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Before they became a pop ballad factory, the Commodores actually gave up the funk about as well as could be expected from Motown.  Indeed, the Alabama-based band's signing to Motown in 1971 was the label's only committment to funk until Rick James came along years later.

The Commodores began on the campus of the Tuskeegee Institute in the late 60s, mainly as a way to meet girls.  Their lineup consisted of Milan Williams (keyboards), Ronald LaPread (bass), Walter "Clyde" Orange (drums), Lionel Richie (saxophone), William King (trumpet) and Thomas McClary (guitar). By the end of the decade, however, their potential was evident, and they got serious about their musical career.  A critical development occured in 1969 when they signed with Benny Ashburn for management. Ashburn used his connections to promote the band with relentless tours and industry showcases.

All the hard work paid off when Motown signed the band in 1971.   However, instead of being ushered into the studio, the Commodores became the backing band for the Jackson Five.  For nearly three years, they toured the world, gaining experience and confidence, but still hadn't recorded an album.

With the J5 beginning to fall off in 1973-74, the Commodores finally got the chance to hit the studio.  They emerged with Milan Williams' funky synthesizer workout "Machine Gun."   It rocketed into the top 10, and the album of the same name yielded another hit in "I Feel Sanctified."  

The years 1975 and 1976 were very good ones for the group.  They earned their first chart-topper with "Slippery When Wet" in early 1975 and were fast becoming one of the country's most popular bands.  Better still, the Commodores were starting to get a taste of pop recognition as the singles "Just To Be Close To You" and "Sweet Love" both went top 10.  While the crossover success was unexpected, it did begin to alter their sound, as the mainstream audience clearly preferred ballads to sweaty funk. For a while, though, they continued to deliver funk classics such as "Fancy Dancer," "Hold On" and "Quick Draw."  

Things began to change with their self-titled 1977 release.   Previous singles had built up tremendous momentum on the pop market, and they made sure to appeal to this audience on the album. While "Brick House" was a certified funk monster, it lost some of its appeal when it was hijacked by white fraternities who practically adopted it as a theme song.  But it was "Easy," an exquisite ballad that became a standard, that pretty much ended the Commodores' tenure as a funk band.

From that point on, it seemed like every Commodores song was an easy-listening ballad, as their rare funk excursions were buried on LPs.  The Richie-penned "Three Times A Lady," "Still," "Sail On" and "Oh No" all charted better on the pop charts than r&b, a fascinating development considering their beginnings.  When Lionel Richie began collaborating with Kenny Rogers ("Lady") and Diana Ross ("Endless Love"), it was clear that he had become larger than the Commodores.

To his credit, Richie stayed with the Commodores through 1981's In The Pocket.   But by this point, the albums were virtual Lionel showcases, producing tremendous conflict within the democratic nature of the band.   Richie departed shortly after the album's release, taking longtime producer James Anthony Carmichael with him. The group soldiered on, scoring hits with "Only You," "Nightshift," and "Goin' To The Bank," but they gradually faded from the charts.  They remained an active touring until Milan Williams' death from cancer on July 9, 2006. .

Commodores' Deepest Grooves

Machine Gun (Motown, 1974)
Nothing but hard funk on this promising debut.  Besides the two hits, check for "The Bump" and "Rapid Fire," another instrumental.   

Caught In The Act (Motown, 1975)
Includes the very nasty "Slippery When Wet," "Wide Open" and "Better Never Than Forever." 

Movin' On (Motown, 1975)

Hot On The Tracks (Motown, 1976)

Commodores (Motown, 1977)

Commodores Live (Motown, 1977)
Captures the group right before their descent into MOR.  A good representation of their tight-knit musicianship, and the extended "Too Hot Ta Trot" only makes this worthwhile.

Natural High (Motown, 1978)

Midnight Magic (Motown, 1979)

Heroes (Motown, 1980)

In The Pocket (Motown, 1981)
Lionel's farewell to the group after nearly 15 years in the band.   Notable only for "Why You Wanna Try Me" and "Lady." 

Commodores 13 (Motown, 1983)

Nightshift (Motown, 1985)

United (Polydor, 1986)

Anthology (Motown, 2001)

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