They made it look easy like Sunday morning. The funk-soul Commodores met at Tuskegee Institute in 1968, signed to Motown in 1972 after opening for the Jackson 5, and sold 60 million records.
And you can join them March 26 when they perform for AARP’s online Daybreaker Live: Easy Like Saturday Morning Dance Party (register now here to get in on the fun).
The performance is part of AARP’s three-day AARP Celebrates You! virtual festival (find out how to these free events here).
Meanwhile, in celebration of Commodores’ string of R&B, soul and funk hits, we’ve assembled our picks for their top 10. Get the inside story on each song (who really wrote those “Brick House” lyrics?) and listen to each one before the Dance Party.
Why it’s great: This languid, bluesy ballad from the Commodores album is often mistaken for a mushy love song. The tune, featuring laid-back vocals and a sparkling guitar solo, finds the singer reacting to a doomed relationship not with despair but with a resignation that’s “easy like Sunday morning.” It was featured in a Levi’s TV commercial. Lionel Richie, who sang lead on the Commodores’ hit version, recorded “Easy” again with Willie Nelson on his 2012 solo Tuskegee album.
Peak moment: “Easy” reached No. 4 on the Billboard singles chart.
Hear it: “Easy”
“Brick House” (1977)
Why it’s great: Upbeat and funky with a soulful horn section, “Brick House” is an unapologetic (if slightly dated) ode to a shapely woman. Drummer Walter Orange handles the vocals, and Richie plays saxophone. If the lyrics seem offensive, don’t blame the Commodores. The band needed another song for the Commodores album and guitarist-trumpet player William King was at home writing one when he fell asleep. He woke up to find the “Brick House” lyrics written by his wife, Shirley Hanna-King. The other members didn’t know until years later that she was the author.
Peak moment: “Brick House” topped out at No. 5 in Billboard.
Hear it: “Brick House”
Why it’s great: A soft rock ballad on Midnight Magic, “Still” gets its emotional heft from melancholy piano, swelling strings and Richie’s heartfelt vocals. Richie was inspired to write “Still” by the breakup of childhood friend William Smith’s marriage. After the couple split, Smith and Richie talked at length one night about the painful but wise choice of divorce as a means of salvaging a friendship and avoiding simmering bitterness. The song has been covered by a wide variety of artists from “Goldfinger” belter Shirley Bassey to John Schneider of The Dukes of Hazzard.
Peak moment: “Still” went all the way to No. 1.
Hear it: “Still”
“Machine Gun” (1974)
Why it’s great: At the dawn of disco, the band released this energetic R&B boogie instrumental, sizzling with synthesizers and galloping drums. It was the Commodores’ first single from their same-named debut album and a reflection of the deep funk groove that characterized their early sound. “Machine Gun” was given its name by Motown honcho Berry Gordy, who said Milan Williams’ clavinet sounded like gunfire. The beat has been sampled often by hip-hop acts; the Beastie Boys used it in 1989’s “Hey Ladies.” And for years, before signing off each night, Nigeria’s TV stations played “Machine Gun” after the national anthem.
Peak moment: “Machine Gun” peaked at No. 22.
Hear it: “Machine Gun”
Why it’s great: This moving and soulful tune pays tribute to R&B singers Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, who both died in 1984. Richie had left the band in 1982 and was replaced by J.D. Nicholas, who shares vocals with Walter Orange. Songwriter Franne Golde, enlisted to assist with the lyrics, got the idea for the title from Ron Howard’s film Night Shift. It’s the only hit the Commodores scored after Richie’s departure. After four weeks on the R&B chart, it was bumped off by Diana Ross’ “Missing You,” another Marvin Gaye tribute, penned by — who else? — Richie.
Peak moment: “Nightshift” hit No. 3.
Hear it: “Nightshift”
“Three Times a Lady” (1978)
Why it’s great: A romantic waltz with none of the Commodores’ original funk grit, “Three Times a Lady” was Richie’s valentine to his wife, Brenda. He was inspired by a loving toast his father gave his mother at their 37th wedding anniversary party. The song is so soft and sentimental that Richie believed it was inappropriate for the Commodores and considered offering it to Frank Sinatra. But the group wanted to keep it, and the croon became a global hit, garnered two Grammy nominations and influenced Rolling Stone and Billboard to name the Commodores the R&B group of the year.
Peak moment: “Three Times a Lady” was the Commodores’ first song to reach No. 1.
Hear it: “Three Times a Lady”
“Sail On” (1979)
Why it’s great: A poignant ballad from the album Midnight Magic, “Sail On” brings country and blues touches to the Commodores’ signature R&B. Richie wrote the song about a man who recognizes his marriage is irretrievably broken, and he’s too weary to fight for it. The song’s pop sweetness belies its melancholy message. It wasn’t autobiographical: Richie did not get divorced until 14 years later. The song was covered by Destiny’s Child in 1998.
Peak moment: “Sail On” sailed all the way to No. 4.
Hear it: “Sail On”
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“High on Sunshine” (1976)
Why it’s great: A standout track from Hot on the Tracks, “High on Sunshine” brims with soul and delivers on its promise with warmth, positivity and bright, punchy horns. Its mellow message rejects a “hard as stone” reality: “Sailing in my mind are fancy colors / I see the world through rainbow shades.” The song, written by Lionel Richie and Thomas McClary, wasn’t released as a single and was never a radio hit, but it belongs alongside their best efforts. It was covered by the Fifth Dimension and sampled by De La Soul, Fat Joe and A Tribe Called Quest.
Peak moment: “High on Sunshine” didn’t chart, but its impact is enduring.
Hear it: “High on Sunshine”
“Sweet Love” (1976)
Why it’s great: The Commodores’ first Top 10 hit marked a shift from their funk formula into easy-listening pop. Soulful and melodic, “Sweet Love” could be interpreted as a love song or an ode to the healing power of love. Richie wrote and sang the song, which references lyrics from Ike & Tina Turner’s “Deep Mountain High” and Jackie DeShannon’s “Put a Little Love in Your Heart.”
Peak moment: “Sweet Love” went all the way to No. 5.
Hear it: “Sweet Love”
“Lady (You Bring Me Up)” (1981)
Why it’s great: The Commodores’ last hit before Richie quit is an up-tempo gem that injects enough soul into its disco foundation to avoid cheesiness. Orange typically handled vocals on bouncy numbers, but Richie proves more than adequate on this cheerful dance tune. He had no hand in writing it. The track from the album In the Pocket was penned by William King and his wife, Shirley, plus Harold Hudson of the backing group the Mean Machine.
Peak moment: “Lady (You Bring Me Up)” rolled up to No. 8.
Hear it: "Lady (You Bring Me Up)”
Edna Gundersen, a regular AARP music critic, was the longtime pop critic for USA Today.