"Black Beatles'" Wide Appeal
Dressed in a baseball uniform, William King cavorted with some of his buddies before 4,000 screaming concertgoers in the Greek Theater on Tuesday night, the first of four nights of performances.
Thirteen years ago, they were doing the same thing – only without the costumes, without an audience that paid steep ticket prices, and without 12 gold albums adorning the walls of their homes.
“We really started the Commodores as a means of meeting young ladies and having something to do that we all liked,” recalled King, 32, who is nicknamed Wak. He was sitting in the living room of his spacious home in Studio City. He also has homes in Tuskegee, Alabama, and Atlanta, Georgia.
Today, the Commodores are one of the top music attractions in the world, appealing to both pop and soul audiences. They have had seven Top 10 pop singles and five Top 10 soul singles.
King, the Commodores’ trumpeter, remembered when most of the band were students at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. “There was a talent show. (Guitarist) Thomas McClary stopped me one day walking on campus and said, ‘Hey man, I hear you play the trumpet.’ He introduced himself and I told him my name. He said, ‘We’re forming a group. We’re going over to this guy’s house. He plays piano and saxophone.’ So we went over to Lionel Richie’s house and he couldn’t play the saxophone. But if you hollered it to him, he could play it. . . . And so we said, ‘Well, this cat’s gonna be all right ‘cause all we want is to get over for the day.’ ”
They called themselves the Mystics. Soon after the show, another campus group, the Jays, merged with them to become the Commodores.
Their big break came when they drove 18 hours in a van from Alabama to New York in 1969 determined to persuade the owner of a Harlem nightclub to give them a chance. He did. They quickly worked the phones, calling everyone they knew with ties to Tuskegee, a private historically black college established in 1881, in New York.
“We opened on a Monday, an off-night for clubs,” said King, leaning back into the throw pillows on his beige couch. “But when the owner came, he saw people lined up all around the block. There were mothers and cousins and aunts and uncles. We had people for days. We were there for three weeks.”
The Commodores were paid only $16.50 each and all the chicken they could eat at that first club engagement. Now, the group earns an eight-figure income yearly. The shaky saxophone player, Richie, turned out t be better than just “all right.” The Commodores’ lead singer, he recently wrote the theme song for Brooke Shields’ movie, Endless Love, and sang with Diana Ross on the hit record of the song. He wrote and produced Kenny Rogers’ top single, Lady, and some of the pieces on Rogers’ latest LP, Share Your Love.
Other members of the Commodores are also branching out. Bassist Ronald LaPread is producing A Taste of Honey’s new album, and Keyboardist Milan Williams is doing the same for Stella Parton (Dolly’s sister) LP. Although the Commodores have plans to do things on their own, they will continue to thrive as a group, King said.
“One thing that’s kept us all together is not so much the competitive drive but the fact that we all have a common goal.
“The goal was to make this the number one group in the world and to conquer the entire musical spectrum – television, movies, newspapers, you name it. We all have different things we want to do. I want to produce music, television, movies and definitely records. But we still keep in mind that the reason we are able to achieve (individual goals) is because of the Commodores.”
King recently established a production company. He also is writing songs with his wife, Shirley, who co-wrote You Bring Me Up, the Commodores’ current hit, with him. They have two sons – Ryan, 4, and Adam, 2.
Part of the Commodores’ appeal has been the group’s versatility. Even though the band records for the Motown label, it never has restricted itself to soul music. “We’ve always done that,” said King. “Even when people said, ‘You can’t play it.’ We used to play Wichita Lineman. I mean, let’s face it, that’s not funk. We played Blood, Sweat and Tears, Santana, and a lot of Beatle songs. And people loved them. As a matter of fact, clubs called us up and asked us to play Wichita Lineman.
“We have so many different kinds of people in the group. Clyde (Walter Orange, the drummer and singer) is into jazz and big bands. Tommy’s into acid rock and heavy metal. Milan’s into country. I’m more of a ballad guy. Richie is also a ballad guy, although I like up-tempo things- way up-tempo. And Ronald’s a mixture. It’s a mixture of all these things you hear now.”
While a business major in college, King wrote a 250-page paper analysing the success of the Beatles. He found that they were able to play large concert halls because they performed pieces that had mass appeal. The Commodores, sometimes called the “Black Beatles” by music critics, consciously followed that formula.
“We try to put certain types of songs on albums to have a wide-ranging album. We like to keep it so it’s versatile. We like to say, ‘It’s 8 to 80.’ We always appeal to people of all ages, and we want to keep it that way.
“The standard for the Commodores is concerts, touring, and albums. We do that blindfolded. We enjoy going for all this and achieving it. We have never really thought there was anything we couldn’t do.”
(This piece was first published by the Long Beach Press-Telegram on October 23, 1981.)