Experience all-star show with Commodores
Motown icons performing at The Clyde with local group opening night
It was 1974, and Motown Records had left Detroit and its Golden Age for Los Angeles to promote Diana Ross as a film star. The classic R&B vocal groups were sidelined as tastes changed.
Not long before, Marvin Gaye had vaulted to superstardom with 1971’s What’s Going On and 1973’s Let’s Get It On, and Stevie Wonder reinvented his sound with layers of studio production and electronics on 1973’s Innervisions.
Coming from other labels, large bands with horn sections playing muscular funk ruled the dance floors, bands like Kool & the Gang, Parliament, and Earth, Wind & Fire.
Motown responded by reaching out in an unlikely direction, and signed six young men from Tuskegee, Alabama, who had opened for the Jackson 5. The Commodores blasted onto Soul Train with “Machine Gun,” a frantic hard funk instrumental complete with screaming synthesizers, the title track from their 1974 debut album.
The band, which is now a trio of Cody Orange, James Dean “JD” Nicholas, and William A. King, will be at The Clyde Theatre on Jan. 14 with special guests The Sweetwater All Stars.
Moving forward without Richie
The Commodores were funk all the way, with Clavinet, thumping bass, wah-wah guitar, and extra horns behind King on trumpet. Lead singer Walter “Clyde” Orange strutted out from behind the drum kit. Their hardest-rocking tunes were group compositions. But then the music stretched out a bit, and their personality got abruptly split in half by their other singer and second keyboardist, who started writing country-tinged soul ballads … very big hit country-tinged soul ballads.
This guy who sidled up from the back of the stage was named Lionel Richie, and 1976’s “Just To Be Close to You” crossed over to the top of the pop charts. The next year, Richie’s “Easy” darn near conquered the world.
The funk contingency in the band remained determined, though, laying down the immortal mid-tempo magnum opus still played today by every wedding party band you’ve ever heard, “Brick House,” sung by Walter Orange.
A torrent of middle-of-the-road, but unforgettable starry-eyed, soul ballads penned and sung by Richie elevated the band higher and higher, until Richie departed in 1982. Undaunted, the guys from Tuskegee brought in British singer Nicholas. Walter Orange proved he could be smooth and soul-stirring too, trading verses with Nicholas as they pulled in their only Grammy with 1985’s “Nightshift,” their tribute to the recently departed Gaye and Jackie Wilson.
Son takes center stage
Coming out of the ’80s, as other founding members moved on, The Commodores shifted into a vocal trio, with King, Walter Orange, and Nicholas out front, backed by “The Mean Machine,” a loyal group of accomplished touring aces that have stood behind them more than 30 years: musical director Thomas Dawson on keyboards, Scott Kay on drums, Tyron Stanton on bass, and Jeff Medina on guitar.
Coming into 2023, Orange has passed the torch to his son, Cody, who with King and Nicholas are carrying on the tradition they’ve kept alive since the band formed in 1968 at Tuskegee Institute before being discovered by Berry Gordy, selling more than 70 million albums along the way. And that’s what they’ll bring to the Clyde: the funk and the soul.
Pretty sweet opening act
Those of us here in Fort Wayne know The Clyde is the house of our own local heroes, The Sweetwater All Stars, who are delighted to open the show. The All Stars are music industry veterans Bob Bailey on vocals and guitar, Lisa McDavid on vocals, Dave Martin on bass, Brett Kelsey on trumpet, Marcus Farr on trombone, and Sweetwater founder Chuck Surack on saxophone.
This show marks the introduction of Andrew Glasmacher on drums and Rolin Mains on keyboard.
Despite the best efforts of a helpful publicity team in New York, we couldn’t reach the Commodores over the Christmas break blizzard. The All Stars’ music historian Martin explained to me that the way to raise The Commodores in the ’70s was via CB radio, but we didn’t have access to that either.
So, we got Bailey and McDavid on the phone to tell us about the All Stars, and what the Commodores mean to them.
Bailey played with a string of regional rock and country bands for years before becoming a music technology sales rep, and today he’s an airplane pilot and aviation exec.
McDavid has an accomplished résumé of fronting regional bands that play parties and corporate events. She retired young from General Motors and is a professional counselor. Each member of the All Stars have their own impressive musical résumés.
Bailey explains that eight years ago, “It was Chuck’s idea to start a traditional R&B band with horns.
“I grew up listening to this music,” he says. “I’m a child of the late ’60s and ’70s, and this music was the soundtrack of my youth.”
The band plays classics from the likes of Al Green, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin, Earth, Wind & Fire, Tower of Power, and Chicago.
“I’ll tell you, The Sweetwater All Star horns are really the reason why this band exists,” Bailey said. “Without that horn section, we’re just in another cover band.”
McDavid’s vocal range covers not just the notes, but the styles.
“I’m the only singer around here who goes A to Z, Aretha to Zeppelin,” she laughs.
McDavid was in elementary school when “Brick House” hit.
“I remember us kids sitting around the cafeteria when suddenly we all started singing ‘She’s a brick … house,’ not even knowing what we were singing about!”
In Youngstown, Ohio, she grew up grooving to The Commodores and bands like Dayton’s Zapp & Roger, along with Cameo, Chic, and Prince, “bands you heard in the skating rink, ice and roller.”
In those days, radio DJs would mix tracks uninterrupted for hours, and she filled up countless cassette tapes she recorded off the air.
“The Commodores, they’re iconic,” Bailey said. “To have the opportunity to open for them is just great. It’s another box to check off on the bucket list sort of thing. We’ve been very fortunate to open for some really great bands.”
He lists Tower of Power, The Isley Brothers, Kool & the Gang, and En Vogue.
“It’s inspirational to watch people who are masters at what they do, and you realize why they are where they are.”
With regard to The Commodores, “These guys are total pros. And for me personally, it makes me wanna go back and rehearse!”