Tag Archives: The Commodores

‘Commodores’ Turns 40: The Tuskeegee Funk Icons Take It Easy As Sunday Morning

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The Commodores were a band who I didn’t personally associate with funk for many years. A lot of it had to do with how musical literature handled them. That was until it became clear through finding (and listening) to them that the Commodores first four albums from 1974 through 1976 were by and large hardcore albums in what is referred to as the Southern funk genre. The sound was inspired heavily by Milan Williams’ Billy Preston-like Clavinet and the bands extremely strong instrumental vitality. When 1977 came along,the band released their self titled album-one which is celebrating 40 years with us as of today.

This album marked huge changes for the band. Displayed proudly on the jacket,flying through the sky like a fictive jet airliner,is the Commodores new metallic “belt buckle” logo. This would seem to signal a new level of success for them. Commercially,that’s exactly what happened. It was their second #1 R&B chart album in a row. And it was their first album to cross over into to pop Top 5. It also had the advantage of containing the bands two signature songs in the classic funk of “Brick House” and the soul ballad “Easy”. Of course,I was able to convey some of its broader musical influence on my Amazon.com review of the album.


In terms of the funk era of the early/mid 1970’s? It was The Commodores,in terms of newly formed bands, who most thoroughly represented the genre on Motown. Milan Williams, William King,Walter Orange,Thomas McClary and of course Lionel Richie in particular had now proven important members of a formidable musical team. Many of the bands members were multi instrumentalists. With their previous album Hot on the Tracks,the bands funk was at its most diverse and creative.

Their funk was able to blend strong pop songwriting with hefty grooves that put them into the possible position of being a Southern version of Earth Wind & Fire in terms of success. Story goes that around this time,the bands co-producer James Anthony Carmichael had told Lionel that the songs he was writing for the Commodores didn’t work. And that he should be recording the songs he was writing for other people instead. This album marks The Commodores at the exact point before that change began to seriously take place.

“Squeeze The Fruit”,”Funny Feelings”,”Funky Situation” and “Patch It Up” are all very much in the league of the classic 70’s Commodores sound-that think,bass/guitar fried sound that…well to me always represented what made them distinct among the funk bands of that era. On the faster of those numbers? The feeling is almost rocking in a very clean and soulful way. On the slower numbers? The effect is very much in the Sly Stone vein-again with that Southern twist. “Heaven Knows” can actually fool you.

It starts out sounding like a mid tempo,melodic love ballad before spinning of into that Southern Sly Stone variant funk sound on the choruses. “Won’t You Come And Dance With Me” and “Funky Situation” both have slightly more jazz oriented choruses as a wraparound for the heavy funk elements. “Zoom” is actually a very elaborate,cinematic ballad that contrasts heavily with the the countryish gospel leanings of the big hit “Easy” which closes out the album. “Brick House”,with its bass line and cat calling is not only the best known Commodores funk hit but among their very sexiest as well.

Just as a frame of reference,without introducing any needless musical spoilers? This would be the last Commodores album that would have this particular sound about it. Their final two albums of the 70’s such as Natural High and Midnight Magic would favor melodic soul/pop and slow Lionel Richie penned ballads to a far stronger degree than hard funk. At least in terms of how their albums were put together. I do realize there are people who would say that entire change was already underway by the time of this album.

And if someone asked me over a decade ago I’d probably have agreed with them. But one thing I realize is even the Commodores slower numbers during this period represent part of a diverse,fuller funk/soul album package than they might’ve seemed. On this album? The slow songs are slow jams. Full of soul and full of cinematic funk. They have a rhythm and you can tap your foot to them. So when all things get done? This is in fact something of a coda on The Commodores classic funk sound. And a very strong one that any Commodores/Motown/funk admirer who doesn’t already have it should seek out.


Since writing this review,my personal views on the Commodores ballads have broadened. Much of that comes from seeing them through the eyes of my friend Henrique Hopkins. He experienced them through the strong black community of his native Oakland,California. And its helped me to realize how much true Southern soulfulness permeates both the fast and slow music on this album. That might have a lot to do with this having been their breakthrough album. It offered up the best and most soulful side of everything this band can do. And essentially began an entirely new musical period for them in doing so.

