BY: LEE ZIMMERMAN
One group that often misses out on props for both its longevity and iconic status is the Commodores, originally formed when its members met at Tuskegee University and began playing the local club and college circuit. That was 1968. A year later, the band’s drummer and current singer, Walter “Clyde” Orange, was invited to join by the group’s original bassist, Michael Gilbert.
"I have been with this band for 46 years, and that’s a miracle."
A Jacksonville native and resident of Coral Springs for the last 24 years, Orange penned two of the band’s biggest hits: one of their first, “Brick House,” and their last, the Grammy-garnering “Night Shift.” In between, he’s seen the band grow and prosper, even despite a seemingly steady shift in it personnel roster, the most significant of which was the loss of singer/songwriter Lionel Richie.
These days, the band continues to perform around 60 dates a year, filling their sets with the many hits that once dominated on pop, soul, and even country music playlists for much of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“I first caught [the Commodores] on Valentines Day night, 1969,” Orange remembers. “I played in several bands in high school and college, and on that particular night, we had just finished playing a gig around the corner from a club called Laicos — It was ‘Social’ spelled backwards — and they were playing there.
"I immediately realized these guys were different. Number one, they all dressed alike. They all wore these silk shirts. They had a choreography routine. Everything was uniform, and they had a certain look about them. They were all clean-cut. They also played different kinds of songs. They were playing the theme to ‘Hang ‘Em High.’ That was unheard of. They were a dance band, but people would sit and watch them. Very few people would actually get up and dance.”
That first run-in proved fortuitous. A short time later, Orange learned that the Commodores' drummer was leaving, and was invited to join the band. “Four months later, I was visiting my mother in Jacksonville, and I got a call. ‘We need you on a plane this weekend!’ It was my first time on an airplane. And they wanted me to bring my drums too. So that was it. When I arrived at the airport, they told me drive out to meet them in Atlantic City. I had never driven in traffic. And I had never been to Atlantic City. I was a nervous wreck. But the rest, as they say, is history.”
Orange spent two weeks on the road with the group, learning their material. The fact that he was a trained musician who could both read and write music didn’t hurt. Plus, he was already seasoned. As a kid, he'd slip out of his bedroom window in the middle of the night to play gigs, then return early in the morning before the rest of his family was awake.
As fate would have it, Orange was offered another gig at the same time, one he was tempted to take, even while working the road with the Commodores. “I loved jazz and being a drummer, and I loved guys like Buddy Rich. During those first two weeks while the band was playing in Atlantic City, I would take a walk after the gigs and go see the jazz organist Bill Doggett, who was playing nearby. After seeing him a few times, he offered me a job. He said, ‘I’m going to need a new drummer, and I know you can play, so I’ll give you $200 a week.’ That was tempting, but I had to turn him down, because I was already committed to the Commodores. The next time I went in, he raised it to $300. Again, I was tempted, but I said to myself, ‘Don’t do it. Be a man of your word.’ At that time I had no idea what the Commodores were going to pay me, but being a man of my word, and being raised in the church and being in the Boy Scouts and then the Eagle Scouts, I knew I couldn’t break my commitment.”
That decision would soon prove profitable. The band was already gaining a large following for their willingness to play pop hits that drew white audiences as well as their black base. The opportunity to tour as an opening ace for the Jackson 5 brought them to the attention of Motown Records, and an unexpected partnership with arranger James Carmichael, who agreed to be their producer. Orange credits Carmichael for helping to shape the group’s sound and give them their direction.
It was Carmichael who helped deliver a string of hits that made them popular with radio programmers and audiences alike; songs like “Easy,” “Just to be Close to You,” “Sail On,” “Three Times a Lady,” “Still,” “Sweet Love,” and “Lady (You Bring Me Up),” among the many. “Thank the Lord we have enough songs that we can keep people entertained for an hour and a half,” Orange says. “When we’re up on stage, we mean business. We give you everything you want to hear. That’s what keeps the Commodores going, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Orange admits that Lionel Richie’s departure in 1982 was cause for concern, especially as far as he was concerned. “It was scary, especially for me,” he says in retrospect. “I was playing drums and singing and playing right there with him. We had our routines and dance steps. So after he left, we had a period where we had to make believers out of people again. However, our sound didn’t change. We just had to find someone to fill that void and that space. We had to let people know that he was gone...It didn’t feel good, but as our manager told us, the show must go on.”
Looking back, Orange credits camaraderie, discipline, and an unwavering faith in God for getting them as far as they have. “We have a love for what we do,” he insists. “We have a respect for what we do. I have been with this band for 46 years, and that’s a miracle...There’s women. Drinking. Drugs. We’ve never been into any of that — other than the ladies, that is...It’s almost like a fraternity. Besides, I’m 69 years old. If I don’t have it together by now, then I never will.”
7 p.m. Sunday, April 3, at the Pavilion at Seminole Casino Coconut Creek, 5550 NW 40 Street, Coconut Creek. Tickets cost $45 to $65 plus fees. Visit Ticketmaster.com or call 800-653-8000.