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‘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

Andre’s Amazon Archive for 6/20/2015: ‘In The Pocket’ by The Commodores

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With the huge successes of songs such as “Three Times A Lady”,”Still”,”Sail On” and even “Lady” as recorded by Kenny Rogers? It was only a matter of time before Lionel Richie would leave the Commodores with a distinctive solo style of his own to draw on. As for The Commodores? They began the 80’s with their Heroes album-which looked to grab a somewhat more rock ‘n soul sound on some of the more uptempo numbers. And frankly wasn’t among their more successful musical outings from a commercial standpoint. Well by 1981 things had changed a lot on the R&B/soul music scene. In the US,disco was out of fashion and the radio was freezing out anything dancebale or “black” oriented. Yes it was racist. Yes it was exlusionist. But the one thing Lionel’s hit ballads had contributed to The Commodores was a way from them to ride out that storm. And its likely that at this point? They might’ve been wondering how ,with Lionel already confirmed to be leaving how they could regain their commercial success while also recapturing some of the uptempo and funkier elements that had gradually been eroded in their sound. This was the album that would have to be the proof of the pudding in that regard.

“Lady (You Bring Me Up)” is actually one of my favorite Commodores songs. With it’s melodic electric piano intro and strong post disco rhythm and strings? This song is an almost ideal blend of Doobie Brothers/Steely Dan style West Coast pop and Motown soul/funk which likely both inspired each other from the outset. “Saturday Night” is a smoldering,smoothed out cinematic groove that is extremely funky and sexy-with McClary taking the lead vocal. “Keep On Taking Me Higher” has a strong bass line and a sleek,slinky Walter Orange synthesizer that is somewhat influenced by the then emerging boogie funk sound-only much more live band/late 70’s era funk with a strong percussive bridge. “Oh No” and in particular the epic,gospel inflected “Lucy” which closes the album are the two Richie penned ballads-again with a strong countrypoliton style flavor about both of them. “Why You Wanna Try Me Baby” is a somewhat more funk oriented variation on the catchy West Coast vibe that starts off the album. “This Love” is a heavy,soulful,Walter Orange penned soul ballad while “Been Loving You” is a thick,deep and sleekly produced funk number that,by blending more advanced studio production with the Sly Stone end of the bands vibe,anticipates the way much modern retro funk tends to sound.

On a purely musical level? This primarily uptempo and funk oriented album found the Lionel Richie era Commodores coming to a conclusion that was relatively close to how they began. Yet also taking into consideration their newer found popular success. The bands level of musicianship had consistently evolved. The funk here is of course of a more advanced recorded and lest punchier nature than the sound they started out with. But a sophistifunk record by The Commodores was certainly preferable to no funk at all. Its also become clear to me how Lionel was actually going for a country/soul sound on his ballads in a similar vein to Ray Charles. Difference was Lionel was a straighter,less individual vocalist than Ray. And he never did infuse his country/soul ballads with the same level of blues and gospel either. They always favored the pop side. But in hindsight? They were very well done in the context of this albums generally funky nature. For someone who tends to avert their eyes to latter day Commodores? Thinking their ears might get a little sticky? They might be surprised just how much grooving sweat this 1981 album is capable of creating!

Originally posted on June 21’st,2014

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Filed under 1980's, Amazon.com, Commodores, country/soul, Funk, Lionel Richie, Motown, Music Reviewing, Walter Orange, West Coast