- 🇺🇸 Tuskegee, Alabama
- Years Active
1968 - Now
Commodores are an American funk and soul band, which were at their peak in the late 1970s through the mid 1980s. The members of the group met as mostly freshmen at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in 1968, and signed with Motown in November 1972, having first caught the public eye opening for the Jackson 5 while on tour.
The group's most successful period was in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Lionel Richie was the co-lead singer. The band's biggest hit singles are ballads such as "Easy", "Three Times a Lady", and "Nightshift"; and funky dance hits which include "Brick House", "Fancy Dancer", "Lady (You Bring Me Up)", and "Too Hot ta Trot".
Commodores were inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and Vocal Group Hall of Fame. The band has also won one Grammy Award out of nine nominations. As well the Commodores have sold over 70 million albums worldwide.
The year was 1968. The place, Tuskegee Institute.
They met mostly as freshmen, first Lionel Richie and Thomas McClary in the registration line, then Richie later connecting with King over pool, all coming
together via two bands, the Mystics and the Jays, to become the Commodores.
"We were all freshman there, 17, 18 years old, having a great time," King says. "I ran into [Lionel] Richie in a pool room and we started talking. He played saxophone. I played trumpet. We said, 'Let's get together and play some music.'"
The line-up evolved to Walter Orange on drums, Thomas McClary on guitar,
Milan Williams on keyboards, Ronald LaPread on bass, William King on trumpet and Lionel Richie on saxophone. The guys began their musical journey jamming in the cafeteria basement, initially wanting to just play on the local club and college circuit to meet girls.
"The best way to get girls was to play every party on campus."
– Lionel Richie speaking with Steve Pond of Rolling Stone
Their long tenure with Motown began when the guys ventured outside the Southern funk circuit, capturing the attention of talent agent Benny Ashburn at a gig in NYC who then setting up an audition for the opening slot of an unnamed, ‘high profile' group (thanks to Ashburn's connection with Motown executive, Suzanne de Passe). Two weeks later, the Commodores found themselves opening for the Jackson 5, a role they embraced for more than two years before finally signing with the iconic label in mid 1971. The relationship was a little bumpy at first as the band resisted the company's use of studio musicians and ‘packaging' of groups.
"We were different and Motown didn't know what to do with us. We didn't fit the standard way of doing things and we'd started to write our own songs." - LaPread
In 1974, they released their first three hits, "Machine Gun," "I Feel Sanctified," and the number-one hit "Slippery When Wet." In 1975, the band opened for the Rolling Stones on their U.S. tour, releasing two more #1 hits, "Just To Be Close To You" and "Easy," in 1976, followed by "Brick House" in '77.
The anthemic "Brick House" solidified the group's hard funk reputation, the single peaking at #4 on the Billboard's R&B Top 10 and #5 on the Billboard Pop chart. Two consecutive #1 singles soon followed, "Too Hot ta Trot" (1977) and "Three Times a Lady" (1978) which earned them an American Music Award, becoming the biggest-selling record produced by Motown––and then there was "Still," the final #1 with Richie as a member.
With the departure of Richie, the group quickly courted tenor J.D. Nicholas (formerly of Heatwave), eventually recording their biggest hit, "Nightshift" which topped the charts for four consecutive weeks.
Throughout their career, the Commodores released 17 full-length studio albums between 1974 and 1995, six of which went to #1 on Billboard's R&B charts. Collectively, the group would enjoy seven #1 singles, 20 Top 10 singles and 15 Top 10 albums. They also earned 9 Grammy nominations, picking up the coveted award in ‘86 for Best R&B Vocal Performance for the single, "Nightshift". Over the years, the group has sold over 75 million albums worldwide, 60 of those on Motown with much of the band's best work produced by their lifelong producer, James Anthony Carmichael.
The Commodores would go on to break the Beatles' attendance record at Arnette Coliseum in the Philippines. Selling out 500,000+ arenas, the Commodores were the first African American band to headline a national U.S. tour. They were also the first artist at Motown to sell a gold LP and the first artist to own their publishing rights at Motown.
"We became the first act in the history of Motown to acquire our publishing rights, which Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Norman Whitfield, nobody had that at that time. Stevie Wonder, who was a very brilliant songwriter, had a great lawyer named Vigoda, who had negotiated in his deal what was called a ‘favoured nation clause,' which meant if anybody got any terms and conditions that were better than Stevie's, then his deal would automatically equal that so he got his publishing as a result of the Commodores getting theirs." – Thomas McClary speaking with Phil Hudson of the Atlanta Business Chronicle (2017)
The Commodores parted ways with Motown in 1985, signing with Polydor later that same year and breaking into the Top 10 once more with "Goin' to the Bank."
And then there were three…
From the '90s onward, the band went lean and mean, keepin' the funk alive with the talented trio of Orange, King, and Nicholas accompanied by their longtime backup band, the "Mean Machine." Together, they continue to perform, playing arenas, theaters, and festivals around the globe.
"When we're up on stage, we mean business. We give you everything you want to hear. That's what keeps the Commodores going, and we wouldn't have it any other way." - Walter "Clyde" Orange
The college graduates from Tuskegee, Alabama, educated millions worldwide with their unique brand of peerless musicianship, keyboard-oriented funk wrapped in catchy energetic tunes, and classic American songwriting.
"I'm just partial, but I think that the Commodores' sound is basically four guys. If you want the rhythm part of the Commodores, that was a combination of Ronald LaPread, the bass player, Walter Orange, the drummer, that's number one. Thomas McClary, the guitar player, which is all that "Slippery When Wet" stuff. Nobody else could play that guitar part like Thomas McClary, only because he didn't play it like a guitar, he played it like an ukulele! He could only play five strings, so he just played a different kind of style. All that stuff you that you hear on "Easy", that's Tommy, that's just how he played. So, between Milan Williams, the keyboard player, who didn't play a lot of stuff, he just complimented the guys very well, that's the funk base of the Commodores. Now, to not have that and to say you just have some players, is not the same, you know what I'm saying? I think, not taking any credit away from me and "Wak", the trumpet player, but to me, it's very easy to drive a car if it's built like the Commodore machine. I could go out and sing any song in the world with those four guys playing, because they made it so simple to sit in the driver's seat."
- Lionel Richie speaking with MissFunkyFlyy, Dec 1996
William King a business student at Tuskegee Institute, wrote a 300-page paper on the success and failure of rock 'n' roll groups. King passed around his findings to five friends. Today, the six friends are the Commodores.
Benny Ashburn, the band's lifelong manager, was known as "The Seventh Commodore."
"Initially Lionel Richie was not a lead singer, we pushed him out there and we encouraged him. He became that lead singer." – Thomas McClary (Atlanta Business Chronicle, 2017)
Back in the late 70's, the Commodores were dubbed the "Black Beatles." "We used The Beatles as a model, we are just as diversified." --Lionel Richie
The Commodores were inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame
In 1995 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003.
The Commodores made a brief appearance in the 1978 film Thank God It's Friday, performing the song "Too Hot ta Trot" during the dance contest scene. The hits "Brick House" and "Easy" were also in the movie.
Walter "Clyde" Orange was invited to join by the group's original bassist, Michael Gilbert.
The Commodores are the only Motown act to place three consecutive albums into the Top 3 of the Billboard pop charts.
First Hit––"Machine Gun"
Biggest Hit––"Three Times a Lady"
75 Million Albums Sold Worldwide
7 #1 singles
5 #1 Albums
20 Top 10 Singles
15 Top 10 Albums
1986 Grammy Award "Nightshift"
First act to receive a Gold record for an album at Motown
~ Kristin Armfield