Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Lionel Richie's Country-Pop Comeback: Good for Him, But What About Commodores?

Lionel Richie has been on my mind this week. A lot. Not just because I've been writing a piece about him for my Sound and Vision column at OurStage. He's been in my head because everywhere I go, his songs seem to be blaring in my ears.

Lately, unexpectedly, he's been all over the radio in Thailand, with tracks from Tuskegee, his recent No. 1 album featuring duets with top country stars on his golden oldies, as well as the original versions of some of those golden oldies. The only Richie songs on my iPod are "Running with the Night," "Stuck on You" and "You Are," so I couldn't have had my headphones in that time I heard "All Night Long" coming from a sound system on Silom Road in Bangkok, or every time I hear "Hello" in public.

When I listen to "Hello" today, I have a hard time believing how much I loved the sappy silly love song in 1984, but Richie did have his magic moments, which, for me, mostly came with his former band Commodores. Why don't they get more love? There has been no Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony for Commodores, no major critical reassessment or commercial resurgence of the group's classic singles from the '70s and early '80s. Before Tuskegee, the band's iconic ex-lead singer, who once had his own Pepsi commercial, was best known by people under 30 for being Nicole Richie's dad. A shame!

Though Richie had his greatest chart success with middle-of-road ballads, with his bandmates in Commodores, he was equally adept at bringing on the full-tilt funk. Where would every wedding reception and holiday office party in the world be without the immortal "Brick House"? Along with Earth, Wind & Fire and Kool & the Gang, Commodores was one of the few all-black bands to enjoy sustained success on the pop charts in the '70s and '80s. (Sly and the Family Stone, a precursor, and Rufus, a contemporary, had black and white membership.)

Yet when the rock & roll establishment looks back on black music from the '70s, it tends to focus mostly on disco acts and vocal groups like the the Spinners, the Stylistics and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees the O'Jays, while overlooking a black band that was as instrumental in shaping the sound of R&B music in the '70s as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin were key to providing blueprints for white '70s rock & roll.

It wasn't even until after Richie left that the band won its first Grammy (Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for the 1985 No. 3 hit "Nightshift"), and Commodores have yet to be nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- unlike 2000 inductees Earth, Wind & Fire, and Rufus, which was among the most recent nominees though not inductees (as was the Spinners). Uh oh! I just had a flashback to buying the vinyl 45 single of the Richie-free Commodores' "Goin' to the Bank" in 1986 from Record Mart at Mill Creek Mall in Kissimmee, Florida. (I can also recall my mom buying me the cassette version of Natural High, the 1978 Commodores album featuring the No. 1 hit "Three Times a Lady," several years after the fact, just because.)

Who knows what Richie's current success will have on the Commodores reunion he's been promising for several years. Now that he's back on top, perhaps he'll figure "Why bother?" when he can score instant gold and platinum with the likes of Kenny Chesney, Tim McGraw and Rascal Flatts, thus launching the Rod Stewart/Great American Songbook phase of his career. There are enough Richie solo hits and Commodores smashes that sound like Richie solo hits to fill a few more duets albums.

We'll see. In the meantime, I'm going to look for my Commodores hits compilation, the one I bought in London two years ago, and give a little love to another band that deserves so much more of it.

"Brick House" (1977, No. 5)

"Machine Gun" (1974, No. 22)

"Slippery When Wet" (1975, No. 19)

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