Formed by a bunch of funk-loving friends at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, the Commodores became one of the major crossover acts of the 70s and launched the career of the biggest male solo star of the 80s. At the early end of the trend for self-contained funk bands, the group, consisting of Lionel Richie on saxophone, Walter Orange on drums, William King on trumpet, Ronald LaPread on bass, Milan Williams (who died in July 2006) on keyboards and Thomas McClary on guitar, found success principally playing local gigs in Alabama before scoring a major coup by successfully auditioning to serve as the warm-up band for the Jackson Five's 1971 tour.
The tour gave the group broad national attention and led to their signing with Motown, which was still the preeminent black label. Their first release, 1974's Machine Gun, was a pure funk disc led off by the scorching instrumental title cut, which hit the top 10 on the Soul charts. Their sound was tight and funky and gave no indication of the mellower balladry for which they would later be known. They followed in the next year with the equally strong Caught In The Act and Movin On. The latter included their first substantial crossover cut, "Sweet Love." It showed the early development of Lionel Richie as a great singer and of the group as a leading force in black music, creating a sound that was now very distinguishable from the other soul/funk bands of the day. They would score again in 1976 with the equally strong ballad, "Just to Be Close To You."
1977 would bring the group's definitive album, the self-titled Commodores, and their two biggest hits to date, the beautiful "Easy" and a suggestive dance/funk favorite, "Brick House," with Walter Orange at the lead. It also featured the quiet storm staple, "Zoom," still one of their most popular songs. They continued their rise to stardom the next year with Natural High, a lesser album but one that featured the monster international hit "Three Times A Lady," a saccharine ballad that would unfortunately define the group for years to come. By this time the group's identity was changing from that of a funk group that occasionally played good ballads, to an internationally famous pop/soul group that sometimes funked it up. The metamorphosis continued in 1979 with Midnight Magic, another solid, popular album that featured perhaps their most beautiful ballad, "Still," as well as an interesting country/soul slow number, "Sail On." Oddly, they followed the next year with their biggest creative and commercial misstep, the mediocre Heroes, a forgettable album save the now classic gospel cut, "Jesus Is Love."
By 1981, through his songwriting and vocal preeminence, Lionel Richie was emerging as the focal point of the group, and his star was rising throughout the music world. That year, Richie's duet with Diana Ross, the treacly "Endless Love," became one of the biggest songs of the decade, and his composition for Kenny Rogers, "Lady," spent 6 weeks at the top of the charts. His ability to write truly melodic, irresistible tunes (though generally simplistic lyrically), put him at the forefront of early 80s songwriters. He recorded one more album with the group, the pleasant In the Pocket (with featured two nifty top 10 hits, the typical Richie ballad, "Oh No," and the upbeat "Lady (You Bring Me Up)").
When Richie departed in 1982 to record his eponymous debut, the Commodores were given up for dead by much of the music world. The group stumbled with their post-Lionel debut cut, "Only You," a faceless ballad that tried to re-create the Richie sound without Richie. Thomas McClary then left the group for a solo career (he had some success producing the group Klique) and the Commodores appeared creatively rudderless and headed for the oldies circuit. Then the group, with new singer J.D. Nicholas (a latter day member of Heatwave), confounded critics by recording a Walter Orange composition that became one of their biggest hits ever. "Nightshift," a musical tribute to Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye and other deceased soul greats, was a deserving smash, spending 4 weeks at the top of the charts and winning for the group a Grammy Award for Best R&B Vocal Performance. They followed with a nice cover of Bobby Caldwell's "Janet," also from the Nightshift album.
The group left Motown in 1986 for Polydor, and scored one hit there, the dance number "Goin' To The Bank." They continued to record with less success into the early 90s, ultimately forming their own company, Commodores Records, to release newly recorded hits compilations and a live album. The group is still touring internationally, now as a threesome consisting of Walter Orange, J.D. Nicholas and William King, and they still sound great.
2006 was a big year for the Commodores. They began working on a new studio album with longtime producer James Anthony Carmichael and were selling their live concert DVD. They were also named winners of Heroes and Legends award, as presented by the HAL Foundation, an organization designed to help "at risk" youth reach their potential in the performing arts.
During the Summer of 2007, the group participated in the "Land in the Band" competition, where amateur musicians were given an opportunity to play their way into the Commodores' band for a 3-show gig.
Among the awards that have been bestowed upon the group since its origin, in December 2010, the Commodores were awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2010 SoulTracks Readers' Choice Awards.
Rumors of a reunion of the original Commodores began floating in 2008, fueled by statements made by Richie. Despite a number of false reports (some apparently started by former group members) the reunion has not happened.
The Commodores have proven to be one of the most durable, enjoyable bands of the Soul Music world, and continue to win over audiences well into their fifth decade.
By Chris Rizik