From ‘Brick House’ to ballads, Commodores sail on for decades

Group plays L’Auberge on Monday

The Commodores sailed the rough waters of the music business through decades of change. The group’s 1970s and ’80s stay at Motown Records produced sales of 60 million records, seven No. 1 songs and many more Top 10 hits in the pop and rhythm-and-blues charts.

With multiple members of the group writing songs, the Commodores released such hard funk hits as “Brick House,” “Machine Gun” and “Fancy Dancer” and beautiful ballads “Easy,” “Just to Be Close to You” and “Night Shift.”

The original six-member Commodores began at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. From the beginning, when the Commodores were college students moonlighting as a Top 40 band, the group benefited from having singers and musicians of varied musical tastes and talents.

“The thing about us, we did everybody’s songs,” original Commodore William King recalled from his home in Atlanta. “We did Three Dog Night, the Who, Led Zeppelin. Of course, we did Motown, too, and we were doing a lot of Stax and Atlantic records. Whatever was in the Top 40, we did it.

“Keyboard player Milan Williams from Mississippi, he was through and through blues and jazz,” King said. “Thomas McClary from Florida, he was into rock and screaming guitars. He liked to set his guitar on fire. A couple of times he set himself on fire.

“Bassist Ronald LaPread from Tuskegee was pure, beautiful funk. And myself and (Lionel) Richie, we were more pop, across the board type of music. My favorites artists were Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra.

“We were into so many different genres of music, so we just threw all this stuff in the pot.”

The Commodores were among the first acts signed to Motown Records following the label’s early ’70s move from Detroit to Los Angeles. King credits producer James Anthony Carmichael for setting career-making goals for the group’s lyrics and music.

“When we wrote a song, it was put together by everybody,” King said. “We’d come in with the melody and, most of the time, the lyrics. But lyrics were written probably 10 to 15 times, because they were under the scrutiny of everybody.

“And when our producer, James Carmichael, came into the mix, he insisted that the lyrics mean something. Not just a general idea, but focused in on our subject, with choruses, or hooks as they’re called, that are easily understood, and words that are simple but also carry the meaning of the entire song.”

The group also designed melodies that would make instant connections to listeners.

“After people hear a song one time, they can whistle it, walk down the street humming it,” King said. “That was our goal.”

The best parts of songs written by individual songwriters within the group were combined to make the best songs possible.

“Because one song had a really good chorus and another song had a really good verse,” King said. “And there were not many songs that we felt were going to be hits that didn’t become hits. Maybe two or three didn’t, but the rest of them just jumped out the box.”

The Commodores survived despite Richie’s departure for a solo career in 1983. They even got their first Grammy Award after he left, for 1986’s “Night Shift.”

“When Richie left, a lot of people who had been with us for years deserted us,” King remembered. “It was a shock. None of us wanted him to leave, but we never considered ourselves a group that, if one person left, the rest of us would disappear.

“But people didn’t even return our phone calls. It got really serious for us. It was very hurtful to us. But we learned a lesson. We toughened up, moved on and got busy.”

Richie’s replacement, British singer James Dean “J.D.” Nicholas, has been with the Commodores for nearly 40 years. He joined the group following an international search and more than 50 auditions.

“We had loved what we were doing and we’d loved doing it together,” King said. “So we wanted to keep that in the group. We thought that J.D. brought that with him. And I remember Milan saying, ‘The women are gonna love that accent.’ And he was a good looking guy, like the rest of us. He fell right into the whole thing that we were looking for and, of course, he can sing.”