Milan Williams,having been gone for ten years now,seemed to have come into playing piano due to mild sibling worship because of his multi instrumentalist brother Earl. This Mississippi native met the other members of the Commodores while he was a freshman at Tuskegee Institute. In 1974 the band signed to Motown and released their debut album Machine Gun in July of that year. This particular album was one of a handful of albums in the mid/late 70’s that were 100% funk-featuring no slow ballads. Milan would go on to write or co-write many of the Commodores big uptempo numbers,including their best known funk number in “Brick House” four years after their debut.
During the 1980’s,founding members Lionel Richie and Thomas McClary left the Commodores to pursue solo careers. The main instrumentalists of the band stayed on and recorded with former Heatwave vocalist JD Nichols. Milan left the band in 1989. The reason for his departure was when the commercial decline of the Commodores in the late 80’s led them to accept an offer to tour in South Africa. While Milan considered the band members his musical brothers,he could not bring himself to financially feed into the racist Apartheid system of that country. As for his contributions to the band,few stand as tall on the funk level as the title song of their 1974 debut album itself.
Milan begins the song with a big scaling piano. Walter Orange’s drums along with his accompanying percussion accents open up the clave for Milan to expand on the rhythm. The main melody of the song is a very bluesy one played on Clavinet. Below that is a fast bumping synth bass line while a higher pitched synth bursts out from that…indeed in the manner rapid gun fire. The refrain adds a thick wah wah guitar to the Clavinet and synth bass line before returning to the chorus. The second time around on this theme,the higher lead synth is a bleeping pulse. This goes into a bridge that showcases the percussion and chugging rhythm guitar before fading out on it’s chorus.
This debut song from the Commodores really solidified the bands uptempo funk sounds. In terms of it’s fastness and the heavily rhythmic use of electric piano/synthesizers,this song echoes Billy Preston’s early/mid 70’s funk instrumentals in terms of predating the electro funk of the coming decade of the 1980’s. This is especially true with Milan,playing most of the instruments on this number,utilizing the round and bubbling synth bass as the bottom of the song,is one of the most technically expert examples of an earlier synth bass line. The musical attitude is also in the countrified Southern Funk sub-genre. So on an instrumental level,this song is one of the Commodores most powerful grooves.
Filed under 1970's, clave, clavinet, Commodores, drums, instrumental, Milan Williams, Motown, percussion, rhythm guitar, Southern Funk, synth bass, synthesizer, Tuskegee University, Uncategorized, wah wah guitar, Walter Orange
By the time 1980 rolled around? The new decade found The Commodores as basically Motown’s premiere band. One capable of delivering on the hardest funk and the most delicately crafted,down home country soul ballads. Considering the band members all met at Tuskegee Institute,at the height of the civil rights and black power movements? It only seemed appropriate that as the less than certain social/racial atmosphere of the then new decade began to reveal itself? That the band would find a meaningful way to comment on the situation. This came in the form of the title song to the bands release from that year entitled Heroes.
Walter Orange starts of the song with a loud drum kick and proceeds to brush away lightly. All over a string and horn chart that descends into a stripped down ballad with Lionel Richie’s plaintive vocal lead accompanied by Milan William’s acoustic guitar-with accents from Ron LePread’s round slap bass licks. On the choruses? The drum kicks off into more of a big beat type sound-along with an almost rather staccato Brazilian type guitar lick. On the final refrain of the song? The band all join together for a heavy,bass/guitar driven funk stomp where the string section plays the bluesy melodic accents of that very same bass/guitar interaction right along with it.
Instrumentally speaking? This song showcases the strong musical breadth that The Commodores possessed during their prime. The focus of this song is often very spare-with the acoustic guitar,light drum brushing and bass accents leading much of it. In the tradition of mid 70’s Motown hits such as “Love Hangover” that showcased strong juxtapositions of groove and changes in tempo? This song starts out in a manner that doesn’t particularly suggest it’s ever going to be a funk jam. Yet that’s just what it becomes by the end. And it’s not an abrupt change. The changes in tempo,rhythm and feeling changes throughout the song-so the transition into hard funkiness is totally natural.
Much of the strong mood music this song presents comes out of it’s lyrical content. In addition to their Southern American heritage? Growing up in the era of the major civil rights gains of the 1950’s? This song eloquently and beautifully pays tribute to many of the historical figures and leaders who helped to advance the cause of liberation for black Americans over time. And interestingly enough does so without naming specific names. Well aware of the importance and rarity of them having black management in the personage of the late Benny Ashburn? This song basically speaks to the vital significance of being able to have internal icons black American’s can celebrate. In today’s world where some black people seem to all too easily apologize for even the cruelest of white racists? This is a song that I feel more young people today should hear and know something about in terms of it’s subtext.
Filed under 1980's, ballads, Benny Ashburn, civil rights, Funk, Funk Bass, Heroes, Lionel Richie, Milan Williams, Motown, Ronald LePread, The Commodores, Tuskegee University