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'A lot of life, dancing and flipping': William 'WAK' King on the longevity of the Commodores

Commodores Photos By Denise Truscello Las Vegas Nevada USA Oct 29, 2022 Photos Denise Truscello
Denise Truscello
Courtesy photo
Commodores Photos By Denise Truscello Las Vegas Nevada USA Oct 29, 2022 Photos Denise Truscello

The Commodores will perform live at the Wichita Orpheum Theatre on Sunday, April 23.

William "WAK" King is a founding member of the Commodores. The legendary R&B band has sold over 75 million records worldwide with seven number-one hits. The Commodores will perform at the Wichita Orpheum on Sunday. KMUW's Carla Eckels talks to King about the band.

Interview Highlights

ECKELS: You’ve been around the world as an original member of the Commodores. Can you share with us a bit about the early years?

KING: Well, the early years were just that <laugh>, it was very early in our lives. We started out as teenagers. We were at Tuskegee Institute at the time, now [known] as Tuskegee University, but we were freshmen there and we just met each other, you know, around campus. I ran into ... Thomas McClary and Lionel Richie at different times. And one time we were all playing pool together. And somebody said, “You know, I [play] an instrument ... what do you play?” At the time Richie played saxophone, he didn't sing at all, and McClary said, “I played guitar.” I said, "Well, I played trumpet." So we got together with a bunch of other guys, I found a place on campus to just go in, and not even rehearse, but just jam ... just have a good time. I got us on a talent show at the school, and then we got invited to play at a little Honky Tonk club, and we got paid $2.50 and a chicken sandwich.

Well, you also were incredibly, and are, so incredibly talented. It's something to hear about the early years, and then you signed with Motown in 1972 and then, opened up for the Jackson 5?

We did. That was [when] things ... started to turn for us. ...You never know when the door's going open. And so, therefore, you have to be ready. Well, thank goodness we were ready, because when they allowed us to audition for the show, Barry Gordy loved us, and so he said, "Yep, those are the guys to go out with the Jackson 5."

Motown did not want us to write our own music...it was an assembly line. They had their own writers, producers, engineers and arrangers; they had everything, right? And so, all they wanted of their artists ... was just to walk in the studio. They'd give you the lyrics and melody and tell you to sing. That was it.

And then when we came through the door and we kept saying ... "We want to write our own material." They kept telling us "no." ...The only way we got to write our own material was that one day one of the songs that was written by one of the Commodores — Milan Williams the keyboard player — was presented to Barry Gordy. It was an instrumental, it wasn't even a vocal song, and it was called "Machine Gun." At the time it was called "The Ram," and Barry Gordy heard it. He loved this song. He said, "You know what? ...I hear all this sputtering going around, it sounds like machine guns firing, so I think it ought to be called 'Machine Gun'" and that's all that came about.

We said, "We don't care what he names it <laugh>, whatever he wants to name it, let's just put it out." And, and that song just took off and that was the beginning. After that, we were able to write all of our music.

The song “Brick House” always beckons people to the dance floor. How did that come about?

Well, "Brick House" was the last song to go on that particular album. As a matter of fact, it was only written because we had run outta songs and we needed to do something quick. ...We did all our writing and rehearsing and arranging, in Tuskegee, but we did our recording in Los Angeles. When we got ready to leave ... we decided that we needed to write one more song, but we would do it all together. And so we just got in the studio and just started jamming ... and from that jamming came "Brick House."

Now, once we got to LA and played and actually recorded the track, our co-producer at the time came in and said, "You know, I don't think I like that song. I think we ought just not do it." ...But Walter Clyde Orange, who was doing the lead vocal on that, said, “I'm gonna do a vocal on this song.” So he did it without the guys knowing it. He took an assistant engineer into the studio and recorded this song and presented it to the guys. When they heard his vocal on, they said, "We love it."So ["Brick House"] almost — and I mean within a whisker — was not going to make the album.

After being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2022, former Commodore member Lionel Richie said in his acceptance speech, “I cannot and will not walk off this stage without acknowledging my dear, dear, dear friends, the Commodores. Thank God for the Commodores, because there will be no Lionel Richie." Any thoughts?

I have a lot of thoughts, which I cannot say and will not say, but in that respect, I will say this: I am very happy that he made it in there, into the Hall of Fame. I wish that I had been there to see him except that award. Other than that, it's been a long time, since we've split, and people always believe that, you know, we had this grievance between us, and some of that's correct, but I think the main thing we have is respect for each other. I wish we had more, but you know, sometimes people want to move on, completely. ...I am very, very glad that, we got to know, each other. Not just Rich, but all of us ... we were incredible and loving and caring. And I can remember the days of riding in those ... vans, sleeping in each other's laps on the floor, across each other's backs, whatever it took to get to the next gig. And I'm very happy for that. And those days are passed, but they linger on in all of our memories.

Why do you think you've had such longevity? I mean, it's been over 50 years. Why do you think you the Commodores have had such great longevity in the music business?

Well, my thoughts are a couple of things. One is, is how we handle ourselves. We are very business minded — we learned that through the Jackson 5 — and we try to treat people right. We have musicians, we have people in our crew that's been with us 30, 35, 40 years. I can't get rid of 'em. They won't leave <laugh>. It's true. And, I think if you do the right thing by people, by the promoters, by the buyers, you show up on time, you do what you're supposed to do. ...I think as long as you keep your business intact and do it the right way, I think people always want you. Secondly, and maybe even first or maybe tied, I think the music speaks for itself. I think it's the music. I mean, people love "Lady, You Bring Me Up When I Am Down," "Brick House," "Three Times A Lady," "Still," and "Night Shift." ...I think people love those songs and they want to hear them, and they want to hear those songs the way they heard them when they were riding down the street in their car when those songs were hot and fresh.

No question.

And they can only get that from us.

What can people expect when you come to the Wichita Orpheum on Sunday?

They can expect [to hear] all of those great songs. They can expect a lot of life, dancing and flipping. Well, I won't be doing the flipping <laugh>. They can expect to see us just sing our hearts out and singing to them, and they can participate. They're going to be singing themselves. It's just going be such a great time. I'm looking forward to it myself.

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.