July 5, 2019 Interview – William King of Commodores
Everyone has a soundtrack that fits their life. For some it is a playlist riddled with heartache, for others a rainbow of emotions shining from both ends of the spectrum. Whatever it may be, chances are one of the tunes in that timeline is a love song, and it is highly likely that it might be song by the Commodores. Coming together back in 1968, the Commodores would embark on a journey make them one of the greatest Motown and R&B/Funk bands of all time, selling 75 million plus records, attaining 7 #1 singles, and carving a notch in the hearts of listeners everywhere.
A combination of the unique talents of each musician involved, the Commodores caught magic in a bottle, and now 5 decades later, continue to spread it around. Still out on the road touring everywhere, co-founding member William King recently took the time to chat about the story of the band, the diversity that lead to greatness, the plan of new music for the first time in 20 years, plus much more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in music your entire life and a member of the Commodores for 50 years. One of the most successful acts of all-time with countless hit records and awards, how would you describe the journey of the Commodores?
William King – I would have to say it’s been an incredible adventure. There have been a lot of ups and a lot of downs. The one thing I think really worked for me, as well as the rest of the guys, is that we were really enjoying what we were doing. Sometimes you don’t recognize when things are not going as well as you think, because you’re together and having so much fun. You find yourself having to go up a big hill, but you’re all going together, laughing, and trying to figure it out. You don’t recognize that maybe you shouldn’t be trying it or you might feel you can’t do it. It’s been an incredible journey just for the fact that we’ve enjoyed being together and enjoyed the trip.
Cryptic Rock – And you have done a lot of great things. One thing that stood the Commodores apart from other bands is the hybrid of genres from R&B to Rock to Pop to Funk. What inspired the artistic direction of the band?
William King – One thing we had was in the beginning was six guys with six different types of music they loved. We had Milan Williams who was from Mississippi and was into Blues and Jazz. You had Ronald LaPread, our bass player, who was into Funk and also a lot into Blues. You had Lionel Richie, who was into ballads and up-tempo, more Pop-ish type music. You had Tommy McClary who was into a lot of Hard Rock. As a guitarist he loved songs that had a lot of riffs in them; he loved the Jimi Hendrix era and Three Dog Night type of music. Then you had Walter Orange who was into Big Band and he brought that aspect; he still is an incredible drummer.
Then there is me. I was kind of into a lot of things, but I was a lot like Richie: I liked ballads and Pop-type music. I wasn’t so much into Jazz or really heavy Blues, but more modern music.
We had a huge amount of ingredients to throw into one pot. Everybody just threw everything in and sometimes we had music that was Country Western and more ballads. You had ingredients from 2-4 types of genres in one song. That is all because that’s what the guys had to give. It gave us such songs such as “Machine Gun,” which was an instrumental Disco type setting, all the way to ballads like “Three Times a Lady” and “Still.” Then there were uptempo Pop songs like “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” to Funk songs like “Brickhouse” and “Too Hot ta Trot.” We were just all over the place. (Laughs) It was great and sometimes we surprised ourselves. There was a lot of arguing of which way we should go, of which way a song should go, and what we thought was good, but when I look back on it, it was the best thing we had going for us.
Cryptic Rock – Wow, such diverse tastes made for some great songs. Sometimes there may be a misconception among casual fans that these songs were written by one person, but you all worked on them together.
William King – Yeah, the thing we loved to do was arrange songs, whether it was one person who brought the song in or whether it was all six of us. Sometimes it was three of us who wrote the song, two of us who wrote the song, sometimes it was one of us; it just depended on how the song got started. That person would bring that song in and literally throw it on the table. We would all start pitching in, figuring out what the bass was going to sound like, what were the guitar parts, what was the arrangement the song was going to take.
Then we had James Carmichael who was a co-producer and he would throw his two cents in. Someone would bring a song, it would sound like one thing when they did, and it would sound totally different at the end of the day. Sometimes we didn’t even know what we had. When “Brickhouse” was put together we called it a group song. We needed one more song to go on the album so everybody started throwing licks and things into the pot. In the end that song almost didn’t make it on the album. It wasn’t until Walter Orange took it into the studio to put a vocal over the track that we already cut that gave the song incredible life. It was at that moment the song was selected to definitely be on the album. You just never knew! We were just trying to put things together in any kind of fashion we thought was good at that particular time.
Cryptic Rock – That spontaneity is what makes for great music.
