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Members include William King, Jr., (born January 29, 1949, in AL), horns ; Ronald LaPread (born 1950, in AL, left group in 1986), bass, trumpet;Thomas McClary (born 1950 in MS , left group in 1983), guitar; James Dean"J.D." Nicholas, (born April 11, 1952, inPaddington, England), vocals; Walter"Clyde" Orange, (born December 9, 1946, in FL), drums, vocals; LionelRichie (born 1950, in Tuskeegee, AL, left group in 1982 ), vocals and piano;Milan Williams (born 1949, in MS, left group in 1988), keyboards, trombone,guitar. Addresses: Record Company-Motown Records, 5750 Wilshire Blvd. #300, Los Angeles, CA 90036.
Throughout the 1970s, the six-member Commodores grew into one of the biggest selling acts of all time. Breakingon to the scene with the album Machine Gun in 1974, the Commodores established a style of heavy funk, then movedon to score with a string of ballads. Although the band's members shared in songwriting duties, singer Lionel Richiewas singled out into the limelight, so much so that he left the band in 1982. While Richie's subsequent solo careersoared, a new incarnation of the Commodores that included vocalist J.D. Nicholas continued to make albums of lesserstature 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 majorsWilliam King, Thomas McClary, and Lionel Richie banded together as the Mighty Mystics because, as Richie later toldRolling Stone's Steve Pond, "the best way to get girls was to play every party on campus." The trio featured King ontrumpet, McClary on guitar, and Richie taking up vocal duties, and were soon joined by keyboard player Milan Williamsafter his band, The Jays, dissolved. After randomly flipping through a dictionary, the foursome decided to dubthemselves the Commodores, and adopted two more members, bassist Ronald LaPread and drummer Walter "Clyde"Orange. For over a decade, this lineup would not change.
Although Orange alone was a music major, all of the Commodores boasted rich musical backgrounds, as well asexposure to a wide variety of styles, as most of the sextet had relatives who were band leaders, composers, orperformers. Richie, for example, had a grandmother who was a classical music teacher and an uncle who had arrangedfor the legendary big band leader Duke Ellington. Their earliest performances and recordings may have belied asimilarity with upbeat funk acts like Sly and the Family Stone, but their appetite for a wide palette of sounds would soonlead them to form their own sound. "People always want to tag us by citing [R&B stars] James Brown and theTemptations as our main influences," Richie later told High Fidelity's Stephen X. Rea. "But we also grew up in a popenvironment. We listened to [rock acts like] the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, [country singers] Glen Campbelland 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 beganto expand their touring orbit beyond Tuskeegee. After packing their equipment into a van and trekking to New YorkCity, the Commodores managed to slate a gig at the nightclub Small's Paradise. Although the group's instruments werestolen shortly after pulling into the city, the Commodores managed to buy back the hijacked equipment and deliver ashow that impressed audience member and talent agent Benny Ashburn. Ashburn immediately became theCommodores' 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 Commodoresinto a no-nonsense corporation, complete with conduct guidelines and mission statements. The band's members pridedthemselves in their professional, drug-free behavior and aimed their sights at surpassing the success of the Beatles, oneof the biggest selling pop group ever. After an impressive European tour in 1970 and a forgettable debut single wasreleased for Atlantic Records, the Commodores signed with the Motown label in 1971 but refused to adopt thecompany's slick mode of packaging their acts and use of studio musicians. "We were different and Motown didn't knowwhat to do with us," LaPread told Billboard. "We didn't fit the standard way of doing things and we'd started to writeour own songs. When we met up with producer James Carmichael, things changed. Carmichael was won over by theCommodore's uncompromising attitude, and like Ashburn, continued to collaborate with the group for the next decade.
