Call it the R&B equivalent of the old Paul McCartney joke, but somewhere around the time Lionel Richie found himself swimming in hit singles, courtesy of his Can’t Slow Down album, the Commodores went from being “one of the top bands during their tenure at Motown Records . . . credited with seven number one songs and a host of other top 10 numbers on the Billboard charts” (as they’re described in the All Music Guide To Rock) to being “that band Lionel Richie used to be in.”
Then, in 1985, the Commodores blew Lionel a raspberry and had the biggest hit of their career with “Night Shift” . . . and without Richie.
Lionel got his revenge by releasing a greatest-hits album, Back to Front, in 1992, including songs he recorded with the Commodores (like “Easy”, “Still”, “Sail On”, and “Three Times a Lady”), but only giving a slight parenthetical credit of “recorded with the Commodores”) in the liner notes for those songs. Since the Commodores hadn’t really followed up “Night Shift” with any further hits, this maneuver served to further perpetuate the myths that “Lionel Richie was the Commodores” and “the Commodores were all about easy-listening-style ballads”.
Let’s tackle both those myths, one at a time:
1. Lionel Richie might’ve been a songwriting fiend (he did, after all, write or co-write virtually all of the band’s hit singles) with a smooth set of vocal chords, but he was not the Commodores. The Commodores were the sum of their parts. Lionel Richie was the band’s lead vocalist as well as their alto sax man, but Walter “Clyde” Orange was the group’s co-lead vocalist (and drummer), Thomas McClary manned the guitar (and wrote “Slippery When Wet”, a number-one R&B hit for the band, all by his lonesome), Ronald LaPread plucked the bass strings, Milan Willliams handled the keys, and not only did William King blow the trumpet, but he also served as the band’s choreographer.
2. The Commodores damned sure weren’t all about easy-listening ballads. Anyone who’s ever had a booty and shaken it to “Brick House” knows that much (though you’d be surprised how many people don’t associate that song as being by the same band who released “Easy”). But if you need further proof, then you need look no farther than the Commodores, Live!, recently released on CD for the first time ever in the United States.
The disc’s liner notes, by A. Scott Galloway, refers to Live! in the same breath as Frampton Comes Alive. Album rock fans might have an aneurysm at the mere thought of comparing the two, but if the goal is to capture the live experience as well as a place in time in just a bit over an hour, then the comparison is apt.
Recorded during the Commodores’ 1977 tour of the US (specifically, on their dates at the Omni Theater in Atlanta, Georgia, and the Capital Center in Landover, Maryland), Live! captures a band at the height of their game. The group were touring behind their self-titled fifth album, which introduced the world not only to “Easy” (#4 on the Billboard charts) but to “Brick House” (#5) as well. They were definitely on top of their game, blending the funk with the soulful ballads with effortless ease.
There are plenty of hits in evidence here: the aforementioned “Slippery When Wet”, “Easy”, and “Brick House”, as well as “Sweet Love” and “Fancy Dancer”. Several tracks are extended in length from their album and single versions (“Zoom” cracks the 10-minute mark here, for example), but the performance and the listener’s inclusion into the live experience makes the time fly by.
The stage patter is easily as much fun as the music itself. When Lionel says, “Ah, I feel like I want to talk to all the ladies out there for just a minute,” the shrieking begins; when he then leaps headlong into “Just to Be Close to You”, you can well imagine it doesn’t stop. Later, he makes the observation to the Atlanta audience that “we started out last time with 9,000, then 10,000, then 15,000. Now, it looks like we’re gonna have to find a larger place to play for the Commodores family, y’all!”
The concert closer in those days . . . as it likely remains today . . . was “Brick House”. Also turned into a 10-minute R&B rave-up, the band would regularly hold a “Brick House” contest. On the album, however, Lionel changes the routine, saying to his bandmates, “I want y’all to look out in that audience at all the fine brick houses in Atlanta!”
“Listen!” Richie then shouts to the crowd. “It is impossible to have a brick house contest tonight and only pick one winner. So, tonight, let it be known that the Commodores have declared all the ladies in the building tonight to be brick house winners!”
The ladies of Atlanta, as one would likely expect, were decidedly pleased. Tacked onto Live! was the band’s contribution to the soundtrack of Thank God It’s Friday, the top 40 hit “Too Hot To Trot”. It’s nice from a chronological standpoint, but, without question, it does feel like a tack-on.
Live! is definitely deserving of its stature as one of the premiere live albums of the ‘70s . . . and that’s of any genre, Frampton fans.