August 5, 2008

Once, Twice, 40 Years the Commodores

By Al Rudis

Though they were unknowns opening for the Jackson 5 in huge arenas, the six young college freshmen from Alabama who called themselves the Commodores made an immediate impression long before their first record album.

After almost every song, there was a flurry of activity on the stage as the Tuskegee Institute students ran around to different instruments and microphones. It seemed that among them they could play and sing anything and any style.

In their early flush of success in the '70 s they were once called the Black Beatles. The white Beatles had manager Brian Epstein. The Commodores also had a dedicated mastermind, one who probably was most responsible for their breakthrough and early success.

Unfortunately, Benny Ashburn died prematurely, of a heart attack, and shortly afterward, singer Lionel Richie left the group and went on to solo stardom.

William King, one of two original members still in the group, said it wasn't the death of Ashburn that led to the split, because everyone in the group knew it was coming.

"Benny was trying to do what he could do to get things back to what you might consider as normal, and all of us back together, and it was just past that point," King said last week in a phone interview. "Benny was one of those people who believed that the six guys should die together, but it wasn't what Richie was thinking at the time, needless to say. And it was just a lot of pressure."

King was speaking from Philadelphia, Miss., a rural town still associated with the infamous 1964 murders of three civil rights workers. But times have changed, and now there's "a very nice, very hip Indian casino" there, King said, and that's where the group was playing.

Though personnel has changed through the years, King, original drummer/singer Walter "Clyde" Orange and their colleagues have carried on, and on Sunday night, they're among the headliners at the Long Beach Jazz Festival. In its 21 st year, the festival is broadening its lineup to include soul music, from acts such as the Commodores and the Whispers, mixed in with jazz.

It's been 40 years since the young students first got together and were caught up in a whirlwind of success.

"We were all in our minds destined to do other things, but then we met and formed this group, and things really changed, because now we were not college boys from little Southern towns anymore," said King. "We were now guys who were traveling all over the world.

"I mean, our freshman year, we were in Europe. You got 19-, 20- year-old boys just coming out of high school basically, and now we're off in Europe. We're in Saint-Tropez, we're in Cannes, France, we're in London. You study about the leaning tower of Pisa, but you don't ever think you're really going to see it. And all of a sudden, bam, there we are."

World travel and the music industry had a profound effect on the group, said King. "You begin to see that just because someone in Alabama says something doesn't mean that's the way it is. You realize there's a whole different perspective."

It raised questions about "the way people lived in the South, how emphatic they were about their religion, how emphatic they were about how people should live their lives," he said.

"You wake up on Sunday morning and you go to church. You wake up Monday morning and you go to a job. And a job isn't supposed to be fun. It's supposed to be a job. You just go do it, you live with it. And you're supposed to have kids. It was a set way of life," he said.

"And I went to France, and these people were just all over the place. They would have lunch at 11 o'clock, and they would stay at lunch for three hours or four hours. And it was about being an artist, and it was about painting, and it was about all these wonderful things in life, about people creating things and about people doing things in their lives that you wanted to do, not what you had to do. And that was totally different from the way it was in the South. The people there believed that things were exactly the way they had been told all their lives."

Another lesson King learned was about human psychology. Common belief is that fame and money changes people, but King found just the opposite to be true.

"I realized that people can change, but most people don't because they're not willing to," said King. "What money and fame does is magnify what they are. In other words, they would have been doing drugs or they would have been writing great songs no matter what. But once you get famous, these things now are exposed to the entire world, as opposed to your friends in the community."

King also found out hard truths about musical creativity and how tastes change.

"Do you know that most musicians are not writers?" he asked. "People figure that just because you can play an instrument, you can write music. Or just because you are a great producer, you can write music. And most of the producers are not writers. Writing is a unique talent that belongs to a very few people.

"When we first started out, one of the things that Benny Ashburn said to us was, 'You guys have got to learn how to write.' And I thought, 'Learn how to write. That ought to be pretty easy.' But the truth was, in my head, I had always, all my life, heard melodies. So it wasn't like something new to me. I can remember Richie and I would be riding down the street, and Richie would just be humming things. And it would be stuff that wasn't on the radio. But he said, 'It's in my head, and I don't know where it's coming from.' And I said, 'You know what, I keep hearing stuff, too.'

"And Thomas McClary, the guitarist - Tommy wasn't a great person with a melody, but with guitar riffs, he could come up with these riffs that just knocked you out. Like in 'Slippery When Wet' or the guitar solos in 'Three Times a Lady' and 'Still' and 'Easy.' Those are Tommy's."

King says there are different levels of writers, and even good writers who are stuck in an era.

"For instance, there were writers in the '50 s and '60 s who wrote great songs and people loved them," he said. "But there got to be a point where people got tired of that kind of music. And then a new writer would come in with a whole new perspective on writing, and they became hot and famous."

This view is reflected in the band's approach to recording its next album.

"For us, the number one thing is to write great music. So we're writing again, but at the same time, we've also decided to incorporate some younger ideas and younger writers to come up with an album with today's sound but that still carries the tone of what people remember about the Commodores."

Al Rudis (562) 499-1255 [email protected] ANNUAL LONG BEACH JAZZ FESTIVAL

Who: KEM, Michael Franks, Joyce Cooling, the Whispers, Kirk Whalum, Mindi Abair, Down to the Bone, Keiko Matsui, Nick Colionne, Poncho Sanchez, the Commodores, Chrisette Michele, Euge Groove, Superstars of Jazz Fusion (featuring Roy Ayers, Lonnie Liston Smith, Miki Howard, Wayne Henderson and Tom Browne), Al Williams Jazz Society with Barbara Morrison, Jose Rizo & the Latin Jazz Allstars, Louie Cruz Beltran Latin Jazz Ensemble, Karina Nuvo, Michael Ward, DW3 and others.

When: 7 to 10:30 p.m. Friday, noon to 10:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Where: Rainbow Lagoon Park, Shoreline Drive between Pine and Linden avenues, Long Beach.

Tickets: $45-$175.

Information: (562) 424-0013,

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