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Commodores bio (Pt. 1)
 Tuskegee's Pride: The Commodores!
The story of the Commodores began in 1967, when Lionel Richie met Thomas McClary in the registration line at The Tuskegee Institute. Richie played sax, McClary was a guitarist and together they formed The Mystics, a group that also included William King on trumpet. Their worst rivals were The Jays, another school-band, from where keyboardist Milan Williams was drafted when The Jays disbanded. A new name for the group was needed and during a rehearsal, William King was blindfolded and selected the word "commodore" at random from a dictionary.

The Commodores now comprised seven members: Lionel Richie (sax), Thomas McClary (guitar), William King (trumpet), Milan Williams (keyboards), Jimmy Johnson (sax), Michael Gilbert (bass & lead vocals) and Andre Callaghan (drums). As the Commodores' reputation spread around their home town and nearby Montgomery, The Tuskegee Institute sent them Benny Ashburn to perform at a benefit talent-show in New York. There, they were spotted by Benjamin "Benny" Ashburn, a Harlem-native with a background in public relations. Ashburn, who at the time worked as a representative for a liquor wholesaler, was a shrewd businessman. He didn't make any offers, but let the Tuskegee boys know that he saw a great potential in them. About a year later, The Commodes returned to New York. After struggling hard while trying to make it on their own, they turned to Ashburn for guidance and he took them under his wings. The Commodores signed a management contract with Ashburn and he booked them on every club and showcase he could. Ashburn became the Commodores' mentor, manager and friend and was to play an integral part in the great future that awaited the group.

Benny Ashburn arranged an audition for Atlantic Records in 1969 and there, the Commodores recorded an album's worth of material from which Atlantic released the Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams-produced single "Keep On Dancing". It's an irresistible, catchy song and had been a huge R&B hit for Alvin Cash the previous year. The "Swamp Dogg" Williams-penned B-side, "Rise Up", sounds very similar to The Bar-Kays' "Soul Finger". The tapes from those early sessions have re-surfaced -at least in Europe- and are available on CD from various small labels. It mainly consists of cover versions, such as Sly & The Family Stone's "Sing A Simple Song", Intruders' "Cowboys To Girls", Temptations' "I Know I'm Losing You" and Johnny Taylor's "Who's Making Love".

Later that year, Jimmy Johnson, Michael Gilbert and Andre Callaghan left the Commodores (two were drafted for the Vietnam war, the third left because he didn't think the group could make it). The trio was replaced by bassist Ronald La Pread from Tuskegee blues outfit The Corvettes and Walter "Clyde" Orange who had his own band, The J-Notes. Orange both played drums and sang lead, a duty he continued in the Commodores. Lionel Richie was too shy and was more than happy to just blow his sax and sing back-up.

At show at an attorney's convention, set up by Ashburn, the Commodores made such an impression on Motown executive Suzanne DePasse that she hired the Commodores to be the warm-up band for The Jackson Five on a world wide tour. That tour eventually lasted nearly three years and gave the Commodores stage experience, or rather arena experience. But what they really wanted was a record contract and in 1972, the Commodores were signed to MoWest, Motown's new subsidiary, started after the labels' move from Detroit to Los Angeles. Little did Motown know that they'd just got their hands on what would be one of their biggest act of the Seventies.

The Commodores (1974)The Commodores naturally wanted to be self-contained, write and produce their own material, but Motown's policy for all newcomers was to set them to work with company staff. The Commodores weren't exactly considered a priority and were therefor tossed around between Hal Davis, Willie Hutch, Norman Whitfield and Jeffrey Bowen. In addition, the new arrivals discovered that it was hard to get studio time, as the recording facilities were constantly occupied by Motown's big names, like The Four Tops, Jackson Five, The Supremes or Gladys Knight. But this was a period of change for Motown and soon several of the label's key artists departed. The Commodores were handed to Pam Sawyer and Gloria Jones who wrote and produced their debut single on MoWest "The Zoo (The Human Zoo)", released in March 1972. It failed to chart and so did their second MoWest single, "Don't You Be Worried" (backed with the funky "Determination", produced by Willie Hutch). The Commodores' first single on the "real" Motown label was "Are You Happy". It was also the first song where Lionel Richie handled the lead vocals all by himself. The record passed unnoticed, but Milan Williams' frenetic, synthesizer-laden instrumental "Machine Gun", issued in April 1974, became a huge hit, landing at #7 R&B and #22 Pop, even charting at #20 in the U.K. That particular track was produced by James Anthony Carmichael, who from this point on became the Commodores' permanent producer. Carmichael worked with the Commodores on every album that followed, until he chose to go with Lionel Richie, when he opted for a solo career in 1982. The Commodores' debut album, also entitled "Machine Gun", went into the top one hundred and sold gold in Japan and the Philippines, countries where the Tuskegee group had toured with The Jackson Five.

Caught in the act!The second single to chart from "Machine Gun" was a typical, bottom-heavy, Jeffrey Bowen production called "I Feel Sanctified" (from which Bowen borrowed a substantial part for The Temptations' "Happy People"). It reached #12 on the U.S. R&B chart in October 1974. The Commodores then spent the next two years touring the United States and opened for The Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder. In April 1975, they released their first number one R&B hit "Slippery When Wet", taken from their sophomore album, "Caught In The Act". The Commodores were by now rightfully established as one of the funkiest bands in the land, but felt that in order to reach a bigger and more diverse audience, they'd have to try something new. And their next effort was indeed very different from its funky predecessors. For the first time, a Lionel Richie penned ballad was chosen as the single. "This Is Your Life" (August, 1975) climbed to R&B #13, but it was with Lionel's "Sweet Love" (from "Movin' On" 1975), that the Commodores found their winning formula. The single shot to R&B #2 and Pop #5 and the mellow follow-up "Just To Be Close To You", taken from the Commodore's first platinum-seller "Hot On The Tracks (1976), repeated the success. For the second single from that LP, the Commodores returned to the funk and it's obvious that The Ohio Players served as the inspiration for Richie and Ronald LaPread when they wrote "Fancy Dancer".

The Commodores (1977)That same year, 1976, the Commodores supported the O'Jays on a huge, 42-city American tour. It's been said that the Alabama youngsters virtually stole the show and from here, the Commodores no longer were a warm-up band, but the headline act. In 1977, they headlined their own American tour, giving 85 concerts in some 72 cities and embarked on their first, own world tour. It coincided with the March-release of their "Commodores" LP (re-named "Zoom" in the U.K.). The concerts were allegedly highly spectacular, with lots of audience participation, smoke and cannon-fired confetti. Sadly, the tour was cut short, due to the tragic death of bassist Ronald LaPread's wife Kathy, who succumbed to cancer in 1977.

Thank God It's Friiiiday!Every band member contributed to the albums, but Lionel Richie - who by now was the group's primary lead vocalist- was responsible for writing the majority of the singles. However, the Commodores returned to their funky roots after Lionel's country-flavored ballad and mega-hit "Easy". On "Brick House", Walter "Clyde" Orange -who had handled both the skins and the lead vocals during the group's beginnings- did his thang. "Brick House" came out in August, 1977 and got to R&B #4 and Pop #5. "Clyde" was also the lead vocalist on the uptempo stomper "Too Hot Ta Trot", (R&B #1, Pop #24 1977). That track was later edited and included on the soundtrack to the 1978 disco-movie "Thank God It's Friday", where the Commodores co-starred with Donna Summer.

The Commodores Live and in full color (1977)The full (studio) version of "Too Hot Ta Trot" was issued on "Commodores Live", recorded during the massive 1977 U.S. coast-to coast tour. This double album, issued in October 1977, is arguably one of the finest live albums ever made and has left a powerful testament to the Commodores' unique showmanship. Thankfully, it's available on CD.

May 1978 saw the release of the Commodores' fifth album, "Natural High", which sold platinum and spawned their largest cross-over hit. "Three Times A Lady", written by Lionel Richie, rose to #1 on both the R&B and Pop charts in June 1978 and became Motown's biggest single ever. "Flying High", (R&B #21, Pop #38) released in August 1978, was the second single from "Natural High". It was followed by a "Greatest Hits" LP.

In 1979, "Three Times A Lady" gave the Commodores several international awards, plus the Peoples Choice Award for "Best Song" and the American Music Awards for "Most Popular Single". That same year, the Commodores released the "Midnight Magic" album, which did extremely well in Britain. The hit singles, emanating from Lionel Richie's pen, continued with the 1979 singles "Sail On" (R&B # 8, Pop #4) and "Still", which simultaneously topped both the R&B and Pop charts in the U.S.. Milan Williams wrote the third single "Wonderland" (R&B #21, Pop #25). Also in 1979, bassist Ronald LaPread (together with Harold Hudson from the Commodores' back-up band The Mean Machine) produced, wrote and arranged the entire side B of fellow Tuskegee, Alabama-based 7th Wonder's "Climbing Higher" album. It was time to cross the Atlantic again. The Commodores performed at the Saarbrücken Festival in Germany, which was the starting-shot for their second European tour. They were greeted with open arms and sold out houses virtually everywhere they went.

The Commodores (1978/1979)In 1980, the Commodores were voted "Favorite Soul Group" at the American Music Awards and won the Peoples Choice Award for "Best Song" with "Still". Surprisingly enough, the highly spiritual "Heroes", the Commodores' tenth LP, released the same year, was a poor seller in the U.K., at least compared to their previous albums, but went platinum in the United States. The singles "Old-Fashion Love" (R&B #8, Pop #20) and the title track "Heroes" (R&B #27, Pop #54) were obviously hits, but not big enough to end the malicious media speculations about the Commodores' heydays being over. The third single "Jesus Is Love" only made it to a disappointing R&B #34.

By now, Lionel Richie was of course a much sought-after songwriter, but had resisted all outside requests until Kenny Rogers approached him. Richie wrote "Lady" for the country star, which became a top ten hit, sold sixteen million copies and earned Richie several prestigious awards. It's been suggested that the other members of the Commodores weren't too happy about the situation, since the song had originally been written for them and they desperately needed a hit. Rumors that Lionel Richie was leaving the group were naturally fueled by all of this, but in every interview, Richie was persistently denying having any such plans.

Go forward to Bio Part 2

Sources & Notes: For this bio I gathered data from various sources, some confirmed, some not. All chart positions referred to are from Billboard Magazine and were compiled from Joel Whitburn's book "Top Ten R & B Singles 1942-1988," published by Record Research, Inc..

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