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Thomas McClary Interview: Commodores Co-Founder Talks Lionel Richie and Famed Group's Beginnings

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Image attributed to Thomas McClary

Thomas McClary

Thomas McClary co-founded, along with Lionel Richie, the legendary funk and soul band the Commodores in 1968. The Grammy-winning group spent a decade on top of the charts with such hits as “Brick House,” “Easy,” “Slippery When Wet,” and “Sail On.”

Born October 6, 1949, in Eustis Florida, McClary was one of the first African-American students to integrate the Florida Public School System prior to the enforcement of Brown vs. Board of Education, and he continued standing up for justice at Tuskegee University, an historically black college located in Tuskegee, Alabama. It was at Tuskegee that he met the other members of the Commodores. In addition to McClary and Richie, the original lineup consisted of William King, Andre Callahan, Michael Gilbert and Milan Williams.

“First, I had to convince Lionel’s grandmother to let him go with us because he was scheduled to go work in a bomb factory back in Joliet, Illinois.”

The Commodores’ current members are Walter “Clyde” Orange, James Dean “J.D.” Nicholas and William “WAK” King. McClary has released two solo albums and has been touring with his own band over the last few years. He recently released a memoir entitled Rock and Soul: Thomas McClary Founder of the Commodores, which is an intimate portrait of the musician and the creator of what many refer to as the signature sound.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Thomas, what was the impetus for you to write a book?

Thomas McClary: My kids, when they were small, looked up on the walls of my studio, and they saw these platinum and gold albums. They’d say, “Jesus, dad, those were some big CDs back then!” (laughs) It dawned on me they had no clue. I just tried to be a hands-on dad that took them to baseball practice, piano lessons and soccer. It has been a real joy over the 20-something years just seeing them grow up and go to college.

Also, people were asking me when the Commodores were going to get back together. As I started thinking about some of the reasons we haven’t gotten back together, I thought, “You know what? As I’m thinking about that, maybe I should just write some of this stuff down, and why don’t I just do a memoir?” It’s been fun just basically reliving those moments.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you end up going to college at Tuskegee University in Alabama?

Thomas McClary: A friend of mine had attended Tuskegee, and he was so excited talking about it. I had a couple of other offers from Bethune-Cookman and Michigan State, but I thought I’d go and visit Tuskegee first to see if I liked it, and sure enough I didn’t go any further (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What did you like about it?

Thomas McClary: Well, in my last two years of high school, I was the first African-American to integrate the Florida public school system in Lake County, Florida. That was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and the formidable racial tensions, and I thought that maybe that would be a good change of pace for me in Tuskegee. But when I got to Tuskegee, I found out they were protesting the wrongful death of Sandra Young.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you meet Lionel Richie?

Thomas McClary: I was standing in the registration line at Tuskegee, and it was starting to rain, and I heard this gentleman whistling a song by jazz artist Eddie Harris. I turned around and asked, “Are you a musician?” He was very shy and answered, “No, not really.” I said, “I’m trying to put a band together for the freshman talent show, and I’m looking for some musicians.” He said, “I live here, and I might be able to round up some guys and have you come to my grandmother’s house for you to audition them. She lives across the street from the campus.”

Well, that was Lionel Richie. When he came down the stairway at his grandmother’s house blowing his uncle’s saxophone, I said, “I thought you said you weren’t a musician.” He said, “I play a little bit.” I said, “You’re in the band.”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): From that early band that you formed, how did the Commodores come into existence?

Thomas McClary: Obviously, we thought we were going to be the laughingstock of the campus, but we actually won the competition. But we didn’t have any equipment really because we had borrowed some from another band called the Jays. After we won the talent show, some of the members of the Jays had graduated. We needed equipment, and they needed more members, so we just merged.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You guys would drive overnight to New York to find gigs?

Thomas McClary: First, I had to convince Lionel’s grandmother to let him go with us because he was scheduled to go work in a bomb factory back in Joliet, Illinois. After convincing her that we wouldn’t be involved in drugs and alcohol, we finally saved up a little money because we had worked some little gigs prior to that. We drove to New York, but still ran out of money before we got there. In fact, on the New Jersey Turnpike, we didn’t have enough money to pay the toll. The gentleman looked at us and said, “You mean you don’t have $4.50?” We said, “No sir, we don’t.” He looked in the van and saw all of us and how crowded it was and said, “I believe you because if you had some money, you would’ve rented a U-Haul.”

When we got to New York, we wound up going to the YMCA to see if we could trade off work for a room. Lionel and I went to talk to the management, and when we came out, we saw that all of our equipment had been stolen! So we had no money and no equipment. There was a place in Harlem called Smalls Paradise where a lot of famous bands would play, and we thought we could convince the manager to let us sit in. We were trying to get back our equipment, and a guy there said to give them $50 for it. We told him that we didn’t have $50, but this guy loaned it to us and later on became our manager. He set up an audition for us at Smalls. They had never seen a band dance and play at the same time. We rocked the house, and that was the beginning of a great relationship with our manager Benny Ashburn. At Smalls, a local band called Kool and the Gang was one of the house bands, so not a bad place to land our feet.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That led to Motown’s Berry Gordy signing the Commodores?

Thomas McClary: Yes, Benny Ashburn grew up with a young lady named Suzanne de Passe, and she had been very popular in New York. She booked acts for the Cheetah club. Berry Gordy heard about Suzanne and wanted her to have a fresh start. He was moving to Los Angeles from Detroit, hired two bands to head what was called the Creative department (later named Artist Relations).

Suzanne’s first assignment was a little group called The Jackson Five. They had just been on The Ed Sullivan Show. They hadn’t toured all the 50 states yet, so they were looking for an opening act, and Suzanne thought about her friend Benny Ashburn and this group called the Commodores who were college kids with an incredible show, so we landed the opening act gig for The Jackson Five. We toured with them for two years, and after that, Berry Gordy signed us for our first recording contract.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did all of the guys participate in the songwriting process?

Thomas McClary: Yes, but Lionel and I wrote over 50% of the songs.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You left the band shortly after Lionel. Why did you two decide to leave?

Thomas McClary: There was a lot of stuff going on. Some of the guys were not really as into it as maybe Lionel and I were, and they started to get distracted with other things. But at the same time, you’re going to have guys a little envious, a little jealous, you know. I was basically trying to support keeping the band together. Of course, when Benny Ashburn died, he had been a part of the glue as well.

But it was kind of like when you love the fact that you’re winning, but if it’s not you hitting the homerun, you forget the fact that the team is still winning. You know what I mean? It’s like you may not be the pitcher, but you’re still on the team. Of course, Lionel and I did the Kenny Rogers project. I co-wrote a song with Lionel for that and co-wrote a song with him on a Diana Ross project on the Endless Love soundtrack. My main thing was, I was just trying to make the guys realize that we were winning.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And that’s a good thing.

Thomas McClary: That’s a good thing! (laughs)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did your interest in music and particularly the guitar, begin early in life?

Thomas McClary: Yes, it did. I began initially on the ukulele, and then I started from there. That’s one of the reasons, I think, my guitar style is different because I was thinking like a ukulele player, but with a guitar (laughs). In fact, I created what I like to refer to as the signature sound, which you can hear throughout all of our music, and it’s more pronounced on “Easy” with the guitar solo, which many writers have classified as a “classic” guitar solo.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That it is, Thomas.

Thomas McClary: Oh, thank you.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How did you come up with that riff and that funk rock sound?

Thomas McClary: When we were in college, to make money I would have the four of us play on various campuses, and we’d call ourselves the Mark IV. We didn’t want to market ourselves as the Commodores because when all six of us went out, we could get more money. Anyway, during that Mark IV era, I would listen to Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Albert King, James Taylor and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I thought it would be really great to mesh those guys together to have a really raunchy, raw, authentic sound that could be appealing to everybody. That was the creativity and the thought behind that.

You can have a regular ballad like “Easy,” but in the middle of it have a pulsating sort of rock thing going on just trying to match Lionel’s lyrics because really, “Why in the world would anybody put chains on me? I’ve paid my dues to make it.” (laughs) You’ve got to go with those lyrics, you know what I mean? And to be honest and true, we were really talking about the group at that time and what was going on internally. But you make the lyrics a little more commercial if people think you’re talking about a girl (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Whatyou’re your inspiration for writing “Slippery When Wet”?

Thomas McClary: Obviously, Stevie Wonder was another Motown influencer. I thought if Albert King and Jimi Hendrix were to write a funky song and give it that raw, raunchy sound, and if you had a Stevie Wonder kind of vocal delivery and concept-wise with Sly Stone type of funk, “Thank you for letting me be myself,” kind of foot-stomping thing, that would be the music. Then I was driving down the road, and the sign said, “Slippery When Wet.” (laughs) I also wanted to have a double meaning so that it could have a sexual connotation, too, but at the same time, it could be a love affair that could go wrong if you’re not taking care of business.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think the Commodores deserve to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Thomas McClary: Oh, I think so, too. It’s funny that you say that because that’s one of the projects Benny Ashburn’s daughter and I have been working on. It’s a thing where you have to be voted in by the writers, and sometimes if you don’t have the various infrastructure of people there blowing your horn for you, nobody else will.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Would you be interested in a Commodores reunion?

Thomas McClary: Yes. I would love it. In my book, I talk about how I’ve spent almost 30 years just trying to make that happen. Lionel and I still talk a lot. In 2008, he wanted me and Ronald LaPread to do something in New Zealand. So, we did. Man, the people went crazy to see the three of us together. That next year, Lionel was at the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans and wanted me and Ronald to do that again. We tried to extend that invitation to the other guys, and the bitterness was just too great. They still haven’t spoken to Lionel in 40 years. We’re like, “Come on. You’ve forgotten what you’re mad about!”

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do they have any idea what started the feud?

Thomas McClary: Jealousy is a dangerous thing, you know. Lionel is very talented, and even if you don’t admit that, it doesn’t change it. Even if you don’t want to believe it, that still doesn’t change it. He’s charismatic, has a great voice and is a great writer. William King is probably the least talented one of us all, and he has been the main stumbling block. Of course, Walter (Orange), unfortunately, just listens to William, and that’s too bad.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were an activist in high school and in college, so are you still continuing to be outspoken these days with this current administration and a president that has been accused of being a racist?

Thomas McClary: Well, yes I am. I think it’s important that we do. Some of my best friends are white, and some of my worst enemies are black. Not that I’m perfect. Don’t get me wrong. But I think people should be honest and allow the truth to prevail. I’m a proponent of teachers getting raises. We don’t pay our teachers enough. I think we should weed out the bad policemen and pay the good ones more. From a fund-raising, non-profit standpoint, we try to raise money for children suffering from Lupus and cancer and for the elderly that do not have health insurance and need life-saving operations. We’ve been doing that for years.

For over 40 years, I’ve been raising money. I think you owe something back when you’ve been given so much. The fans over the years have made us who we are by supporting our music. Here it is about 50 years later, and the music is still being played. So I don’t take it for granted, and I like to try and give back and make a difference if I can. People stop me all the time and say that “Three Times a Lady” was the song they got married to or that they couldn’t stop dancing at a party to “Brick House.” I still haven’t given up on the reunion. I still love those songs, and I’m not going to give up.

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