20 ESSENTIAL ALBUMS
Who: The Commodores.
What: The fifth album by the first self-contained band signed by Motown at the start of the 1970s. This delivered a pair of Top 5 hit singles on the Billboard Hot 100: the undeniable funk of “Brick House” (which also made a splash on the magazine’s R&B charts, debuting September 3, 1977) and the mellow mood of “Easy.” Moreover, Commodores became the first of the group’s three consecutive Top 3 albums on the pop charts during 1977-78.
When: Commodores was released March 15, 1977 while their previous album, Hot On The Tracks, was still on the charts. Three days later, the group kicked off their first worldwide tour with a show in Birmingham, England. In the U.K., the album was titled after one of its tracks, “Zoom,” which also came out as a single there. At home, Commodores spent a year among the Billboard best-sellers, including eight weeks at Number One on the R&B rankings. (For more about the Commodores, read here.)
Where: Motown’s own studio in Hollywood, California, was where the material on the album was recorded during 1976-77. Its nine tracks included songs written by various permutations of the band’s members: “Brick House” was composed by the entire sextet, whereas “Easy” was the work of Lionel Richie alone. He also co-wrote “Funny Feelings,” “Heaven Knows” and “Won’t You Come Dance With Me” with guitarist Thomas McClary. The recording engineers were Jane Clark, sister of Motown recording artist Chris Clark, and Cal Harris.
Why: The Commodores graduated into Motown’s biggest group during the second half of the ’70s, not least due to their creative collaboration with record producer James Anthony Carmichael, and the astute leadership of their manager, Benny Ashburn. “One reason we’ve been successful is that we treat it like a business,” Ashburn once told Billboard. “After a show, people will come up and ask, ‘Where’s the party?’ It’s all right to have fun, but every day when people go to work, do they party? The guys have to get rest to do it tomorrow in the next town. If you treat it as a business, it will treat you well.”
What else: Tragedy colored the creation of one song on Commodores. Horn player Ronald LaPread was touring with his bandmates, accompanied by wife Kathy Faye, who fell ill while they were criss-crossing the country. She went home, only to be diagnosed with terminal tumors; LaPread came off the road to be with her. One night, Kathy helped him shape the song which, along with later input from Lionel Richie, became “Zoom.” She died soon afterwards, at age 23. LaPread subsequently told author Jo-Ann Geffen, “I was on stage playing with Richie not too long ago, 35 years after we wrote this song, and the excitement of 80,000 people getting up out of their seats cheering was a great tribute.”
You can pick up a copy of the LP from the Classic Motown Store here.
What are the 20 most essential Motown albums? It’s a difficult choice, but this is ours, picked and presented through the course of this 60th anniversary year. Each album is featured with its background story, keyed to a relevant date in its history. This is not a countdown, leading to a “winner.” It’s just a way to showcase some of the finest music ever made. After all, isn’t that why you’re here?