Group Became Pop Superstars
It took three years of finagling before the Commodores were able to release their debut album Machine Gun, butin the interim they continued to make a name for themselves on stage, often as the opening act for Motown label matesthe Jackson 5. However, if the Commodores had taken their time getting started, success quickly caught up with them. Machine Gun's title cut, a bass-fueled funk workout written by Williams, became a Top 30 single and the album itselfwent gold shortly thereafter. After more touring with acts like the Rolling Stones and the O'Jays, the Commodores wereable 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 funksound, which helped lay the foundation for the emerging trend of disco dance music. With all six members sharing thewriting duties, the group produced a number of hits, such as "Slippery When Wet" in 1975 and "Brick House," released1977,. However, by 1977 the group began having immense luck with ballads written and sung by Richie. Aside fromtheir lack of dance appeal, songs like "Easy," written in 1977, showed Richie's graceful blending of country flourisheswith 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 soldanywhere from gold to triple platinum status. Much of this success continued to be credited to Richie's love songs, withtunes like the number one AThree Times A Lady" inciting other performers to seek Richie's services. Returning a favorto one of his influences, Richie penned the immensely popular ballad "Lady" for country singer Kenny Rogers, whoalso tapped Richie to produce his album Share Your Love in 1980. In addition to Richie's allure, the Commodoresbenefited from their ever-keen business sense. Creating the umbrella corporation Commodore Entertainment, the grouphad turned a college party band into a multi-million dollar empire. "I think of these guys more as businessmen thanmusicians," Richie confessed to Rea. "We're 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, theirgrowing corporate identity was to blame. For critics like Rolling Stone's Stephen Holden, the emotion and energy ofthe group's earlier work had faded into albums like Heroes, released in 1980, which offered bland material intended toappeal to the widest demographics. Although Heroes was in fact the first "message" album to be released by theCommodores, Holden found the record to be full of unconvincing platitudes, as well as sloppy songwriting. "The titletune-which solemnly informs us that we are the heroes we're searching for in an unheroic age-is a pep talk that takesitself so seriously that it depresses more than it uplifts." Holden went on to say, "Wake Up Children' utilizes simplisticnursery 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 offclaims of overly commercial, adult-contemporary banality from some critics. "[T]he Commodores' In The Pocketexhibits 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 thealbum cover-the 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.
Band Continued After Several Departures
After In The Pocket, the Commodores suffered a series of heavy losses. In 1982, longtime manager Ashburn diedof a heart attack, and shortly thereafter Richie left to pursue a solo career. McClary left the following year, to bereplaced by singer James Dean "J.D" Nicholas, but the group's stability was affected nonetheless. After thedisappointing Commodores 13 was issued in 1983, producer Carmichael also fled the Commodores' camp and the groupwaited 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 strengthof its title cut, a stirring lament over Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye, two R&B singers whose lives had been cuttragically 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]hat's' distinctive about "Nightshift" is that this tribute doesn't simply reston sentimentality: Its arrangements may coo softly, but its percussion ticks with relentless syncopations, its bass relisheslong ominous slides." Still, many writers found the rest of Nightshift to be little more than filler material, as did RollingStone's J.D. Considine. "That the remainder of the album fails to measure up to [the title song's] standard comes as nosurprise. Because the Commodores have been unable either to resurrect the hard funk of their earliest hits or the sortof MOR ballads Lionel Richie once provided, the band continues to sound unsure of its musical direction and ends upwallowing in mediocrity."
As Richie grew to become one of the hallmarks of 1980s pop music with albums like the Grammy winning Can'tSlow Down, the Commodores all but disappeared from mainstream eyes. By the latter half of the decade, the group wasstripped down to a trio, with LaPread and Williams having retired to their families. After releasing the albums Unitedand Rock Solid for Polydor, the enterprising Commodores once again showed their business know-how when theychristened their own label in 1992. While the group did release an album of new material in 1993, Commodores XX-No Tricks, the trio primarily rested on the success of their past hits. With two greatest hits compilations released onCommodores Records, the group digitally re-recorded their standards, with Orange and Nicholas singing many tunesoriginally delivered by Richie. The trio also continued to perform live at state fairs and on nostalgia tours, and in 1998celebrated what few pop acts can boast - a thirtieth anniversary.
by Shaun Frentner
The Commodores's Career
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 forthe Jackson 5, 1971; released debut album Machine Gun, 1974; released Commodores, which featured several of the group's biggest hit singles, 1977; appeared in the disco film Thank God It's Friday, 1978; Richie departed for asuccessful 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.
The Commodores's Awards
named best R&B Group in both Rolling Stone's critics' and readers' polls, 1978; named act of theyear by Performance magazine, 1978; Grammy Award for Best R&B Song by a Group for "Nightshift," 1985.
- Selected discography
- Machine Gun , Motown, 1974.
- Caught In The Act , Motown, 1975.
- Movin' On , Motown, 1975.
- Hot On The Tracks , Motown, 1976.
- Commodores , Motown, 1977.
- Live , Motown, 1977.
- Natural High , Motown, 1978.
- Greatest Hits , Motown, 1978.
- Midnight Magic , Motown, 1979.
- Heroes , Motown, 1980.
- In The Pocket , Motown, 1981.
- Commodores 13 , Motown, 1983.
- Nightshift , Motown, 1985.
- All The Great Love Songs , Motown, 1985.
- United , Polydor, 1986.
- Rock Solid , Polydor, 1988.
- Commodores Hits (Vols.1 & 2), Commodore Records, 1992.
- Commodores XX-No Tricks , Commodore Records, 1993.
- Ultimate Collection , Motown, 1997.
July 9, 2006: Williams died on July 9, 2006, in Houston, Texas, of cancer. He was 58. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/Music/07/11/obit.williams.ap/index.html, July 23, 2006.
- 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.
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