Posted July, 2010
William King, Walter Orange & J.D. Nicholas of the Commodores
During my last year of high school in Phoenix, Arizona, one of the staples of our dances was the hit song, Brick House, by the Commodores. There was something about that song that made one think that one’s butt could move in ways that it simply wasn’t designed to do. Or, maybe it was just my butt. I’m just sayin’.
However, not only was that song a staple at a high school dance that was attended mainly by white and Hispanic kids, it drew the crowd’s attention to a hot act that would command their attention for the rest of their lives, with record sales of 75 million copies and climbing. What a testament to the unifying attributes of great music!
One of the hits that attributed to such astonishing sales was their 1985 tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, Nightshift. That song was to the 80’s as Abraham, Martin and John was to the 60’s.
Fast-forward twenty-five years to June 25, 2010. If the month and day sounds like they should mean something, you’re correct. That marked the first anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson. To commemorate his life and passing, the Commodores released a new version of Nightshift.
I always felt that the original version of the song could never be improved upon and that no one should ever try to “cover” it. However, when I listened to an advance copy of the re-recorded version of the song, the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up. The lyrics are as touching for its honoring of Michael Jackson as the original version was in honoring Marvin and Jackie.
I knew that I had to talk to one of the Commodores about this great, new version of this classic song. It was my pleasure to be able to chat by phone with one of the original members of the Commodores, William King.
By the time I talked with King, he had already had a long day of interviews talking about the song. I knew he had to be tired but you wouldn’t know it by his warmth and willingness to chat with yet another interviewer.
I cut to the chase by asking questions that I knew he had already answered countless times already that day. I asked Mr. King what led to the latest version of Nightshift.
“Well, you know, when we actually did the song for the first time after Michael died, which was the next night, it wasn’t anything like what you’re hearing now, lyric wise. On stage in Birmingham, England, JD (Nicholas) went in and sang (going into the melody of the tune) ‘Michael, he was a friend of mine . . .” and he just started off like that, right? And he just did it out of nowhere. He said, ‘I just wanted to pay homage, tribute, to Michael.’ It just struck him. And the crowd went wild!
“We said, ‘You know what? We need to build on this. Let’s do this every night.’ So, we just did it for the rest of the tour in Great Britain. A little bit here, a little bit there. But, when we got home, we decided to get everybody together that did the original.
“We got Dennis Lambert, who was the producer on it, and all the gentlemen who worked on the original with us. We got the engineer and we went out to Malibu, California, went into a studio out there and we sat there for three days and got everything, the lyrics, everything together and did the recording. I actually brought my daughter in who was born a year before that song even came out. So she helped us do backgrounds on it. And that was great, any time you have your children working with you.
“So, we went into the studio and got it out. Actually, we’ve done two versions of it. The one that you hear now and the other version that is more up tempo. Its bpm is 130 (as compared to the current releases 96bpm – which means it is a faster tempo – or Beats Per Minute), something like that. But, when we finished, the fuller version is just a killer! So that’s the one we decided to go with.
“It took us about two and a half days of everybody buckling down and going in early in the ‘a.m.’ and coming out late at night, trying to get this finished. That’s what you hear now.”
I asked William if the song was driven by the Jacksons having given them their first real big exposure by having the Commodores as their opening act in 1971 and for two subsequent years or from the subsequent friendship over the years afterwards.
“Well, it was a little bit of both. We did almost two and a half years with them and then after that we had our hit records. But, you know, Michael would come to our shows and some of his brothers would come to our shows and no one would know that they were even there!
“Yeah, he would come and pick the perfect spot. We’d all laugh afterwards because he’d be sitting in the audience and nobody knew that he was sitting next to them! I’ll tell you this: he was WELL disguised!”
“The only time I know that anyone noticed him was in Vegas when we were playing there. Evidently, one of the ladies was sitting there next to him and realized it was him. It wasn’t so much that it was him but she realized that there were a lot of people – bodyguards and people like that – around this one guy that made her pay attention. Then, staring at him, she’s like, ‘Wait! That’s Michael Jackson!’”
“But, other than that, he would just come and go as he wished. It was great. He would come backstage and say hello and all of that. We have a video out that we’ve put together – quickly – that’s on our MySpace page. In it, when we were actually on tour one time, Michael came into the dressing room and that’s in the video.”
