "Ordinary
Girl". A third and final single, the Carmichael-produced "Still In Love",
was issued in late October 1996. March 1998 saw the release of a greatest hits set
on Motown entitled "Truly-The Love Songs". In the summer of 1998, Lionel
released a new album entitled "Time".
After the Commodores' debut on PolyGram
"United", released in 1986, Ronald LaPread found a new wife and moved to
Auckland, New Zealand. Now down to four members, the Commodores went back to Europe to
tour in 1988 and PolyGram released "Grrrip", a single lifted from the "Rock
Solid"album. A British company used "Easy" in a commercial, which
temporarily boosted the public's interest in the Commodores. Regrettably, the acclaim was
By August, 1988, the group was without
a record deal and the planned tour in South Africa was abandoned when the Commodores were
unable to get support from anti-apartheid organizations. Milan Williams chose to leave the
group. Discussions about retirement took place, before the remaining members Walter
"Clyde" Orange, William "Wak" King and J.D. Nicholas (and of course
The Mean Machine) decided that it wasn't time to call it quits just yet. After all, the
Commodores continued to pull crowds and played many a private parties, but the big venues
was a thing of the past. They released three more albums; "Commodores Hits
1&2" (a 2-CD with re-recorded Commodores' hits), "Commodores Christmas"
and "Commodores XX-No Tricks" on various labels and are reportedly still
gigging. There has been many rumors about a possible re-union concert and according to an
interview Lionel Richie gave this author in November 1996, it's a matter of formalities
and may very well happen within the next two years.