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Renowned for the R&B hits "Just to Be Close to You," "Easy," and "Brickhouse," to name but a few, 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 hits on the Billboard charts, and their vast catalog includes more than 50 albums.
The members of 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 with no success. As a last resort, Orange gave King a dictionary and told him to pick a name -- that name was the Commodores. With Clyde Orange the only learned musician in the group, Commodores began spreading their music throughout their base, which included Tuskegee, Montgomery, and Birmingham, AL.
After success securing dates in their own backyard, the band ventured to New York City for a gig at Smalls Paradise. Told, in so many words by the club owner, that their sound was not happening, the self-contained band was nevertheless 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 which were friends and family of the band. Unaware of the planned crowd, the owner booked the band for two more weeks.
Commodores' long association with Motown began as a result of a tour opening for the Jackson 5. That opportunity occurred in 1971, when the group auditioned in New York City for an unknown yet high-profile gig. Two weeks later, they made their first appearance in the prized support slot, and didn't give it up for more than two years. Their excellent shows naturally led to a deal with Motown, and they debuted with the up-tempo instrumental dance cut "Machine Gun." Written by Milan Williams, its Top Ten outing gave the group immediate attention. It was followed by the Top 20 single "I Feel Sanctified," which led to their third single -- and first number one record -- in "Slippery When Wet." Inside of 17 weeks, the septet was rocking the airwaves with their brand of 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 became known for. One exception to the ballad-heavy approach was "Brickhouse," the song that soon became the group's anthem. The arrangement and candid vocal lead by Clyde Orange was complemented by the evenly saturated percussive and rhythmic attack, and it cracked the Top Ten at number four. 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. Its success was a prelude to what Richie enjoyed upon his 1982 exit from the group.
In the absence of Richie, the group promptly courted tenor J.D. Nicholas (formerly of Heatwave) and ended up recording their biggest hit. Penned by Clyde Orange, "Nightshift" paid tribute to the late soul singers Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson. For four consecutive weeks it topped the charts, and it also won the group their only Grammy.
Commodores finally left Motown in 1985. Consequently, the group signed with Polydor the same year and had another swing at the Top Ten with "Goin' to the Bank." During the '90s, the band was reduced to a core of three: Orange, King, and Nicholas. The threesome were nearly as active as they'd ever been, performing around the world and managing their own label, Commodore Records.
The Commodores, an American funk/soul band, were at their peak in the 1970s. The members of the group met as mostly freshmen at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in 1968, and signed with Motown in November 1972, having first caught the public eye opening for The Jackson 5 while on tour.
The group's most successful period was in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Lionel Richie was lead singer and songwriter. The band's biggest hit singles are ballads such as "Easy", "Three Times a Lady", and "Nightshift"; and funky dance hits which include "Brick House", "Fancy Dancer", "Lady (You Bring Me Up)", and "Too Hot ta Trot".
The Commodores originally came together from two former groups, the Mystics and the Jays, but wanted to change the name. To choose a new name, William "WAK" King opened a dictionary and randomly picked a word. "We lucked out," he remarked with a laugh when telling this story to People magazine. "We almost became 'The Commodes!'"
"Machine Gun", the instrumental title track from the band's debut album, became a staple at American sporting events, and is similarly featured in many films, including Boogie Nights and Looking for Mr. Goodbar. It reached #22 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975. Another instrumental, "Cebu" (named after an island in the Philippines), later became a staple in the Quiet storm format. Three albums released in 1975 and 1976 (Caught in the Act, Movin' On, and Hot On The Tracks) are considered the peak of their harder funk period. After those recordings the group started to move towards a softer sound. That move was hinted at in their 1976 Top Ten hits "Sweet Love" and "Just to Be Close to You". In 1977 the Commodores released "Easy", which became the group's biggest hit yet, reaching #4 in the U.S., followed by "Brick House", also Top 5, both from their landmark album "The Commodores", as was "Zoom". The group reached #1 in 1978 with the sweet "Three Times a Lady". In 1979 the Commodores scored another Top Five ballad, "Sail On", before reaching the top of the charts once again with another ballad, "Still". In 1981 they released two Top Ten hits with "Oh No" (#4) and their first upbeat single in almost five years, "Lady (You Bring Me Up)" (#8).
