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Q&A: Commodores

No Lionel Richie is no problem for the Commodores, who continue to build off the “Brick House” foundation established more than 50 years ago.

G.K. Hizer
February 28, 2020

It’s hard to believe that the Commodores have been around for more than half a century. The group, which signed to Motown Records in 1972, formed at Tuskegee University in 1968 and released its debut album, Machine Gun, in 1974. In the decades since, the group has evolved through funk, soul, R&B, and pop to become part of the fabric of American pop music.

Although most people may think of Lionel Richie’s voice on ballads like “Easy,” “Sail On,” and “Three Times a Lady,” his departure in 1982 to pursue a solo career didn’t derail the group. Lead vocals had been alternated between Richie and Walter Orange since the band debuted, with Orange providing the voice for iconic funk/dance hits such as “Brick House” and “Too Hot ta Trot.” Orange went on to sing lead on the group’s signature single, “Nightshift,” which went on to not only land atop the singles charts in 1985 but also win a Grammy Award in 1986.

After parting ways with Motown, the Commodores proved to be ahead of the curve, forming their label in 1990, primarily to take control of the masters of their songs. And although the group hasn’t released a new studio album since 1993’s No Tricks, the band has stayed active, continuing to tour.

Regardless of changes in membership and changes in the music industry, the Commodores have remained an icon of pop, soul, and R&B for over five decades. With over 70 million albums sold, seven No. 1 singles, 20 top-10 singles, and 15 top-10 albums, they continue to draw fans young and old to dance to a lifetime of hits.

Founding member William King talked to Preview 918 about the group’s history, evolution, and what lies ahead before heading out for a 2020 tour that will bring the band to Osage Casino’s Skyline Event Canter March 28.

Q. Throughout the band’s career, you’ve gone through membership changes. Has that changed the chemistry?
A. I think the main thing is, Walter [Orange] has been with us since we got signed. He sings “Brick House” and a number of our hits, and sometimes I think he still gets a little frustrated when people think he’s singing [Lionel] Richie’s parts when it was him on those songs to begin with. I think the most significant change was when Richie left, and J.D. [Nicholas] came in almost 40 years ago.

The bottom line is it’s me, Walter, and J.D. at the core. We’re a five-piece band, and everybody sings, and everybody plays instruments.

Q. How has the group evolved through the years?
A. Most people don’t realize we started as pure instrumentalists before we started singing. We were the band and had girls or guys do the singing in front of us when we first formed. Our first hit, “Machine Gun,” was an instrumental. It didn’t do much in America at first, but it took off in Asia, then came back and became a hit during the disco movement.

We’ve weathered the storms — and I do mean storms, with a capital S. We’re the guys who’ve spent our lives doing this, and now we’re looking forward to bringing our kids into it. We’ve got two of our kids in the band, and they’re amazing musicians, so hopefully, we can pass it on to them.

Q. Did you form your record label to gain more creative control and freedom or more for the financial control?
A. It was more than one area. We found that to control your music you needed the masters, and Motown owned our master recordings.

We went back and recut our masters, using the same instruments, playing everything note for note. They sounded the same. We did that so that any time someone wanted to use our music for a movie or commercial, we were able to license the songs for a little lower than the record company. We did renegotiate with the record company, and I don’t believe we’ve stepped on each others feet too often. The label was able to license our music out, and our people were able to license it out, and we got paid either way.

The music business has changed so much over the years. We’re still getting used to streaming and getting paid from streaming. Not to beat up on the record companies, because they are useful, but you have to go after them to get your money sometimes.

Q. How has sampling extended your career, and does it feel like it’s helped you at all?
A. For us, it works in two ways. It does keep our sound and our music out there because they’re usually using our original recordings, but you have to catch them. Often, they sample small parts that people don’t recognize, but we’ve got people to watch for that, and so does our old record company. Most of it goes on overseas, but once we catch it, the judges don’t usually smile on that.

On the other hand, it does keep our music out there, and when they do realize who it is, people come back to our original stuff. Our audience has people of all ages and a lot of teens. So many of them heard us initially through other songs or listened to us because of their parents. That’s what I’m proud of. I think we came from a time when music was shining, people were playing their instruments, and bands were really creative.

Q. What should fans expect from the live show?
A. There will be the songs that everyone recognizes and a lot that they didn’t even realize we played. It will be a great night for everyone to come out and enjoy themselves.

Skyline Event Center | Osage Casino Hotel
951 W. 36th St. N. | Tulsa
March 28: 7 p.m.
Must be 18 or older to attend