Sunday, October 23, 2011

How Lionel Richie Went Cosby

By the mid-'70s, the once mighty Motown empire was finally beginning to decline. The Jackson 5 jumped ship to sign with CBS. Only two original members of the Temptations remained. Diana Ross became swallowed up by her own ego. Marvin Gaye became swallowed up by his own penis. Things were looking grim. No one expected a young funk band from Alabama to make much of a difference.

I never understood why a band would name itself after a computer, but hey, that's cool. The Commodores' first hit, "Machine Gun," sounded like it could have been music from a video game, and was used to great effect in the "rise of Dirk Diggler" portion of Boogie Nights.

Then there is "Brick House," staple of frat house comedies and Tyler Perry movie trailers, otherwise know as "She's a brick...HOWZ."

But few people realize that the band who made "Brick House," a song as gritty and funky as anything by The Isley Brothers or The Ohio Players, was the same band who gave birth to the undisputed champion of Cosby Rock:

I can see it now. "Guys, this funk stuff is cool, but you know what I really like? Ballads. Can we try some ballads?" "I don't know, Lionel, that stuff is for pussies." "Aw, come on, just one song? Let's see how it does. If it flops, it flops."

If only. Instead, "Easy" unleashed a monster. The song became the Commodores' biggest hit yet (not to mention an "easy" target for Faith No More, who recorded an amusingly faithful cover version in 1993). The real Lionel Richie had finally stepped out from behind the funky facade. "Issac Hayes? Pfft. How about Barry Manilow? With a dash of Glen Campbell? Now we're talking."

The rest of the group gleefully rode the ballad train. "Still," "Three Times A Lady"...funk? What's funk? We've never heard of this "funk" that you speak of. Close your eyes, and "Sail On" is practically a Yacht Rock song.

Apparently the Commodores are sailing through the clouds here and not the ocean. Maybe they couldn't find any stock footage of a boat and had to settle for stock footage of a hang glider instead. I like the part where Lionel's band mate can't recall whether the lyrics are "Sail on, honey" or "Sail on, sugar." It's a big difference, buddy, get it right.

By 1981, Lionel was doing sweeping duets with Diana Ross.

"Endless Love" was billed as "Lionel Richie and Diana Ross," not "The Commodores and Diana Ross." The writing was on the crossover wall. He stuck around for one last uptempo dance number, "Lady (You Bring Me Up)," before finally sailing on to easier pastures.

For the rest of the band, though, it probably felt more like Monday morning than Sunday morning.


Herr Zrbo said...

Keep it up, I'm enjoying these. Also, you do know that a Commodore is a rank in the Navy, or was that sarcasm that I missed?

Little Earl said...

From Wikipedia:

"The Commodores is an American funk/soul band of the 1970s and 1980s. The members of the group met as mostly freshmen at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in 1968, and signed with Motown in November 1972, having first caught the public eye opening for The Jackson 5 while on tour."

"The Commodore 64 is an 8-bit home computer introduced by Commodore International in January 1982."

Or maybe they named the computer after the band???

Herr Zrbo said...

Hey, at least I covered my ass with the "or was that sarcasm I missed?" bit, remember?