Monday, August 6, 2012

The Commodores Have A Hit - Without Lionel Richie! But Only Just One.

When Lionel Richie left the Commodores, they should have been done. I mean, that's like the Supremes without Diana Ross. That's like Black Sabbath without Ozzy Osbourne. That's like Van Halen without David Lee Roth. That's like Pink Floyd without Syd Barrett!

Wait a second.

The point is, by the time he left, Lionel Richie pretty much was the Commodores. Quick, name another Commodore. That's what I thought. It must have come as a complete (and mostly pleasant) surprise, then, when the band sans Lionel suddenly came out of nowhere with "Nightshift."

The remaining members had special emotional motivation to write a great song, beyond simply proving their worth to the masses. "Nightshift" was a tribute to two R&B legends who had recently passed away: Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson.

It might sound like Marvin Gaye's father did something really horrible when I tell you that he fatally shot his son, but from what I understand, the reality is that Gaye picked a nasty fight with his father and probably assaulted him as well, somewhat egging his father on, and he knew his father would try to kill him if he did this, so in a sense, Gaye's death was sort of a roundabout suicide. But when the news broke, I don't think too many people cared about the exciting details. Gaye had just released his "comeback" single, "Sexual Healing," roughly a year earlier, and now he was dead.

While less known these days than Marvin Gaye, Jackie Wilson was also a dynamic and influential soul singer. The critical line on Wilson is that his studio recordings rarely captured his performing talents. Still, he had several big hits, such as "Lonely Teardrops," "Baby Workout," and "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher And Higher." In 1975, he suffered an on-stage heart attack, fell into a coma, and was essentially an invalid until he finally died in 1984.

What makes "Nightshift" an especially successful eulogy, to me at least, is that it is a very subtle eulogy. For years I didn't even realize it was a eulogy. I must have heard this song a thousand times late at night, and I always just assumed it was a pleasant tribute to Quiet Storm radio. Just look at the video. There is not a single clue or hint in the video that betrays the nature of the lyrics. It could be about two cab drivers named Marvin and Jackie, for all we care.

Then one day, I actually listened to it closely. By the time I did, I knew who Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson were, and I knew how and roughly when they had died. I recognized the references to "What's Going On" and "Baby Workout." This pleasant song about late night radio suddenly blossomed into something kind of stunning.

Other tributes to deceased singers usually have hackneyed references to "heaven" and "Jesus" and God knows what else. "Nightshift" conjures up an image of the afterlife as being one big eternal R&B station, where classic songs play forever and never die. Sure, the image of Marvin and Jackie "singing proud" and "pulling a crowd" in heaven's night club could have come off as a little hokey in the wrong hands. That's where the music comes in.

The mere sound of "Nightshift" is so graceful and ethereal, it's almost as if the song is coming down from heaven itself. In other words, do you realize how easy it would have been to fuck this up? And after the particularly brutal nature of Gaye's and Wilson's deaths, fans probably needed to hear some reassuring voice saying that everything was actually going to be OK, and that their depressing deaths wouldn't overshadow the beauty of the music they made in life. "Gonna be a long night/It's gonna be all right/On the night shift." Yeah man.

There's another factor that makes the song powerful: the underdog factor. It's not just moving because it's a non-embarrassing celebrity eulogy song, but it's also moving because the Commodores managed to come up with a terrific hit, even after Lionel Richie left! The tribute sort of combines with the underdog story of the leftover Commodores grabbing one last moment of glory and it just makes the song even sweeter.

But then the Commodores were done. For real. Although, if it makes them feel any better, the hits dried up for Lionel just a year or so later, as well. Soon they were both has-beens. Everything worked out.

No comments: