When business student William King wrote a 270-page paper about the success and failures of rock acts, he wasn’t just trying to get a good grade — though he did get an A.
“We had the group going at the time,” said King, who co-founded The Commodores when he was a business student at Tuskegee University in Alabama. “Knowing that we wanted to be in the business, I just wanted to know as much about it as I possibly could. And writing that paper and doing all that research on it gave me some insight.”
Knowing they had to beware of shady contracts and record company executives out to exploit musicians, the band invested in real estate, rare coins and African art. They methodically created the image they wanted to project and instituted a strict set of rules that forbade drug use.
“Believe me, we still made plenty of mistakes,” said King, who performs with The Commodores at the Chumash Casino tonight. “But the bottom line was the more you know, the more prepared you are.”
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While that paper would help prepare The Commodores for their decades-old career, their education continued when they were invited to tour with the Jackson 5 in the early 1970s.
“We kept our eyes open and our ears open and learned from it,” said King, who has played trumpet, synthesizers, congas and guitar in the band. “So that when our time came, we could apply the same thing to our tour.”
Eventually, Motown offered them a deal. But the label wanted to make The Commodores part of the famous “Motown Sound” so they had staff writers pen songs for them.
“They wanted to put us in the assembly line,” said King, who chose a career in music over pro tennis. “And we kept saying we don’t want to do it like that. We want to write and produce our own music.”
However, Motown founder Barry Gordy Jr. wouldn’t have it.
At least not at the outset. “But he heard one of our songs, which was written by Milan Williams, our keyboard player,” King said. “And at the time it was called ‘The Ram,’ and he loved it. But he renamed it ‘Machine Gun’ because it sounded like machine guns firing in it.”
The instrumental “Machine Gun,” the band’s first big hit, would lead to a string of others, including “Sweet Love,” “Too Hot Ta Trot” and “Just to Be Close to You.”
One of the band’s signature funk hits, “Brick House,” was co-written by King’s wife, Shirley Hanna-King.
The band needed one more single for its self-titled album in 1977. And while The Commodores had an instrumental track, King and band mate Walter “Clyde” Orange were tasked to write lyrics.
“I went home and fell asleep,” King said. “I was so tired. And my wife had heard the track over and over again on the cassette.”
While King slept, his wife wrote out some lyrics about a physically gifted woman who could “make an old man wish for younger days,” then she placed the notebook pad on King’s chest.
“So when I woke up, all the lyrics were on this pad,” King said. “I read them and I thought, ‘These are the best lyrics I ever wrote!’”
Orange would contribute lyrics as well. And eventually “Brick House” became a monster hit, which is still frequently included on TV and film soundtracks. (King and his wife would also team up to co-write “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” with Harold Hudson.)
While the brassy band garnered a reputation for funk early on, Lionel Richie, who shared lead singing duties with Orange, penned a series of slower songs that moved the band toward ballads. Songs like “Easy,” “Three Times a Lady” and “Still” were mega-hits.
While legend has it that the band—growing tired of ballads—rejected Richie’s song “Lady,” which became a smash hit for country singer Kenny Rogers, King said that wasn’t the case. Producer James Carmichael rejected it.
“There were six of us,” King said. “And so to keep us from fighting among ourselves, we gave Carmichael control of what songs were going to go on the album.”
Wanting to steer away from another ballad, Carmichael rejected “Lady.”
“I heard it and I said, ‘That’s a hit song,’ ” King said. “Why would we not do a song that we all feel is a hit?’ ”
The success of “Lady” — and “Endless Love,” a duet with Diana Ross — would help launch Richie’s solo career. Although all The Commodores had been involved in writing hit songs, after Richie left the band had just one more charting single — the Grammy-winning “Nightshift” in 1985.
“And then we just stopped recording,” King said. “Just stopped, period. We were touring so much, we got complacent.”
Through the years, there’s been talk of a reunion with Richie, whose latest album, “Tuskegee,” was his biggest in several years. But, King said, he doesn’t expect it to happen—despite offers, he said, that rival Rolling Stones tours.
“Richie’s never going to do the tour,” he said. “We’ve tried through the years to get Richie to come back and do the tour, and he always goes, ‘Yeah, I want to do it, I want to do it,’ but he never does it.”
The talk about reunions, King suspects, is an attempt to get publicity.
“Whenever Richie has an album coming out, he starts talking about doing a reunion tour. I always know when he’s got a new album coming out because I get phone calls about how he said something in a press release about doing a reunion tour with The Commodores.”
While there are currently only two original members of the group—King and Orange—plus J.D. Nicholas, who shared lead vocals on “Nightshift,” King said The Commodores will continue to tour. And there is an album in the works.
“This is who we are, and this is what we do,” he said. “And we’re probably going to die onstage.”
Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.