Formed as a collegiate act in the late 1960s in Tuskegee, Alabama they were originally The Mystics and briefly The Jays until William King opened a copy of People magazine and stumbled over the Commodores word. Their debut album featured the instrumental title track “Machine Gun” and sold well throughout 1974 and 1975 thanks to a hybrid of crafted funk and no dross – this was a lean and hungry introduction. At this stage Milan Williams was penning much of the material but they also took on board the Gloria Jones cut “Assembly Line” and hit the dance floor on “The Bump” and in “Rapid Fire” - R&B gems both.
Caught in the Act (1975) is equally fine with Richie, Williams, King, Thomas McClary, Walter Orange and Ronald LaPraed revealing them to be splendid musicians who could incorporate brass and punchy riffs into killer tracks like “Slippery When Wet” and the lengthy “You Don’t Know That I Know”. Their second made in ’75 disc, Movin’ On took them out of strictly R&B territory and onto the Billboard Pop 100 charts thanks to “Sweet Love” and the nifty “Cebu” but it’s Hot On The Tracks that really gets their commercial act into gear as Richie begins to find the magic formula that will provide hit after hit with “Just to Be Close to You” and the club anthem “Let’s Get Started” making resistance futile.
1977’s self-titled Commodores (aka Zoom in the UK) switched many more folk on once the sexually charged “Brick House” and the Southern country ballad “Easy” did their thing. Meanwhile sold right out European and American tours made them household names and media favourites. “Zoom” is on here of course and most would imagine that it was a single in its own right whereas in fact it was a radio smash and did indeed zoom the attendant album to Number One on the US R&B chart. This disc also provides others with countless sample lifts – Snoop Dog and R. Kelly, YoYo and Geto Boys all owe this album plenty. No one was surprised when their sixth album, Natural High, hit the top slot in the mainstream charts because the immortal “Three Times a Lady” was instant gold while the template of funk, balladry and bedroom capers all passed muster again. If all their albums to date are unreservedly recommended it would be unwise to write off the often-overlooked Midnight Magic as once again the Lionel effect hits pay dirt on the shimmering “Still” and Thomas McClary keeps it real on “Sexy Lady”. Incidentally Destiny’s Child paid homage to the Commodores when they covered “Sail On’ in 1998.
Eight albums in and the soulsters are still working it with producer James Anthony Carmichael at the controls – effortlessly in charge of their groove and on top of their mojo throughout. Hence, Heroes (1980) is brave enough to introduce a fair dash of pure gospel. In The Pocket (1981) is the last album to feature Lionel’s dulcet tones but he left them with a gift – “Oh No”, another smash and returned the band’s sound to the funkier strains of their early work as much of the album took them back home to some roots in Atlanta, Georgia. Working without Richie might have been deemed problematic but the Commodores knuckled down to work on 13 and produced this one themselves. McClary left thereafter and made a solo album for Motown but the other fellows didn’t flinch.
“Nightshift” the single (1985) won them that elusive Grammy and paid dues to heroes Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson who had both died the previous year. In terms of soul power this album is as good as anything in their canon and the introduction of Dennis Lambert, a gifted writer/artist and producer and a larger cast of specialists like Jerry Hey, Peter Wolf and Paulhino da Costa broadens their horizons at a time of flux when hip hop is challenging the old order. They didn’t wilt.
Milan Williams came to the fore again on United, which gives us the memorable hit “Goin’ to the Bank” while he will leave after 1988’s Rock Solid, featuring the vocal talents of J.D. Nicholas. Obviously a band of this calibre is also blessed with fine compilations that do more than give one a flavour of their funk and groove. Greatest Hits and All The Great Love Songs are perennial sellers and just about the handiest soul music to go for those on the move wishing to progress with a spring in the step and a smile on the face. Or as they sing on their fine album The Commodores Live! – “Too Hot ta Trot”. It’s all great modernist soul from the second generation of Motown. Timeless classics are everywhere and the albums are always far more than the sum of their single parts. We salute The Commodores.
The Commodores' early years were spent on the Southern funk circuit, where their energetic, catchy tunes, and keyboard-oriented funk made them both a college and a radio staple. They scored seminal hits with "Brick House" and "Slippery When Wet," although it became apparent quite early that lead vocalist Lionel Richie also had a bright future as a solo balladeer, with such tunes as "Easy" signaling his future on adult contemporary and Quiet Storm/urban contemporary radio. This collection highlights early up-tempo and ballad hits.