The band originated while its members attended Tuskegee University in Alabama. After winning the university's annual freshman talent contest, they played at fraternity parties as well as a weekend gig at the Black Forest Inn, one of a few clubs in Tuskegee that catered to college students. They performed mostly cover tunes and some original songs with their first singer, James Ingram (not the famous solo artist). Ingram, older than the rest of the band, left to serve active duty in Vietnam, and was later replaced by Walter "Clyde" Orange, who would write or co-write many of their hit tunes. Lionel Richie and Orange alternated as lead singers. (Orange was the lead singer on the Top 10 hits "Brick House" and "Nightshift".)
The Commodores made a brief appearance in the 1978 film Thank God It's Friday. They performed the song "Too Hot ta Trot" during the dance contest; the songs "Brick House" and "Easy" were also played during the movie.
In 1982, Lionel Richie left to pursue a solo career. In 1983, Skyler Jett replaced Richie as co-lead singer.
Over time, several founding members left. Thomas McClary left in 1982 (shortly after Richie) to pursue a solo career and to develop a gospel music company. McClary was replaced by guitarist/vocalist Sheldon Reynolds. LaPread left in 1986 and moved to Auckland, New Zealand, and Reynolds departed for Earth, Wind & Fire in 1987, which prompted trumpeter William "WAK" King to take over primary guitar duties for live performances. Keyboardist Milan Williams exited the band in 1989. The group also gradually abandoned its funk roots and moved into the more commercial pop arena. In 1984 former Heatwave singer James Dean "J.D." Nicholas assumed co-lead vocal duties with drummer Walter Orange. The band remained hitless until 1985 when their final Motown album, "Nightshift", produced by Dennis Lambert---all prior albums were produced by James Anthony Carmichael)---delivered the Grammy Award-winning title track "Nightshift" (#3 in the U.S.) It was a tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson. In 2010 a new version was recorded dedicated to Michael Jackson. The Commodores were on their European Tour, performing at Wembley Arena, London on June 25, 2009, when they were advised that Michael Jackson had died. Initially the band thought it was a hoax. However, back in their dressing rooms they received confirmation and broke down in tears. The next night in Birmingham's NIA Arena, J.D. Nicholas added Jackson's name into the lyrics of the song, and thenceforth the Commodores have mentioned Jackson and other R&B singers. Thus came the inspiration upon the one year anniversary of Jackson's death, to re-record, with new lyrics, the hit song "Nightshift" as a tribute. "Nightshift" won The Commodores their first Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals in 1985.
In 1990 the Commodores formed Commodores Records and re-recorded their 20 greatest hits as "Commodores Hits Vol. I & II". They have recorded a live album "Commodores Live" along with a DVD of the same name, and a Christmas album titled "Commodores Christmas". In 2012, the band was working on new material, some contributions written by current and former members.
The Commodores now consist of Walter "Clyde" Orange, J.D. Nicholas, and King "WAK", along with their five piece band, known as the "Mean Machine". The group continues to perform, playing at arenas, theaters, and festivals around the world.Commodores Re-record "Nightshift" As MJ Tribute
CurrentWalter Orange – lead singer, drums, keyboardsWilliam "WAK" King – trumpet, rhythm guitar, synthesizerJ.D. Nicholas - lead singer, keyboardsThomas Dawson Jr. Music Director/Keyboards
FormerLionel Richie – vocals, saxophone, piano, drumsThomas McClary – lead guitarMilan Williams – keyboards, trombone, rhythm guitar (died of cancer, July 9, 2006)Ronald La Pread – bass guitar, trumpetCharles DeanEugene Ward
Awards and recognition
The Commodores were inducted into The Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003. Among multiple Grammy nominations, they won a Grammy for "Nightshift" in 1986.