William King – Exactly. We had a lot of that, I think sometimes we had too much. (Laughs) Everybody had something to say, and like anything else, when you have too many people talking at the same time, it’s just a lot of noise. We were lucky that were able to shut some of those people up and get something we could use.
Cryptic Rock – Very interesting. You are out on tour now through the fall celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Commodores. How is the tour going?
William King – It’s like always I have to tell you, we just have a great time. The traveling is a little laborsome, more so than it was 25-30 years ago. Sometimes you can get a little worn down by the third or fourth show. All you have to be is off for around two days and everyone is like “Let’s go!” and want to get back on the road again. The shows have just been incredible.
A matter of fact, we were listening to a group recently and I noticed how the song had been dropped down a full key or key and a half sometimes. I guess it was because they could no longer perform the songs in the original key and needed to be brought down. I thought to myself, we haven’t brought any songs down, which I think is incredible. A matter of fact, I think the guys are singing stronger now than they ever have. That is a feather in our cap that after 50 something years the guys are still going strong.
Cryptic Rock – That is great to hear. You put on a great live show and you have been working hard on the road. That said, it’s been a long time since you have released new music with the Commodores. Is new music possible?
William King – I’m glad you mentioned that. I was recently in the studio cutting two tracks which will hopefully be two of four songs we are going to use to start a new album. I’ve been doing it for 3-4 weeks now. We can get back in the studio, get the vocals on it, and hopefully come out with new material by the end of the year.
Cryptic Rock – That is exciting news. It has been two decades since you released new music.
William King – That’s about right. I think the one thing that has happened is that we’ve been on the road so much. Sometimes through the years you just don’t feel like doing certain things. Some of the guys just didn’t want to go back in the studio; they just wanted to tour and go home. A lot of us having grandkids now, it’s just a matter of taking your time and doing other things with it.
It’s time for us to get some new material out there; it’s time for us to go in the studio and do the things we do best. The thing about the Commodores, like most groups, we do basically two things: those are perform on stage and in the studio. We need to get back to the second one, which is perform in the studio.
Cryptic Rock – The timing is good now with the 50th anniversary too. People will be anxious to hear some new music.
William King – It’s hard to believe it’s been over 50 years. When you look back on it and think about all the things we’ve done, all the people we’ve met, all the places we’ve been, all the music we’ve played, then it does seem like it could be 50 years. Overall, in the big picture, the time has just flown by. They say time flies when you’re having fun, well we must been having a lot of fun, because time has really flown by.
Cryptic Rock – Yes, and when you are busy, it does fly. A lot of the success you attained in the late ’70s into the ’80s. What was it like when all these things were happening for the band?
William King – It didn’t seem that quick to me personally because we had been doing it for so long. It was like the next step, next step, and the next step. I think there is a moment when it all comes together and you go, ‘Wow.’ For me that wow moment was when we played Madison Square Garden. When we walked on that stage, all those people that were there, a jammed packed house was there to see the Commodores. We had been the opening act for so many groups before, all the way from Stevie Wonder to The Jackson 5, now at that particular moment, it was all about us. It seriously was all about us and to hear that explosion when we hit the set, it was deafening, so much you could hardly hear the band because the people were cheering so loud. That to me was that ‘aha moment’ and I will never forget it.
It all didn’t seem to me to come that quickly. Even today, all these years later, I still have moments like that. It’s those moments that make you happy in general. I get like that a lot of times when people tell me how our music has affected their lives; they met their husbands or wives, had incredible moments with their kids. These moments they’re talking about are what I call star moments that happen all through their lives, and to be a part of these moments is incredible. It’s stories about people who met someone in a bar and they played our song on the jukebox, and they started to dance together and they feel like they’ve never stopped dancing since that day. It is those kind of star moments that give me that ‘a-ha’ moment. I’ve enjoyed that and I sure hope it continues.
Cryptic Rock – That is amazing. It seems you take none of it for granted and appreciate it greatly. Out of curiosity, are there any new artists from today that you like?
William King – I like some of them. I like Ne-Yo, think he’s an incredible artist. I like Katy Perry, too. There are quite a few I listen to, but I change the channel a lot too. (Laughs) One of my grandkids was here the other day and he had some music on and I said, “Na, na, na. That’s the wrong music.” (Laughs)
I enjoy listening to the radio. I stopped for a while because I thought it was getting so bad, but I think things are starting to turn. I also like a lot of different genres. I listen to Country West all the time. I’ve loved music that was actual, real instruments with real people playing. I think the music today, in some respects, is coming back to where I think it should be, which is instruments, not just computer-generated sounds. I’m looking forward to what’s coming ahead.