The Commodores formed in 1968 during their freshman year at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. Lionel Richie, Tom McClary and William King first met as members of a group called The Mystics. But after that group's disappointing performance at a freshman talent show, they merged members with another well-known local group called The Jays that had recently split-up. According to King, "we took a dictionary and threw it up in the air and decided that wherever it came down, we'd blind pick a word on that page." And with this game of chance, they became The Commodores. They lucked out - they were almost "The Commodes."
In 1969 The Commodores took a shot at the big time and committed their school summer vacation to gigging in New York City. Not long after their arrival they were robbed and left nearly destitute — six grown men sharing one room with one bed turned lengthwise at the Harlem YMCA. But with the help of Benny Ashburn, who would later go on to become the group's manager, the boys picked up an audition gig a little club called Small's Paradise. They called out all their old Tuskegee friends now living in NYC and the gig was a massive success, leading to a 3-week stand at the club. The Commodores returned to school in Tuskegee in the fall, but they made the 1,800-mile trek back to NYC almost every weekend thereafter to perform.
After one of their many overnight drives from Tuskegee to New York City, The Commodores arrived at Lloyd Price's Turntable Club nearly 30 minutes late with a patched flat tire and the gas tank on E. Their manager Benny Ashburn had arranged an industry showcase, and the band feared they had already blown their chances. Tired, sweaty and disoriented, the boys set up their gear and still managed to churn out a phenomenal set. A week later the phone rang, and Motown Records executive Suzanne DePasse offered The Commodores 42 dates as the opener on The Jackson Five's upcoming US tour.
After inking a deal with Motown Records, The Commodores spent nearly 2 ½ years on the road with The Jackson Five. They also toured with other groups like The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and The Rolling Stones. But it took a while for the hits to start rolling in — first they had to break free of the Motown machine. Instead of recording the old standards or tracks by Motown songwriters, The Commodores eventually persuaded the label to let them enter the studio on their own. They teamed up with fellow Alabaman James Carmichael to produce their first hit — the synthesizer-laden instrumental track "Machine Gun" written by keyboardist Milan Williams. The track peaked at #24 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1975.
After the success of ballads like "Easy" and "Three Times A Lady," Commodores vocalist and saxophonist Lionel Richie stepped away from the group to pen the soulful pop track "Lady" for country singer Kenny Rogers. The song was a smash, spending six weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100. This success, coupled with his powerful duet with superstar Diana Ross on the title song for the movie Endless Love, signaled his eminent departure from The Commodores. In 1982 he broke from the group to pursue his solo career full time.
After his unceremonious departure from The Commodores, Lionel Richie was replaced by former Heatwave singer J.D. Nicholas. The group was never able to capture their previous success, but they did score one more big hit. 1985's "Nightshift," a tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson penned by Walter "Clyde" Orange, won the group their first Grammy for Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals. In 2010 the group rerecorded a version of the song as a tribute to the late Michael Jackson.
On most of the tracks where he wasn't singing, Lionel Richie played saxophone. According to Thomas McClary, he was really good. "He had some really great tones," McClary told Songfacts. "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."