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Anatomy Of THE Groove For The Brothers And Sisters Who Aren’t Here: “Machine Gun” by The Commodores

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.

 

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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

Anatomy Of THE Groove for 6/19/2015: “Heroes” by The Commodores

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.

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Filed under 1980's, ballads, Benny Ashburn, civil rights, Funk, Funk Bass, Heroes, Lionel Richie, Milan Williams, Motown, Ronald LePread, The Commodores, Tuskegee University

Anatomy of THE Groove 12/19/2014 Andre’s Pick: “System Of Survival” by Earth Wind & Fire

Following the creatively messy and less than successful late 1983 album Electric Universe, Earth Wind & Fire split up. After a few years of solo releases from Phillip Bailey and Maurice White,the pair reunited with Verdine and Andrew Woolfolk of the original Columbia lineup. To succeed supplicant guitarist Roland Bautista,they band were joined by Sheldon Reynolds-who has already succeeded another famous funk guitarist in The Commodores’ Thomas McClary after 1983-incidentally the same year EWF split up in the first place. During the late 1980’s Cameo,Con Funk Shun,The Bar Kays and Ghe Commodores were all paring down to smaller,more synthesizer focused lineups.

Since electronics were to some degree blamed for the musical reasons that may have broken up the band? It was interesting that EWF took a similar path to many of their funk contemporaries by paring down to a smaller lineup. Especially since the band had been most known for it’s distinct horn section. At the same time? This comeback probably clicked on a very important point at just the right time and when the band were in a good position to do so. This came fully in the form of the 1987 album Touch The World. And a lead off hit single from the album that represented something of a game changer not merely for EWF but one that had been progressing over the last year or so in funky dance music in general.

The song begins with the sound of a radio dial being switched around as a voice continually repeats “the biggest unanswered question is where is the money”. After several news snippets the song goes into Ronald Reagan saying “I’m not going to tell lies to the American people. I’ll leave that to others”-with that last line repeated two additional times before a vocoderized voice is heard saying “system of survival” before a chiming synth and a very fast dance rhythm and bass synth come into the song. Throughout the song? The bluesy main chorus goes into a call and response lead vocal between Maurice White and a rather digitally processed  bass voice-followed by a counter refrain from Bailey’s renowned falsetto.

During the bridge of the song there is a re-visitation of the voice speaking “the biggest unanswered question is where is the money”. This time the voice goes onto say “the president has yet to address the issue of money”.  After this the synth bass line leads back into a passionate lead of call and response “yeah yeah’s” from Maurice and Phillip before going into a spirited melodic improvisation of the basic song itself. The song leads out with Maurice again having a musical call and response with the horn section saying “ah,lets work” as the horns continually respond very much in classic James Brown funk fashion for the rest of the song. On the last horn break a low voice again repeats the songs title before it fades fully into a amplified,processed electronic line.

Considering the emergence of socially conscious hip-hop from KRS-1 and Public Enemy in 1986 and 1987? It seemed more than appropriate that the classic funk acts that had so influenced those people would have their own commentary on the situation-stated lyrically and musically from their perspective. Musically speaking this song features the same sort of JB style vocal/horn interaction that EWF had championed during their late 70’s heyday. At the same time,it featured the quick dance tempo that was very inherent to the new jack swing style that was about to become the mainstream funk based black dance sound for the next half decade or so. Still,the rhythm itself is again out of the classic funk school from which EWF came.

Conceptually this song has a rather similar approach to where the conscious funk based hip-hoppers were going. Rather than using samples,they used found radio news sounds to very clearly illustrate than President Reagan’s economic policies on urban America in particular. It doesn’t come from the point of view of the younger people who were facing this situation more directly. It was coming from people who had come directly out of the hopeful futurism of civil rights and black power. People who,in early middle age were beginning to see what they’d worked hard for beginning to crumble before their eyes. The usually hopeful Maurice White even sings at one point “I’m looking for somebody new to lead the revolution”. Even after such a near cynical reaction,White comes right back with his homegrown optimism with “so I dance,it’s my system of survival”. Just as with many American’s under Reaganomics? EWF were re-emerging with new membership,and still going strong doing their own dance of life!

 

 

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Filed under 1980's, Earth Wind & Fire, Funk, Funk Bass, Hip-Hop, James Brown, New Jack Swing