Trumpet/keyboards player William King of the Commodores, a cheery extrovert, tried very hard to bottle up his bitterness when discussing the group's slide from superstardom. He said the hurt and anger are gone. His facial expressions said otherwise.
"I like to think that bitterness is behind me," said King one recent afternoon, forcing a laugh. "I'd love to forget what happened and think nice thoughts about the whole thing. But that's like living in a fairy tale."
In the late '70s, mainly thanks to Lionel Richie ballads like "Easy," "Still" and "Three Times a Lady," this band, with its pop/R&B; sound, became one of the most popular in the business. The turning point came in 1982 when Richie left to become a solo artist. While he soared to upper levels of superstardom, the public largely forgot the Commodores. The last few years have been disastrous for them. Hampered by meager record sales, they were reduced to playing small halls. Many thought they had quietly disbanded.
But the Commodores never quit. They're proving there's life after Richie. They have a Top 10 single, "Nightshift," the title song of their hit Motown album (No. 24 on the Billboard pop chart), their second without Richie. The single, an eerily atmospheric tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, is indicative of their new sound--slick, synthesized soul.
"We had to come up with something different," King observed. "Or else people would say we're still trying to sound like Richie. It's the first time we've used some songs by outside writers. That's a guaranteed way of getting a different sound. We had no choice."
King still hasn't forgiven Richie. The problem, King explained, isn't that Richie left. It's the way he left. The Commodores were in limbo throughout 1982 while their most valuable member worked on outside projects.
"He kept saying he'd be back," King recalled, anger in his voice. "First he was coming back after working with Kenny Rogers. Then he had to do Diana Ross. Then he had to do his own album. Meanwhile we couldn't work. He wouldn't go on tour. And what promoter would book us without Richie? Would they book the Beatles without Paul McCartney? Richie was our McCartney.
"We weren't mad because he decided to leave. We were mad at the procrastination. He never called up and said I'm going over there to do this and I won't be there to work with the group. Not one of the days that he promised to be back did he show up. Finally we had to go on without him."
Though King and the other Commodores imply that Richie was selfish and negligent during that period, Richie, in various interviews, has said he wasn't callously stringing them along. Richie said he honestly intended to return but, after working on all those outside projects, enjoyed the freedom and was no longer interested in being part of a group.
At first the Commodores thought they could easily survive the loss of Richie. However, they weren't fully aware of the group's public image.
"People gave Richie credit for everything," King said in an exasperated tone. "The world thinks he produced, arranged and wrote everything we did. We all built that sound. He wrote many of the hits but he didn't write all of them. But that didn't matter. People thought he did it all. So when he left nobody wanted to know about us. It was a rude awakening."
King, the group member closest to Richie, said bitterness about the split hasn't soured him on his old pal: "We still talk but not as much as we used to. We used to be together all the time. The honest truth is that I miss him very much. I miss the camaraderie we had. I miss the fun we had. The memories of the fun stand out over everything. I'm disappointed that we couldn't work things out and stay together."
Richie's defection was just one of the losses contributing to the Commodores' downfall. Another was producer-arranger James Carmichael, who went with Richie.
"He met with us and picked the songs for our album ("Commodores 13," the first without Richie)," King said. "We needed him. He's a great arranger, the best I've ever seen. He was the backbone for us and Richie. He never called us to say he was going with Richie. I talked to him two or three times in the last year. We still have a good relationship. We just don't talk about that album."
Losing manager Benny Ashburn, who died of a heart attack just before Richie left in 1982, was perhaps the most crippling loss of all.
"He was the glue," King said. "Losing Benny was more of a blow to the Commodores than if Richie had quit 20 times."
The Commodores hired another manager who didn't last long. Eventually they found a satisfactory manager. "But that cost us a lot of time," King said. "We had to get used to being without Benny. That hasn't been easy."
The first post-Richie album, "Commodores 13," released in the fall of 1983, was the wrong album at the wrong time. It came out at the same time as Richie's second solo album, "Can't Slow Down," also on Motown Records.
"Motown said it wouldn't matter that they both came out about the same time," King said. "But it did matter. We were competing with him and he won. He was coming off a smash solo album, so radio had to play his next solo album. The DJs told us they didn't want to play our record because it sounded too much like Richie. We should have come up with a different sound then. That was a mistake."
"Can't Slow Down" went on to become the biggest album in Motown history, selling more than 8 million copies and winning the best-album Grammy. The Commodores went further downhill.
The Commodores not only have a new sound but a new member-- black English singer J. D. Nicholas. It's the first personnel change since the band originated in Tuskegee, Ala., 17 years ago. For 2 1/2 years after Richie's departure, the Commodores were rigorously searching for a ballad singer to work with King, keyboards player Milan Williams, bassist Ronald LaPread and drummer Walter (Clyde) Orange.
About six months ago, after finishing most of the "Nightshift" album, they settled on Nicholas, 32, who's been a studio singer for the last few years. "I'm not replacing Lionel," he stressed immediately. "I don't look like him, I don't sound like him and I'm not trying to be him."
In concert Nicholas does sing Richie's hits. Recently the group returned from a European tour which served as Nicholas' breaking-in period.
"I was surprised at the reaction," he said. "It was very good. In their minds I'm sure people can't help make the comparison between me and Lionel. It hasn't been a problem so far. But it's still early."
Richie isn't the first star Nicholas has replaced. For three years he sang in Heat Wave, in place of lead singer Johnny Wilder. Nicholas has horrible memories of that experience:
"I was being strangled creatively. I couldn't sing the way I felt. I had to sing like Johnny. I had to do things a certain way on stage. I'm not a robot who can be programmed to act like and sound like somebody.
"That's why I like being in the Commodores. They're not trying to tell me how to sing or what to do on stage. And they definitely don't want me to be like Lionel. That's the best part."