Commodores: Still Sailin’ On

Funk and soul band, Commodores, were first formed in 1968 at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) from two former student music groups, the Mystics and the Jays. The new six-man band featured Lionel Richie, Thomas McClary, and William King from the Mystics … Richie later described some members of the Mystics as “jazz buffs;”  and Andre Callahan, Michael Gilbert, and Milan Williams from the Jays. To choose their new name, King opened a dictionary and randomly picked a word. “We lucked out,” he remarked with a laugh when later telling this story in a magazine interview. “We almost became ‘The Commodes.’

After signing with Motown in 1972, 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, Sail On, Three Times a Lady, Still, and Nightshift; and funky dance hits which include Brick House, Fancy Dancer, Lady (You Bring Me Up), and Too Hot ta Trot. They also made a brief appearance in the 1978 film Thank God It’s Friday. They performed the song Too Hot ta Trot during the dance contest, the song also appeared on the soundtrack. The songs Brick House and Easy were also played in the movie.

Richie left in 1982 to pursue a solo career, but the band carried on, replacing him with Skyler Jett. Founding member McClary also left the group shortly thereafter, and several other lineup changes occurred during this period. The group also gradually abandoned its funk roots and made the move into the more commercial pop arena. In 1984 former Heatwave singer James Dean “J.D.” Nicholas assumed co-lead vocal duties with drummer Walter Orange. That lineup was hitless until 1985 their final Motown album Nightshift, which gave them the hit song of the same name. The title track hit no. 3 in the U.S. and won The Commodores their first Grammy for “Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals” in 1985.

In 1990, Commodores formed Commodores Records and re-recorded their 20 greatest hits as Commodores Hits Vol. I & II. In 2010, they recorded a new version, dedicated to Michael Jackson after his demise. They were on a European tour, performing at Wembley Arena, London, on June 25, 2009. When they walked off the stage after the show, they were told that Michael Jackson had died. Initially the band thought it was a hoax, however, back in their dressing rooms they received confirmation and broke down in tears.

They have recorded a live album, Commodores Live, along with a DVD of the same name, and a Christmas album titled Commodores Christmas. In 2012, the band was reportedly working on new material, with some contributions written by current and former members.

As of 2020, Commodores consist of Walter “Clyde” Orange, James Dean “J.D.” Nicholas, and William “WAK” King, along with their five-piece band The Mean Machine. They continue to perform, playing at arenas, theaters, and festivals around the world.

Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of Operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected]