THE COMMODORES / “The Commodores Mixtape”
Most of yall probably already know most of these songs, so excuse me if I detour for a second. I want you to meet Tutashinda Nchi na Salaam (the fourth of five Salaam siblings and the younger of the two male siblings). Like his older brother, Tuta digs the music but he is not a collector nor obsessive about researching the music as are his father (me) and his older brother (Mtume). Tuta is a behind the scenes technician who makes a major contribution to keeping BoL clean. Tuta is our copy editor. Early, most every Monday morning, Tuta reviews the posts for the week and files a list of corrections and questions. Tuta’s observations and insights become the basis for eliminating errors and tweaking BoL. Last week Tuta sent an email to Mtume and me. Below is the central question Tuta raised.
Question (in the form of a diatribe): Was there bad music in the past? I would think so. I'm asking because I always hear stuff on the radio and I'm like - DAMN - THAT SHIT IS HORRIBLE!! There's a new song by Trey Songz, Souljah Boy, and Gucci Mane called "LOL Smiley Face". I actually like the song - not that it has any redeeming musical qualities, but it's just catchy (to me) and I like it. Well, this blogger that I read wrote a piece on the song (Sister Touldjah's post). The title of her post is funny as hell after you hear the song. But I guess what I'm getting at is didn't horrible, bad, poppy, catchy, brainless music exist back in the day? I'm thinking of stuff like Chubby Checker's "The Twist" and maybe other music in that vein. Now I know, music is inherently about making money these days, so quite naturally more bullshit music exists now, but I was just wondering......The short answer: yeabo (yes indeed, most certainly so), back in the day we had our share of bullshit and sorry ass songs. But the main difference is that wack songs existed within a broader context, a context in which bullshit was not the norm, not to mention we weren’t praising bullshit as top notch music such as is the case today. I guess you could say, like the poor, bullshit will always be among us. However, just because bullshit exists doesn’t mean we have to step in that doo-doo. Which all brings me to this week’s feature: The Commodores. Specifically to their song “Brickhouse.” It was 1969, if I’m not mistaken, and a campus takeover was underway at SUNO (Southern University New Orleans). We threw a disco at a local club to raise some money. The joint was jumping when The Commodores tune dropped and the sexy sisters with the hot pants took to the floor. One of our Marxist brothers sauntered over to me and seriously started in on a diatribe about corrupt music and what a shame, etc. etc. and how could we be playing that when there was so much better music that we could be playing. Now, nevermind that I wasn’t the DJ and wasn’t whispering into the DJ’s ear telling him what to play. I slowly shook my head and smiled at the brother and then I pointed to my head and said, “the problem is you’re listening with this, instead of listening with this” (pointing to my feet). Tuta, I don’t like the little song you’re talking about but it don’t bother me. At the same time I understand how you and some others might find it catchy. But none of that matters much. Here is the catch for me: that shit is close to the best that those cats produce. I mean that both in terms of how well it is produced and in terms of the social content, and that’s the sad part. In one sense, it’s not pure bullshit because I’m sure these cats were trying hard to come up with a hit. “Brickhouse” was funky but it was far from the best that The Commodores had to offer. In fact our opening track, “Slippery When Wet,” is an excellent example of a funky song that has a strong social message. (I do acknowledge that the title kind of throws off the message a little bit but when you listen to the lyrics, you do hear an admonishment urging the brothers to get their shit together). Beyond that are two of my favorites by The Commodores as hip songs with a message. The fact that I’m a born again pagan does not stop me from appreciating “Jesus Is Love” as a multi-layered musical composition. (I was a non-believer in any organized religion when I was born, then I was sent to church by my parents, and at 15, when I left the church, I became a non-believer, i.e. a pagan, again.) Lionel Ritchie performed the song at Michael Jackson’s Memorial Service. My favorite Commodores track is easily “This Is Your Life.” I remember driving home late one night, around 2a.m. or so, crossing the Claiborne Avenue bridge over the Industrial Canal into the now worldwide infamous Lower Ninth Ward. Just as I was starting the descent from the crest “This Is Your Life” came on the radio. I slowed, savoring the song. At that time we were involved in all kinds of community struggles particularly around police brutality and maintaining a black independent school. The song just totally resonated with what was going down in my life during that period. The bulk of The Commodores music was ok but it didn’t have the meaningful vibration that I preferred. Looking back, or should I say: listening back, to their music now, I can appreciate their love songs as quality pop music. Most of the romantic ballads are the work of Lionel Ritchie as both composer and lead singer. No surprise that he was the only one to go on and have major success as a solo artist, both as a vocalist and as a composer/producer. Ritchie is credited with selling over 100 million records. There is one bit of trivia that’s surprising: the one song for which The Commodores won a Grammy was recorded after Ritchie had left the group. “Night Shift” (1985) features lead vocals by Walter “Clyde” Orange who also took the lead on composing the song along with Dennis Lambert and Franne Golde. The song was a tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, both of whom died in 1984. The Commodores were founded in 1968 at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where all of the members were enrolled. The founding members were Lionel Ritchie – vocals, sax and piano; Thomas McClary – lead guitar; Milan Williams – keyboards, trombone, and rhythm guitar; William “Wak” King – trumpet, rhythm guitar, keys; Ronald La Pread – bass; and Walter Orange – vocals and drums. Unlike many of the bands of the seventies and later, The Commodores were not an ultra-hip, urban outfit. In fact if you listen to their music, especially their ballads and mid-tempo songs, you will hear a distinct country flavor. Some of the lyrics even reflect an awareness of their small town background. The rural influences are especially obvious on two of their major hits, “Easy” (1977), which reached number one on the R&B charts, and “Sail On” (1979), which was on the album Midnight Magic along with their number one hit “Still.” All three songs were written by Lionel Ritchie. Without utter sincerity and not even a hint of embarrassment, on “Sail On” Ritchie sings “It was plain to see that a small town boy like me wasn’t your cup of tea / I was wishful thinking.” Lionel Ritchie went from a small town grandson of the blues to an international pop favorite who was extremely adept at composing romantic songs that captured the bliss of love, a bliss that is too often either rare or fleeting, or more likely both rarely found and fleeting once touched. In this regard, the man deserves credit for his accomplishments even if his work is not what I enjoy most. And I suppose when you weigh out his accomplishments and compare Lionel Ritchie’s work to contemporary stars there does seem to be a big difference. We might think of some of Ritchie’s songs as corny but almost none of them are bullshit. Tuta, I think the issue is that music is back-asswards from back in the dayz. Back then the leading artists had wide catalogues of sounds. The hip songs usually far outnumbered the bullshit songs. But you know I don’t attribute that difference simply nor solely to the artist. I think our people as a whole were more socially aware and involved in trying to create a better world rather than simply trying to become better off, i.e. rich and famous. The general atmosphere was different. If we truly want hipper music, we’re going to have to improve the social atmosphere. One of my ancestral heroes, Buddy Bolden, had a song he used to play. The chorus of that song perfectly encapsulates what I think needs to happen: open up the window and let the bad air out. We need to open up the windows, the doors and maybe even punch a hole in the roof. —Kalamu ya Salaam The Commodores Mixtape Playlist All of these tracks are available on the compilation CD Gold. 01 “Slippery When Wet” 02 “Sweet Love” 03 “Just to Be Close to You” 04 “Oh No” 05 “Fancy Dancer” 06 “Sail On” 07 “Three Times A Lady” 08 “Still” 09 “Easy” 10 “Brick House” 11 “Zoom” 12 “Nightshift” 13 “Jesus is Love” 14 “This Is Your Life”
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