Introduction to the Commodores

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Where, why and how was the group formed?

The roots of the Commodores were in Tuskegee, Alabama in the late 1960s. All of the original members — trumpet player William King, guitarist Thomas McClary (guitar), bassist Ronald LaPread, drummer Walter “Clyde” Orange, saxophonist Lionel Richie and keyboardist Milan Williams — all attended the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University). The group that would be called the Commodores was the result of the two rivaling groups, The Mystics and The Jays. They came up with the name the Commodores after randomly picking the word in a dictionary.

The group was formed initially just for kicks as well as a way to meet girls, but soon they were now more seriously taking it as a full-time career. After playing in fraternity parties and local dates around Tuskegee, the Commodores soon moved to New York City and continued to play there.

Opening act for the Jackson Five, and early success

In 1971, the Commodores got a chance to open for the rising big stars The Jackson Five, two weeks after auditioning for a high-profile gig which hadn’t been known to them before.

For over two years the Commodores continued as the opening act for The Jackson Five. Their excellent performances led them to a contract with The Jackson Five’s label Motown Records. In 1974, they released their debut album Machine Gun. The first single “I Feel Sanctified” reached the R&B Top 20 and the Hot 100 that same year. The album’s title track gave the Commodores their first Top 10 R&B hit (at #7) and Top 40 hit (at #22).

A string of big pop and R&B chart hits

In 1975, the Commodores followed this up with their second album Caught in the Actwhose single “Slippery When Wet” became the band’s first #1 hit on the R&B singles chart, and their first Top 20 pop hit (at #19).

That same year they released their third effort Movin’ On, which peaked at #29 on the Billboard 200 album chart. One of its singles “Sweet Love,” zoomed to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, their first Top 10 pop hit. It also reached #2 on the R&B singles chart.

In 1976, the Commodores bettered themselves in their fourth studio LP Hot on the Tracks, which climbed to its peak position on the Billboard 200 at #12. One of its tracks of the album “Just To Be Close To You” gave them their second #1 R&B hit, and another Top 10 pop smash (at #7).

After another album, Rise Up, the Commodores followed this up with a sixth eponymous album, in 1976. It became one of the band’s most successful albums, reaching its peak position at #3 on the Hot 100. Two singles — the ballad “Easy” and the dance tune “Brick House”– reached at #4 and #5, respectively, on the Hot 100 chart.

In 1977, the Commodores released their live album, simply titled Commodores Live!spawned the Top 40 pop hit “Too Hot Ta Trot.” The album reached at #3 on the Billboard 200.

The following year, they released another album Natural High. One of the album’s tracks “Three Times a Lady,” was also a ballad and released as a single. Written by Richie, it became the Commodores’ highest-charting hit. “Three Times a Lady” went to #1 not only on the US pop and R&B charts, but also on the UK and the US adult contemporary singles charts.

They were a very talented and versatile act who could perform anything from hard-driving dance music to mellow ballads. The Commodores continued to solidify their success with 1979’s Midnight Magic which spawned two huge hits “Sail On” and “Still.” “Still” gave the band their second #1 pop hit, and also went to #1 on the R&B singles chart. “Sail On” went to #4 on the Hot 100 and #8 on the R&B singles charts. They had also released their Greatest Hits compilation album.

In the early 1980s, the Commodores still managed to churn out decent hits. In 1980, they released Heroes, which peaked at #7 on the Billboard 200 and #3 on the R&B singles chart. The following year, they released another album In the Pocket which brought forth two big pop hits, “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” and “Oh No” (at #8 and #4, respectively). These were also to be the last major hits by the band with Lionel Richie.

The band after Lionel Richie’s departure, and their career in the present

In 1982, the Commodores released their second compilation album All the Great Hits. The same year Richie left the group to pursue a solo career, which also turned out to be as successful. McClary followed suit soon after. New singer Skyler Jett took Richie’s place in the co-lead singing duties. The Commodores continued to be busy, touring around the world.

Other founding members — LaPread and Williams — also quit the band. By then the group began to move away from their original funk roots into a more accessible pop sound. After four years in relative chart drought, the Commodores scored another hit with “Nightshift,” the title track of their 1985 album. It went to #3 on the Hot 100, and was to be their last Top 10 pop hit. “Nightshift” was sung by J.D. Nicholas, formerly of Heatwave. He has been with the group ever since.

After their long and fruitful 14-year relationship with Motown, the Commodores left the label in 1985. Then they inked a deal with Polydor Records and released four more albums: United (1986), Rock Solid (1986), Commodores Christmas (1992) and their last studio album to date, No Tricks (1993).

The Commodores are still musically active, but the current lineup only features the two original members: Orange and King. However they also have a new generation of members in tow. The group was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003.

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