William King: January 30, 1949 -
Ronald LaPread: September 14, 1950 -
William McClary: October 6, 1950 -
J.D. Nicholas: April 12, 1952 -
Walter “Clyde” Orange: December 10, 1946 -
Lionel Richie: June 20, 1949 -
Milan Williams: March 28, 1948 - July 9, 2006
Renowned for the funk, soul and R&B hits “Just to Be Close to You,” “Easy” and “Brick House,” the Commodores became one of the top bands in the world during their long tenure at the Detroit-based Motown label. The group is credited with 50 albums that produced seven No. 1 songs and a host of other Top 10 hits on the Billboard charts.
The members of the Commodores all attended Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. The original lineup consisted of William King on trumpet, Thomas McClary on guitar, Ronald LaPread on bass, Walter “Clyde” Orange on drums, Lionel Richie on saxophone and Milan Williams on keyboards. At loss for a name for their new group, Orange gave King a dictionary and told him to pick a name – and the word he chose was “commodore.”
The Commodores’ long association with Motown began as a result of a tour opening for the Jackson 5 in 1971. The group made its Motown debut recording the up-tempo instrumental dance cut “Machine Gun” in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The Top 10 hit was followed by the Top 20 single “I Feel Sanctified” and the group’s first No. 1 record, “Slippery When Wet.” The septet rocked the airwaves with its brand of Southern funk, spiced with an animated vocal delivery courtesy of lead singers Richie and Orange.
The Commodores’ Motown hit streak continued with their second No. 1 single, “Just to Be Close to You,” the Top 10 hit “Fancy Dancer” and the group’s first No. 1 ballad, “Easy.” The funky dance smash “Brick House,” which quickly became the group’s anthem, was followed by the consecutive No. 1 singles “Too Hot ta Trot,” “Three Times a Lady” and “Still.”
In 1982, Richie left the group to pursue a successful solo career. In his absence, the Commodores promptly courted tenor J.D. Nicholas (formerly of Heatwave) to join the group and ended up recording their biggest hit. Penned by Orange, “Night Shift” paid tribute to the late soul singers Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson. The single topped the charts for four consecutive weeks and earned the group its only Grammy Award to date.
The Commodores left the Motown label in 1985 and signed with Polydor the same year. The group returned to the Top 10 with “Goin’ to the Bank.” During the 1990s, the band’s lineup was reduced to a core of three Commodores: Orange, King and Nicholas. The trio later established its own label, Commodore Records, continuing to record and perform classic and contemporary sounds for sold-out crowds all over the world well into the 21st century.