Words: Ron Wynn
Before the Commodores started having major adult contemporary hits like "Three Times a Lady," "Easy," and "Still," they were happy to be a full-time funk/soul band. The Southerners became increasingly pop-minded in the late '70s, but when their debut album, Machine Gun, came out in 1974, their music was unapologetically gritty. This was, without question, a very promising debut -- Lionel Richie and his allies really hit the ground running on sweaty funk items like "Young Girls Are My Weakness," "The Bump," "Gonna Blow Your Mind," and the single "I Feel Sanctified." These songs aren't funk-pop or sophisticated funk -- they're hardcore funk. What you won't find on Machine Gun are a lot of sentimental love ballads. In the late '70s, the Commodores became as famous for their ballads as they were for their funk and dance material, but believe it or not, there are no ballads to be found on this consistently funky, mostly up-tempo debut. As much as this LP has going for it, Machine Gun isn't the Commodores' best or most essential album. Machine Gun is rewarding, but their subsequent albums Caught in the Act (1975), Movin' On (1975), and Hot on the Tracks (1976) are even stronger.
Words: Alex Henderson
The Commodores' sixth studio album, Natural High, is best known for the ballad "Three Times a Lady," which became a staple of adult contemporary radio and reached number one on both the pop and R&B charts. "Three Times a Lady" was their first number one pop hit, and Lionel Richie was being recognized as a major crossover star. Not everyone liked "Three Times a Lady" -- some people found the song to be much too sappy, and R&B purists argued that The Commodores were watering their music down. But even if "Three Times a Lady" isn't your cup of tea, Natural High still has a lot to offer R&B fans. "X-Rated Movie," "Such a Woman," and "I Like What You Do" are exhilarating examples of hardcore funk, and those who appreciate artists like Heatwave and the Brothers Johnson will find a lot to admire about "Fire Girl" and "Flying High" (both of which are sleek examples of the sophisticated funk style). Meanwhile, "Say Yeah" (featuring Richie) is a first-rate R&B slow jam. Whatever your opinion of "Three Times a Lady" -- whether you love it or hate it -- the fact is that Natural High has more plusses than minuses and was a generally respectable, if imperfect, addition to The Commodores' catalog.
Words: Alex Henderson
Hot on the heels of their 1977 self-titled LP -- which included studio versions of the classics "Brick House" and "Easy" -- Commodores Live! was issued as a seasonal offering the same year. The band wisely included extended readings of not only its most recent hits, but also a healthy sampling from its previous four studio albums, as well as the track "Too Hot ta Trot," which had been featured in the motion picture Thank God It's Friday. The six-man original Commodores were a powerful and self-contained unit that could effortlessly alternate between turning over mean and serious funk jams or a slow, sexy power ballad. Heralded as the Black Beatles, the Commodores were able to fuse a more traditional pop music headlong into the funk stylings of their contemporaries: Parliament, the Ohio Players, and Earth, Wind & Fire. However, instead of being propelled by seemingly endless -- and often aimless -- jams, William King (trumpet), Thomas McClary (guitar), Ronald LaPread (bass), Walter "Clyde" Orange (drums), Lionel Richie (alto saxophone), and Milan Williams (keyboards) were able to tighten up their arrangements and make them more potent in the process. From right out of the gate, the opening trio of "Won't You Come Dance With Me," "Slippery When Wet," and "Come Inside" pounce and bounce around with undeniably hardcore funk grooves -- replete with distorted and screaming electric lead guitar lines, emphatic accents from the horns, and an authoritative rhythm section that James Brown would have been proud of. The mellower side of the band is equally represented by several key Lionel Richie ballads. "Just to Be Close to You" shimmers and is notable for Richie's extended vocal interlude. "Easy" -- an audible audience favorite -- swings with an urgency and passion conspicuously lacking in the more familiar studio version. Milan Williams' tasty keyboards are also a highlight as they lightly soar above the rest of the band. Without a doubt it is the ten-plus-minute version of "Brick House" that allows the band to reach a funkified critical mass. Ronald LaPread's rubbery basslines adhere themselves around "Clyde" Orange's Latin-tinged percussion inflections. The searing Richie and William King sound more akin to a full-fledged horn section than the hard-workin' duo behind their wall of solid brass. Commodores Live! is overall one of the finest R&B concert albums of the '70s -- of which there are far too few.