With such an incredible new treatment of this classic song, I asked William what the groups plans were to promote the song and if the song was going to be tagged to an album in the future.
King laughs as he replies, “You know what? We had the same conversation two days ago. This exact conversation! And, so, what we’re going to try to do is finish up our album and get the song tagged on to it. The problem is, is that we’ve already committed to so many performance dates that it makes it almost impossible. Clyde (Walter Orange), one of the lead singers and co-writer of the original version of “Nightshift”, is saying, ‘I need at least two weeks off before we go into the studio so that I can rest my voice so that I can sound the best that I can sound.’ And I understand what he’s saying. I really do get it. You want to come in fresh and feel good. But, right now, the idea is to tag this with the album that we’ve been working on for two years and, hopefully, this will inspire us to get through it because we have six or seven songs to go yet.”
With our call wrapping up, I asked Mr. King what Commodores fans could expect from the guys in the near future.
“One of our main concerns is how we’re going to arrange our music on our next CD. Are we going to go very young? Are we going to stick to what we’ve been doing in the past? I don’t think anybody wants us to do that. You have to grow. But I think what we’re going to lean towards is to still do beautiful songs, but temper our up tempo songs more towards today’s sound. But it doesn’t have to be ‘16 years old’, you know what I mean? It can be a ‘25 to 35’ sound. We don’t want to be ‘bubble gum’. We’re not trying to appeal to 10, 11, 12 year olds. But we do want appeal to the young adult range.”
“We have to temper it a bit for radio. A lot of radio stations only play music that fits their ear. So, we have to consider that as well. One of the things that I’ve said in the meeting the other day is that the good thing is that if something takes off and it’s a hit, regardless, they’ll be forced to play it. They’re going to follow the money. If they don’t play it and the kids want to hear it, they’ll switch stations to hear it where they can. I do that. You do that. That’s the only governing body that we have that’s hard to influence.
“Anyway, we’re trying to clear out our schedule so that we can get back into the studio. We need some gaps in our schedule that we are now trying to create. We’ve already locked down about three weeks. We moved some things, which is great because you can’t always move them. That’s what we’re trying to do right now – move things if possible so that we get back into the studio and get into recording. You come up with things in the studio that are just beautiful! You have no idea how you even got there. One little thing leads you to one thing and then another and then another. Somebody hears a lyric in the back of his head and he goes, ‘How about this?’ and that spurs somebody else. The magic just happens.”
I mentioned to William that I’d love to be a fly on the wall of the studio as they crafted their art. He laughed as he replied, “Well, you’ll need a lot of buffers on those ears because there’ll be a lot of arguing!” I imagine that is how most great musical work is created.
At the end of our chat, Mr. King graciously invited me backstage to the Commodores’ show that was, as luck would have it, taking place in my neighboring town of Allen, Texas, the following weekend. Of course, I took him up on his kind offer!
As I stood off to the side of the crowd of admirers, what I witnessed backstage showed me the true character of these legendary men. To begin with, Walter Orange, who didn’t know who I was, saw me observing the activities backstage as I was holding my copy of the Commodores’ album, Natural High. He walked over to me, reached for the album and my Sharpie, and signed it as we exchanged some humorous remarks.
Next, a fan who appeared to be approximately my age, was pushing her elderly mother in a wheelchair. Orange stepped away from the crowd and walked over to the “young lady” in the wheelchair and had a private conversation. That alone, my friends, would have been worth the price of a very expensive ticket to watch.
Orange, William King and J.D. Nicholas were incredibly gracious to the many fans that were fortunate enough to be part of the backstage meet and greet. They took the time necessary to allow the fans to have their picture taken with them and to shake hands.
When the meet and greet was over, I approached William, introducing myself. His face lit up with a genuine, ear-to-ear smile and gave me the biggest bear hug I’ve ever received in my life. We chatted a few minutes before he had to join his band mates in the RV for a last minute chat before hitting the stage.
The guys put on a powerful, energetic show despite the sweltering Texas heat. If the Commodores are coming to your city or town, you will definitely want to avail yourself to an incredible night of fantastic music and memories.
Be sure to check out the new version of Nightshift at the Commodores’ MySpace page. Also watch for the re-launching of their website in the days ahead and, hopefully, an album of brand new work in the not-too-distant future.