The funk and soul band the Commodores emerged from Tuskegee Institute (present-day Tuskegee University) in Macon County to become a widely known and popular Motown act. The band’s rise to superstardom stalled when lead singer Lionel Richie left to pursue a solo career, but remaining members regrouped to arguably peak in 1985 with the Grammy-winning album Nightshift.
Commodores The Commodores formed in 1968 when members from former campus bands The Mystics and The Jays got together. After some early personnel changes, members consisted of Lionel Richie, at the time a novice saxophonist, vocalist, and keyboardist; guitarist Thomas McClary: vocalist and drummer Walter “Clyde” Orange, a student at Alabama State University in Montgomery; bass and trumpet player Ronald LaPread; Milan Williams on keyboards, drums, and guitar; and William King on trumpet. The group became known as a hot party band in the central Alabama area.
In 1969, the group travelled to New York to play a charity show, where they met public relations representative Benjamin “Benny” Ashburn. He became the band’s manager and booked them locally and on summer cruises abroad. The Commodores recorded briefly with Atlantic Records, but their rise to stardom really began in 1970 when Ashburn’s connection with recording executive Suzanne dePasse of Motown Records landed the Commodores their first tour, opening for the Jackson Five. Motown signed the group to a recording and performing contract in 1972.
Still attending college at Tuskegee, the Commodores struggled to achieve national success until 1974, when they released their first album, Machine Gun. It sold more than 500,000 copies, making it their first gold record (500,000 copies sold). During 1974-75, the group released two albums, Caught in the Act and Movin’ On, which had a Top-10 hit with Richie’s ballad “Sweet Love.” The group toured with the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder. In 1976, they released Hit on the Tracks and in 1977 again broke into the Top 10 with Richie’s love song “Just To Be Close To You,” their first platinum album (one million copies sold) that also featured the signature funk song “Brick House.” By this time the Commodores had moved toward Richie’s slower, ballad-laden style. “Three Times A Lady,” reportedly a personal “thank you” from Richie to his wife, Brenda, at home in Tuskegee, topped the charts in 1978 and was the band’s first number one single. Ritchie also began collaborating with artists outside the band, writing the chart-topping hits “Lady” for Kenny Rogers and “Endless Love” for Diana Ross. In 1978, the Commodores also appeared in the disco movie Thank God It’s Friday. Entering the 1980s, the band experimented with more funk and rock, growing away from Richie’s softer style. In 1982, Richie released his first solo single, “Truly.” In August of that year, manager Benny Ashburn died of heart attack, and Richie left the Commodores to pursue a solo career.
The Commodores hired ex-television executive Chuck Smiley as manager and toured in Europe as they sought another vocalist. Skyler Jett replaced Richie as lead vocalist through 1983 as the band toured internationally. In 1984, Clyde Orange took over as lead singer for much of their first post-Richie album, 13, and guitarist McClary left the band to pursue a solo career with Motown Records, replaced by Sheldon Reynolds, who played with the Commodores until Current Commodores leaving to join Earth, Wind, and Fire in 1987. Vocalist J. D. Nicholas, formerly of England-based funk band Heatwave, also joined the group in 1984. This lineup led to the Commodores’ first Grammy for the album Nightshift in 1985, also their last album to go gold. Soon after, they left Motown Records over a dispute between the release of their next record and Richie’s album Dancing on the Ceiling. The group signed with Polygram Records, releasing United in 1986, after which LaPread left the group, and Rock Solid in 1988 to limited success. The Commodores canceled a 1988 performance at Sun City Resort in South Africa as the result of anti-apartheid pressure, and soon after Williams left the band. In 1992, the group founded its own record label, Commodores Records and Entertainment, which has released Commodores Christmas (1992), No Tricks (1993), The Very Best (1995), and The Definitive Collection (2003). In 1995, the band was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2015, former band bodyguard Johnny Bailey and several associates purchased the band’s former studio in Tuskegee, which had been left largely untouched and filled with equipment and memorabilia since 1982, and opened it as the Commodores Museum.
Currently, Orange, King, and Nicholas remain with the band, producing records and touring with their longtime backup band, Mean Machine. In 2009, rumors of a reunion between The Commodores and Richie were stoked by comments made by Richie during interviews, but nothing materialized. In 2015, former band bodyguard established the Commodores Museum in Tuskegee; it is housed in the band’s former rehearsal and recording space and features memorabilia that includes costumes, equipment, instruments, and other artifacts.
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