Words: Lindsay Planer
The Commodores made one final stab at regaining R&B glory when Lionel Richie and producer/arranger James Anthony Carmichael both left in the mid-'80s. J.D. Nicholas became their lead singer, and Dennis Lambert assumed production duties. They rebounded temporarily, when "Nightshift" leaped out of an otherwise ordinary album to become a Grammy-winning R&B and pop smash. It stayed atop the R&B charts for a month, and peaked at #3 on the pop chart. Unfortunately, it was also the end for Thomas McClary, who left the group once the album had run its course. It was their next-to-last hit, and basically the end for the band, although they continued for a couple more years.
Words: Ron Wynn
When the Commodores' seventh studio album, Midnight Magic, came out in 1979, one could safely assume that the LP would contain at least one adult contemporary ballad. And sure enough, Midnight Magic contains the ballad "Still," which was a number one pop hit (as well as a number one R&B hit) and became a staple on adult contemporary radio. The sappy ballad (which features Lionel Richie) wasn't without its detractors, who felt that the Commodores had become too much of a slick crossover act. But even if "Still" doesn't excite you, the rest of the album isn't bad. "Wonderland" (a number 21 R&B hit) is an enjoyable R&B slow jam, and fans of sophisticated funk (as opposed to hardcore funk) should appreciate "You're Special," "Gettin' It," and the disco-minded title song. "Sexy Lady" is the only thing on the LP that can honestly be described as hardcore funk; most of the up-tempo tunes favor the type of sophisticated funk that the Brothers Johnson, Rufus/Chaka Khan, and Heatwave were known for in the late '70s. Next to "Still," the album's best-known track is "Sail On," which reached number eight on Billboard's R&B singles chart (and number four on its pop single chart) despite the fact that it is essentially a pop-country song. Some R&B purists saw "Sail On" as a blatant example of how watered down the Commodores had become, but it's still a charming and likable tune -- one that wouldn't have been out of place on a Dolly Parton or Glen Campbell LP. Midnight Magic isn't one of the Commodores' essential releases, and R&B purists are advised to stick to the band's pre-1977 albums. Nonetheless, this is a generally decent, if uneven, record that has more strengths than weaknesses.
Words: Alex Henderson
1976's Hot on the Tracks was the Commodores' fourth album, and it was also the last album they recorded before becoming a major crossover act. From 1977 on, the Commodores were as big among pop and adult contemporary audiences as they were with R&B audiences. That isn't to say that pop fans ignored them before 1977; "Just to Be Close to You," the single that Hot on the Tracks is best known for, reached number seven on Billboard's pop singles chart as well as number one on its R&B singles chart. The album itself made it to number one on Billboard's R&B albums chart, while climbing to number 12 on its pop albums chart. Nonetheless, this is an R&B record first and foremost, and the Commodores never sound like they're going out of their way to be pop. R&B purists should have no problem with "Just to Be Close to You," which is very much a soul ballad and doesn't have the adult contemporary appeal of subsequent hits like "Three Times a Lady," "Easy," and "Still." Nor should they have any problem with hardcore funk treasures such as "Fancy Dancer" (a number nine R&B hit), "Come Inside," "Let's Get Started," and the quirky "Quick Draw." For those who prefer the Commodores' hardcore funk and soul over their crossover material, Hot on the Tracks is recommended without hesitation.
Words: Alex Henderson
Part of the brilliant Universal Soul Legends series comes housed in a digipak with simple yet eye-catching artwork and includes brief sleevenotes. The track listing not only features some of the artist's biggest hits but also a handful of rarities and album tracks. 19 tracks including rare single versions of Commodore classics like 'Too Hot Ta Trot', 'Sweet Love' and 'Flying High' and hits like 'Brick House' and 'Easy'. Also features Lionel Richie solo hits as well including 'Endless Love', his duet with label-mate Diana Ross. 2006.
There were essentially two Commodores -- the funk machine of the early '70s that kicked out such classics as "Machine Gun" and "Brick House," then the Lionel Richie-led smooth soulsters that glided to the top of the charts with such cuts as "Easy" and "Three Times a Lady." Motown's 2001 double disc collection Anthology very nearly splits those two phases in half, with the funk on the first disc and the balladeering on the second, with the important flaw of "Easy" showing up as the final number of the first disc. This is a bit of a hiccup in sequencing, but if the collection is just seen as sheer music, this satisfies, since it contains all the big hits -- both pop crossovers and R&B smashes -- along with some lesser-known sides and album tracks. For some, it may be a bit much, but for the serious fan, this is the set to get.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine