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The Commodores/Lionel Richie

Reviewed on this page:
Rise Up - Caught In The Act - Movin' On - Hot On The Tracks - Commodores - Live! - Natural High - Midnight Magic - Heroes - In the Pocket - Lionel Richie - 13 - Can't Slow Down - Nightshift - United - Just For You

Formed in Tuskegee, Alabama, the Commodores were the backbone of Motown's success in the 1970s (along with the Jackson 5). You don't hear much about them now, but during their 1975-1979 peak they were behind only Earth, Wind & Fire and P-Funk as pop-funk ensembles: EWF had more substance and better arrangements, and P-Funk had more personality, but nobody was better at knocking out head-bobbing grooves or romantic love songs. Though some songs were written by the entire band, most were efforts by individual bandmembers, and usually everybody would get at least one tune onto each album. Over time, it became increasingly apparent that Lionel Richie's contributions almost always became hits, making it inevitable that he would leave for huge solo success - that finally happened in 1982. I suspect it was Richie's lowest-common-denominator solo career that ruined the band's rep, because their Seventies records are terrific, with side dishes of gentle ballads and straight-ahead pop accompanying the main course of low-down funk - even in 1979 and 1980, when practically everyone was turning to disco, the band continued to turn out kinetic funk jams. The one or two Richie ballads on each classic album are usually quite good, and in context provide a refreshing change of pace. So go pick up some Commodores records, and if anybody tries to mock you, send 'em to me. (DBW)

William King (trumpet), Thomas McClary (guitar), Lionel Richie (saxophone, some lead vocals), Milan Williams (keyboards), Andre Callahan (drums), Michael Gilbert (bass). Early on, Callahan and Gilbert were replaced by Walter "Clyde" Orange (lead vocals, drums) and Ronald LaPread (bass). Richie left, 1982. McClary left, 1984. J.D. Nicholas (vocals) joined, 1985. LaPread left, 1986. Band broke up around 1993. Williams died on cancer, July 2006.

Rise Up (rec. 1969, rel. 1987)
The band released a 1969 single - "Keep On Dancing" / "Rise Up" - on Atlantic, but when it stiffed, this album was shelved for a couple of decades. Instrumental covers of current pop hits ("Sing A Simple Song") produced by Jerry "Swamp Dogg" Williams, and the only reason you'd want to hear this is to listen for hints of the band's future greatness. Personally, I can't hear any: they sound just like any other MGs knockoff, racing through well known tunes like "(I Know) I'm Losing You") without introducing anything new into the arrangements or performances. I'm not sure whether original rhythm section Andre Callahan and Michael Gilbert are present; the disc's liner notes say yes but other sources say Orange and LaPread were brought on board before the group first came to New York. (DBW)

Machine Gun (1974)
The clavinet-led, Billy Preston-like title instrumental (not the Hendrix tune) was their first hit, produced by James Anthony Carmichael and the band: the same combination that would produce all the group's hit records. "Rapid Fire" is similarly enjoyable but not as memorable. The sledgehammer funk that would dominate their followup is only present on a couple of tracks ("Young Girls Are My Weakness"; "The Bump," with a main riff strikingly similar to Parliament's 1977 "Flashlight"). "I Feel Sanctified," produced by George Tobin, is snappy, gospel-influenced pop/funk that should have been a hit. And side two is quite weak: written and produced by Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer of Motown's Corporation, "The Assembly Line" lives up to its name, recycling the melody from Ashford & Simpson's "You're All I Need To Get By" with a confused, scattershot arrangement. Jones and Sawyer also contributed "The Zoo (The Human Zoo)." Richie's first lead vocal feature, his own "There's A Song In My Heart," is as drippy as you might imagine; it was produced by Terry Woodford and Clayton Ivey. The group had so many better records it's hard to give this much of a recommendation, though it certainly has its moments. (DBW)

Caught in the Act (1975)
The best record the Ohio Players never made. Outrageous funk, with the heavy rhythm guitar and - thanks to Walter Orange - yowling vocals concurrently explored by OP's Sugarfoot Bonner, but even better tunes. It's also the only album I can think of that integrates clavinet as an equal partner - not the dominant instrument, but not a special effect either. McClary's "Slippery When Wet," a hit single, was the blueprint for Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music" - same chord progression, vocal approach, and feel - but the Commodores' version also features a spectacular riff doubled by Richie at the top of the saxophone's range. "Wide Open" is damn near as good, while Richie's "Let's Do It Right" is in the mold of Sly Stone inspirational tunes like "Everyday People." There's also a fascinating anti-love song about the folly of permanent attachments in a fundamentally broken world (Williams' "Better Never Than Forever"). Not counting a repeated track ("The Bump"), the weakest link is the closing soul ballad "You Don't Know That I Know," and even that's a respectable tune. (DBW)

Movin' On (1975)
Not much lead guitar or clavinet, so it's a bit mellower but otherwise equally compelling. Richie's "Sweet Love," a lovely ballad with a deceptively simple chorus, was the group's first Top Ten single. On side one they have a tremendous sense of groove - the first three songs blend into each other in a funk symphony - but not enough substance: "Mary Mary" has no structure, and it's easy to tune out after a while. On the other hand, that's probably the album's weakest track: LaPread's "Gimme My Mule" is a clever bass thumper; Orange's "(Can I) Get A Witness" makes sly use of stop-start structure and syncopated horns; the laid-back "Time" has a wonderful heavy chorus; even the instrumental "Cebu" has hooks galore and a fun surprise ending. (DBW)

Hot on the Tracks (1976)
Less fiery: strings appear, and clavinet and heavy guitar are restricted to one track each (respectively, "Captain Quickdraw" and LaPread/Richie's "Fancy Dancer" - a Top Forty hit and the album's high point). The slickness gets out of control on side one, sometimes even disco-y (King's "Let's Get Started"). As would become routine, the first side closes with an extended Richie romance tune: "Just To Be Close To You" was another Top Ten. But there's more wondrous funk on side two, with King's greasy "Thumpin' Music" and McClary and Richie's irresistable "Come Inside." (DBW)

Commodores (1977)
Showing amazing range, this disc contains one of the mellowest songs of all time (Lionel Richie's gorgeous, piano-driven "Easy") and perhaps the low-down funkiest sex song of all time: "Brick House." Both were Top Five hits. "Heaven Knows" combines both styles, starting with a lovely Richie verse and shifting to a nasty slithering chorus. "Zoom" is a standard-issue Richie slowie that unaccountably consumes almost seven minutes - at this point Richie started singing lead on his own tunes. The record's also notable for the sudden prominence of Ronald LePread's new round tone on bass, which drives not only "Brick House" but also King's wonderful "Funky Situation." (DBW)

Live! (1977)
While most live double albums allow the musicians room to display talents concealed by the time constraints of studio releases, here most of the expanded running time is blown needlessly lengthening Richie's ballads ("Easy" balloons to seven minutes; "Sweet Love" is eight and a half; "Zoom" is over ten, but it does sport a new funky middle). "Brick House" is the exception, but even that is prolonged with an audience participation section - that stuff works great in a concert setting, but listening to it at home is just frustrating. The song selection is good though not surprising ("Come Inside"); the performance is enthusiastic and enjoyable, though Richie overdoes the audience banter. The one studio track, "Brick House" rewrite "Too Hot Ta Trot," was a charting single. (DBW)

Natural High (1978)
Plenty of good ideas, but the execution is garbled. "Flyin' High" has enough riffs for three tunes, and in fact sounds like three tunes thrown together: funky drums and bass, played at a disco tempo with disco strings, and topped with Chicago-style wimpy vocal harmonies. "Visions" is just as mixed-up but a lot more fun - an Orange slowie that keeps threatening to boil over into guitar/clavinet nastiness, but never quite does. The overlong hit Richie ballad is perhaps his worst, the lyrically inane, melodically minimal "Three Times A Lady" - his other contribution, "Say Yeah" is a bit better. The hard funk, though, is heavier than ever, with McClary debuting a new fuzzed-out, rubbery guitar tone ("X-Rated Movie," "Such A Woman" - though the chorus recycles Rufus's "You Got The Love" riff). Don't pick this up first, but it's far from an embarrassment. By now Motown was finally allowing its sales figures to be audited, so this became the first Commodores album to be certified platinum though Commodores had charted just as well. (DBW)

Midnight Magic (1979)
More polished - occasionally too polished: the title track verges on formula disco, though LaPread's bass work does invigorate it some. LaPread's also the featured instrumentalist on the midtempo grinds "You're Special" (not as sappy as you'd think) and "Wonderland" (a minor hit). His best work, though, is on the unbelievable funk number "Sexy Lady," which is my favorite Commodores song ever: a steamroller verse/chorus, a James Brown-like staccato bridge, and a giddy four-section middle, as if they'd decided to put P-Funk to shame - and for this one song, they do. Both Richie's ballads are subpar, though both were huge hits: the countrified kiss-off "Sail On" and the underarranged "Still." (DBW)

Heroes (1980)
After an admirable career-long aversion to consciousness-raising, the band suddenly shifted focus, delivering three sermons ("Wake Up Children," "Mighty Spirit," "Jesus Is Love") and Richie's lengthy pro-good things title track - which has an interesting, Paul Buckmaster-like string arrangement but not much of a melody. "Wake Up Children" is the best of the bunch, with slide guitar on the verses shifting to loud distortion on the choruses. Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire could pull off preachy numbers because the joy and love in their music makes you want whatever they've got - the Commodores aren't in that league. But when they stick to funk, they still bring home the tempeh ("Got To Be Together"). Williams' nostalgic "Old-Fashion Love" was the none-too-successful single; the album went platinum anyway. The same year, Richie started giving songs to other artists: Kenny Rogers recorded "Lady" and it became the year's biggest hit, topping the charts for six weeks - it might have stayed there longer if the assassination of John Lennon hadn't pushed "(Just Like) Starting Over" to the top. (DBW)

In the Pocket (1981)
King's Kool & The Gang-style hit "Lady (You Bring Me Up)" is an astonishingly well-crafted pop song, with flaring horns and unexpected thrills like swirling strings over otherwise unaccompanied percussion (never repeated) and clever guitar fills. Richie's "Oh No" was also a hit - unremarkable except for the doubled sliding guitar solo. Richie's other contribution, "Lucy," has the country touches and sweeping arrangement of an Elton John ballad, but lacks impact. The record as a whole doesn't have much heart, just lots of lackluster imitations like "Been Lovin' You," which has the loping groove, gentle guitar licks and group falsetto of mid-70s EWF, and even uses the bass line from "In The Stone." Also in 1981, Richie's duet with Diana Ross "Endless Love" (from the soundtrack to the Brooke Shields movie of that name) stayed at #1 for nine weeks and was the year's biggest hit. (DBW)

Lionel Richie (Richie: 1982)
Richie's first solo album went high up the charts, propelled by three Top Five ballads: "My Love," the sparely-arranged "Truly," and the irresistable if corny "You Are" (written with then-wife Brenda Harvey-Richie). He can come up with first rate melodies (although "My Love" sounds like a rewrite of his earlier "Easy (Like Sunday Morning)"), which inclines me to forgive all his other excesses. But the uptempo numbers are pure schlock ("Serves You Right"), all the lyrics are painfully obvious ("Just Put Some Love In Your Heart"), the production (by Richie and Carmichael) is supersmooth LA pop without any distinguishing features, with nothing remotely funky. You know you're out of R&B territory when Kenny Rogers drops by to add backing vocals, and he fits right in. All the players are big names: Joe Walsh and Jimmy Connors (on vocals) guest, and session musicians include Paulinho Da Costa, Nathan East, Greg Phillinganes, Jerry Hey, etc. Don't expect to get anything out of this besides the three singles. (DBW)

13 (1983)
Without Richie or Carmichael, the five remaining Commodores wrote and produced by themselves, but rather relying on their own strengths, they mostly try to imitate Richie. McClary contributes two ballads, "Captured" and "Welcome Home," but Williams's "Only You" is easily the closest approximation of a Richie hit, with the signature descending bass, metronomic piano, and call-and-response melodic phrases. It's not bad, just depressingly unoriginal. What's more disturbing, the uptempo numbers abandon the group's organic funk for flavorless pop gimmicks like teenybopper up-down drumming, synth fiddling and snippets of chorusy distorted guitar - it's generic yet grating, like a Laura Branigan record. Meanwhile, "Turn Off The Lights" aims for the same target as "Lady (You Bring Me Up)," but record buyers weren't impressed; "Nothing Like A Woman" is pretty good, as empty pop songs go. (DBW)

Can't Slow Down (Richie: 1983)
Out of eight tracks, five were Top Ten singles, so you can't go too far wrong if you're interested in this guy. The pseudo-calypso "All Night Long (All Night)" and the fine piano ballad "Hello" were both #1's; the midtempo "Penny Lover" and "Running With The Night" are forgettable; "Stuck On You" is a slender but irresistable love song - the guitar hook turned up on Clapton's "Tears In Heaven." The title track directly copies the groove of "Wanna Be Startin' Something," with a mechanical synth arrangement performed by David Cochrane. Most of the same studio musicians from Richie's debut reappear; the chant section on "All Night Long" includes Janice Marie Johnson and many others. (DBW)

Thomas McClary (Thomas McClary: 1984)
"Thin Walls" was the single. (DBW)

Nightshift (1985)
In one fell swoop, they lost everything that made the Commodores the Commodores. Here's the list of big changes: 1) Dennis Lambert took over as producer. 2) McClary split. 3) Half the material is by outsiders like Diane Warren ("Lightin' Up The Night," with Jeff Lorber), Martin Page ("Animal Instinct") and Patrick Henderson ("The Woman In My Life"). 4) There are so many studio musicians it's hard to tell what the actual Commodores might have played. 5) Half the lead vocals are by squeaky-voiced new singer J.D. Nicholas, who sounds like a DeBarge reject. Despite all this, the record went gold, and the Marvin Gaye/Jackie Wilson tribute title track became a Top Five single. Production-wise, it's your basic 1985 pop record: glassy synths playing no discernable melody ("Animal Instinct"), stubbly chorused rhythm guitar from Paul Jackson Jr. (title track), booming gated snares ("Slip Of The Tongue"). The same year, Richie co-wrote "We Are The World" with Michael Jackson - the charity single became the year's biggest hit. (DBW)

United (1986)
A strange title, given that LaPread had just left, bringing the original members down to three - not one of whom plays a note here (each member does get exactly one co-write). Sonically, they continue in the unrewarding hi-tech direction of Nightshift - the only 80s production pitfall they avoid is the stuttering vocal sample. The hit, "Goin' To The Bank," is more obnoxious than you can imagine, with Nicholas rapping in Dana Dane mode; Siedah Garrett portrays a bank teller. "Land Of the Dreamers" is a textbook example of how not to make a pop song, starting with a lame hook, developing through trite lyrics and meaningless guitar flourishes, and ending with an oh-so-spooky echoing coda. Sheldon Reynolds wrote several tunes with Lambert, and adds guitar throughout. Carmichael returned to co-produce two tracks, but it didn't make any appreciable difference. On balance, not much worse than the previous travesty, but without a memorable single there's just no excuse for owning it. (DBW)

Dancing On The Ceiling (Richie: 1986)
Richie scored three more Top Ten hits with the title track, "Love Will Conquer All" and "Ballerina Girl." After this he didn't release anything for a full decade, other than a couple of new tunes on a greatest hits compilation. (DBW)

Solitaire (1988)

Commodores Christmas (1992)

XX No Tricks (1993)

Louder Than Words (Richie: 1996)
Richie recruited a bunch of big names for this comeback attempt: producers include Babyface and Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, and everyone from Robert Palmer to Peter Gabriel guests. Richie even tries to rap on a few tracks. Aw yeah. (DBW)

Time (Richie: 1998)
Contains Richie's own version of "Lady," and a couple of Diane Warren tunes. (DBW)

Renaissance (Richie: 2000)

Just For You (Richie: 2004)
It's hard to play the part of versatile pop chameleon without losing your individuality, and four albums into his comeback Lionel Richie doesn't sound like Lionel Richie anymore. He tries upbeat rockers ("Outrageous"),
Neptunes-style loop funk ("Heaven"), and plenty of midtempo love songs (title track, "Just To Be With You Again," but they're all unforgiveably bland and ordinary. More curiously, over the years Richie's voice has grown so hoarse that he sounds very much like old pal Kenny Rogers. Where Richie used to create memorable ballads so effortlessly, now the best he can come up with is the faux anthem "Road To Heaven" (produced by Lenny Kravitz, as was the trite power ballad "Time Of Our Life"). The one worthwhile cut is a shameless Michael Jackson ripoff, "Do Ya" (written and performed with Daniel Bedingfield). Most tracks were produced by either Mark Taylor ("One World") or 7 (the sluggish "In My Dreams"); musicians include Chuckii Booker, Charles Fearing, Paul Bushnell and Trevor Lawrence Jr. (DBW)


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