Known for such hits as "Just to Be Close to You," "Easy," and "Brickhouse," to name a few, the Commodores
were one of the top bands during their long tenure at Motown. The group
is credited with seven number one songs and a host of other Top Ten
numbers on the Billboard charts. They also have a vast music catalog
that has generated more than 50 albums, and the recordings continue to
be in demand.
The members of the Commodores, all of whom attended Tuskegee Institute
in Alabama, came together as a result of two groups disbanding: the
Mystics and the Jays. Initially formed to simply play music as a
pastime and to meet girls, the lineup consisted of William King (trumpet), Thomas McClary (guitar), Ronald LaPread (bass), Walter "Clyde" Orange (drums), Lionel Richie (saxophone), and Milan Williams
(keyboards). The members nearly went stir-crazy trying to pick a name
for the group, but to no avail. As a last resort, Orange gave King a
dictionary and told him to pick a name, and that name was the
Commodores. With the only learned musician in the group being Clyde
Orange, the Commodores began spreading their music throughout their
regional base, which included Tuskegee, Montgomery, and Birmingham, AL.
After experiencing success in securing dates in their own backyard, the
band ventured to New York City for a gig at the Smalls Paradise club.
They were told, in so many words by the club owner, that their sound
was not happening. However, a short time later the self-contained band
was called back to the club to fill-in for a last minute cancellation.
That night the Tuskegee alumni performed before a standing-room-only
crowd. Most of the crowd were friends and family of the band. Unaware
of the planned crowd, the owner booked the band for two more weeks.
The Commodores association with Motown was a result of the group
touring with the Jackson 5. That opportunity occurred in 1971 when the
group was told to be in New York City for an audition. The members did
not know the audition was for the Jackson 5 tour until two weeks later
when they were selected for the tour. They toured with the Jackson 5
for two-and-one-half years, and their presence on that tour ultimately
solidified a deal with Motown. Their first release on Motown was the
up-tempo instrumental dance cut "Machine Gun." Written by Milan
Williams, the song gave the group immediate attention with its Top Ten
outing (Billboard number seven, 15 weeks). That number was followed by
the Top 20 single "I Feel Sanctified," which lead to their third single
and first number one record in "Slippery When Wet." Inside of 17 weeks,
the Alabama-based septet was rocking the radio waves with their
Southern funk spiced with an animated vocal delivery, courtesy of
Lionel Richie and Clyde Orange.
In September of 1976, they released "Just to Be Close to You," their
second number one single and a number seven pop hit. The Top Ten hit
"Fancy Dancer" followed, and then came "Easy." Different from their
other tunes, "Easy" was very serene and not nearly as soulful or funky
as the band's other tunes. Nonetheless, it claimed the number one spot
on the charts, and it paved the way for the style of ballads the group
would later be known for. However, soul and funk was still very much
present in spite of the benevolent rhythms of "Easy." This was
demonstrated with the release of what would become the group's anthem,
"Brickhouse." The arrangement and candid vocal lead by Clyde Orange is
complemented by the evenly saturated percussive and rhythmic attack It
cracked the Top Ten at number four. The irony is that "Brickhouse" was
the last song recorded for the group's self-titled album. Two
consecutive number one singles would follow: the dance cut "Too Hot ta
Trot" and the placid number "Three Times a Lady." And then there was
"Still." The last number one for the group with Richie as a member.
In 1981, Richie recorded "Endless Love" with Diana Ross. The song
peaked at number one for seven and nine weeks respectively on the
Billboard R&B and pop charts. The success of the single was a
prelude to the success Richie would relish upon his exit from the
group, which occurred in 1982. But before his departure, the band had a
string of hits which included "Old Fashion Love," "Lady (You Bring Me
Up)," and "Oh No." However, the Commodores had many songs that were not
releases and never charted, but were and remain favorites among many.
The most notable being "Zoom." A simmering ballad in which Richie
patiently sails through the utopian lyric; truly an R&B classic. In
the absence of Richie, the group courted the talents of tenor J.D.
Nicholas (formerly of Heatwave) and would go on to release its biggest
hit. That occurred on January 15, 1985, when "Nightshift" was released.
Penned by Clyde Orange, the song pays to tribute to the late soul
singers Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson. Orange and Nicholas' co-lead the
nostalgic number which navigated its way to the top spot on the charts
and stayed there through four consecutive weeks; it also won the group
its only Grammy.
The Commodores left Motown in 1985. The group's split with label was a
matter of principle, which the group could not forsake. Motown gave a
commitment to releasing the group's album prior to Richie's solo
release. However, the label did not honor the commitment and proceeded
to release Richie's project. Consequently, the group signed with
Polydor in the same year and had another swing at the Top Ten with
"Goin' to the Bank" (Billboard R&B, number two, 20 weeks). Today
the band is reduced to a core of three, which includes Orange, King,
and Nicholas. The threesome are as active as ever performing around the
world; they are managing their own label, Commodore Records, and more
than anything else they're still having fun.
Craig Lytle, All Music Guide