Commodores Founder Thomas McClary

by Greg Prato

Why does the woman in "Brick House" measure 36-24-36? McClary tells that story and explains how he developed his guitar sound.

One of the most underrated guitarists has to be Thomas McClary. As one of the founding members of the legendary Commodores, it was McClary who provided some of the funkiest guitar grooves ever - namely "Slippery When Wet," "Too Hot Ta Trot," and a portion of "Machine Gun," which the Beastie Boys later sampled for "Hey Ladies". He also offered up one of the most classic guitar solos of all-time on "Easy."

After exiting the Commodores in 1983, McClary has kept busy with solo recordings, serving as the music director at his church, forming a gospel music record label, and in 2017, issuing a great autobiography, Rock and Soul, which covers his musical career and personal life. McClary spoke with Songfacts about the book, as well as the stories behind some of the Commodores' classic tunes.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): What made you decide to write your memoir, Rock and Soul, now?

Thomas McClary: As I traveled around the world, I kept getting the question, "When are the original Commodores going to get back together?" And as I thought about the answers and started to jot them down, it looked like the beginning of a book. I didn't want to just include that, so I thought, I may as well talk about what it was like for me as a founder of the Commodores, recruiting Lionel Richie and the rest of the guys to be in the band. And some of the struggles and obstacles that we faced on our road to stardom.

And of course, I wanted to include what were some of the watershed moments that gave me the strength to survive some of that. I couldn't help but think about being the first African-American to integrate my public school in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement [Lake County Public Schools, in his hometown of Eustis, Florida], which was during formidable racial tensions. That served as fuel for me, to help me deal with some of the struggles in the music industry. And of course, I wanted to also talk about my role in creating what I refer to as "the signature sound of the Commodores."

Songfacts: Was it therapeutic writing the book?

Thomas: Oh, no question about it, man. I've gotten responses from people saying it's also therapeutic for them. In fact, one of the editors said that it definitely should be a Broadway play or movie. So, I'm relieved to just get all of it out. It certainly has been therapeutic.

Songfacts: Did writing the book make you re-appreciate or look differently at any of the Commodores music, or what the band was able to accomplish in their career?

Thomas: It made me appreciate it even more. Because when you look at some of the music, the blending of some of the melodies and words and rhythms, it certainly has withstood the test of time, which at that time was trend-setting. But you didn't know that it would be 40 years later that the music would still be around.

Songfacts: Before, you talked about helping create the Commodores' signature sound. How did you get your distinctive guitar sound?

Thomas: In my early years I played the ukulele - that initially was my instrument. I combined some of the styles from the ukulele with some of the rhythm thoughts I developed when I listened to my idols like Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King and Albert King. The sound was developed as trying to imagine if those guitarists were merged into one. What kind of sounds would they produce? In fact, the sound of the guitar solo in "Easy," we spent two to four hours just zeroing in on the sound before we even started recording.

Songfacts: What do you recall about coming up with the guitar solo in "Easy"?

Thomas: When you have lyrics in a song that say, "Why in the world would anybody put chains on me? I've paid my dues to make it," you have to match the intensity of those lyrics to a sound and a feel that musically portrays the same intensity and the same context of what you're saying.

A lot of ballads, the song would just end, but we wanted the guitar solo to take it to another level of intensity. So that was basically the inspiration behind it.

Songfacts: In the early '90s, the rock group Faith No More had a hit with a cover of "Easy." Did you ever hear their version, and if so, what did you think of it?

Thomas: I'm not sure if I recall their version. Man, every cover band in the world would play the song! But I'm not sure I recall that version.

Songfacts: Who decided that the woman's measurements in "Brick House" should be 36-24-36?

Thomas: Actually, we got those measurements out of Jet magazine - a model that was modeling swimwear. [Laughs]

Songfacts: How did the horn riff between the words "brick" and "house" come about?

Thomas: A lot of my guitar licks would typically be played by horns. I have to say that James Carmichael, who was co-producing and co-arranging with us, played a very important role in those horns.

Songfacts: What was the lyrical inspiration for "Slippery When Wet"?

Thomas: I was driving to the studio, and I saw a road sign that said, "slippery when wet." And I was like, "That's an interesting slogan there. It could be a good song title." But obviously, they were talking about a road. [Laughs] So that was the beginning of the thought process and how it tied into when a relationship starts to go sour.

Lionel Richie played piano and saxophone when he and McClary formed the band in the late '60s with four other guys from the Tuskegee, Alabama area. Drummer Walter Orange was their original lead singer, but by the time they released their first album in 1974 (on Motown), he was splitting most of the vocal duties with Richie. In the late '70s, Richie became their primary singer and songwriter, with hit ballads like "Sail On" and "Three Times A Lady" taking them further away from the hard funk sound they started with.

By the time Richie left in 1982, he had already embarked on a number of non-Commodores ventures, including his duet with Diana Ross, "Endless Love," one of the biggest hits of 1981. After McClary left, the group had one more big hit: "Nightshift" in 1985.
Songfacts: Was Lionel Richie good as a saxophone player?

Thomas: Yes. He had some really great tones. When I first met him, he was playing his uncle's sax, and it was a distinctive tone that was very unique. Even though he wasn't the "ripper" that Eddie Harris was - he was the guy that Lionel emulated a lot - his tones were really, really, good.

Songfacts: How did you feel about it when the Commodores started doing slower songs, like "Sweet Love" and "Just to Be Close to You"?

Thomas: Well, I was very moved by the fact that in the harmonies of "Sweet Love," in the early days, we would play other artists' songs, because we didn't have our own original songs. So, we would play songs by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, for instance. If you recall, their uniqueness was their harmonies. So, I often think about the harmonies that try to make that song different, and bringing into play the funk with a ballad, which kind of gave "Sweet Love" that unique sound.

Songfacts: What's the hidden gem in the Commodores' catalog?

Thomas: I think the hidden gem is the subtleties of a lot of the nuances that are in our music, that penetrates through the hearts and the souls of people. You can't listen to a song by the Commodores and not be touched in some way. I've had people say to us, "I got married to 'Three Times a Lady,'" or "I broke up to 'Sail On,'" or "I battled cancer and 'Zoom' helped me ease the pain," or "I couldn't help but get up and dance when I heard 'Brick House.'" So, there were a lot of subtleties that touched the emotions and penetrated the souls of people. I think those were the hidden gems.

December 1, 2017
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Comments: 3

  • Ms. Idell from DetroitI love, I mean I love the Commodores. Still do today as much as I did when I was 13 years old. I'm almost 60 now. They are my favorite group. The guitarist, handsome, talented and plays like no other i have ever seen or heard. And Lionel? Same to him. He's handsome and fine. My heart will forever be true to them.
  • Shawn from MarylandI love the Commodores hits! And I'll just go ahead and say the obvious, which is what I think Greg was trying to Thomas to say. The horn riff between "brick" and "house" was to break up "s**t"!! HA! LOL
    It's still a great a great group with a lot of hits!
    Thanks for the interview! :)
  • Kristal from Orlando Awesome interview!!
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