The Commodores' wingman
James Anthony Carmichael gives it to ’em straight
This month 40 years ago, the Commodores’ “Easy” was gliding smoothly up the Billboard pop charts to become the group’s third Top 10 success. This month, Lionel Richie is on tour across North America, offering “Easy,” among many other hits, to enthusiastic crowds.
The song has earned its place in Lionel’s setlist. The original Motown 45 sold more than 1.1 million copies in the U.S., and the accompanying album, Commodores, sold 1.7 million (it’s just been reissued on vinyl, by the way.)
The conventional wisdom about the Commodores’ crossover: that is was mainly due to Lionel’s mellifluous songs and their polished delivery by this personable young man from Tuskegee, Alabama. Hey, look, the schtick is still working for him at age 68: have you seen the capacity of the venues he’s selling out this summer?
And the unconventional wisdom? “It was James Carmichael who brought our music to fruition,” the Commodores’ drummer, Walter Orange, told me many (not quite 40) years ago. Early on, the band played music by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Three Dog Night, he said, including “Liar,” one of the Dogs’ 1971 hits. “We opened up the Jackson 5 tour [that year] doing ‘Liar’ and got over because of our arrangement. Those were the kind of songs we did. We did those songs and we did our R&B, too. When we wrote music, we used a screaming guitar.
“At Motown, they didn’t know how to record that. It wasn’t until James Carmichael came into focus – along with Cal Harris, the engineer – and said, ‘If you want to put a screaming guitar in the middle of something, this is how we do it.’ ”
James Anthony Carmichael was the unheralded creative hero of the Commodores’ global conquest; their unsung business architect was manager Benny Ashburn (more on him, perhaps, at another time). Carmichael was little-known largely by choice: this soft-spoken native of Gadsden, Alabama, did not seek the public spotlight during the Commodores’ commercial peak, nor when his later endeavours with a solo Lionel yielded Grammy awards and multi-platinum sales.
Walter Orange recalled that the Commodores first learned of Carmichael when, after signing with Motown, they watched him work with the Jackson 5 and other artists. “We said, ‘If we just had this guy, our problems would be over.’ We weren’t thinking about having a hit record. Our music wasn’t straight, that’s the only thing we were concerned about. He consented to work with us and when he came in, it was great. He taught us a lot.”
A decade earlier, James Carmichael was the 23-year-old A&R man at indescribably obscure Champ Records in Los Angeles, responsible for recording a pair of young women, Terry & Marsha, among other hopefuls. The title of the duo’s attempted jab at the charts in 1965: “It’s A Possibility.” It wasn’t.
Carmichael then gained notice at another Los Angeles label, Mirwood, advancing his career – and, many years later, also his reputation among music fans abroad. He arranged tracks by some of the most revered acts in the Northern Soul galaxy, including the Olympics (“Baby, Do The Philly Dog”), Sherlie Matthews, Jackie Lee (“Do The Temptation Walk”) and the Mirettes. In 1967, Carmichael took another step forward, arranging Bill Cosby’s Silver Throat album, which showcased the stand-up comedian’s venture into singing, complete with a twist on Stevie Wonder’s “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” called “Little Ole Man.” Maybe James was always meant to work for Motown.
Carmichael had studied music as a youngster, learning to play the piano, and tackling the tuba in his Gadsden high school’s marching band. He went to college in California, aiming for qualifications as a doctor, but switched to the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music. “I thought I would use [music] to get through school,” Carmichael told the Gadsden Times in a rare, 1984 interview, “but when I saw how lucrative it was, I had to make a decision.” He began as a session musician, then graduated to arranging.
As Motown Records moved its centre of gravity to the west coast, Carmichael was well-situated to take on arranging assignments at its Los Angeles studios. In 1971, he did so for records by Michael Jackson (“Rockin’ Robin,” “I Wanna Be Where You Are”) and the Jackson 5 (“Little Bitty Pretty One,” “Lookin’ Through The Windows”), as well as by Michael’s favourite A&R assistant, Suzee Ikeda, with her version of “I Can’t Give Back The Love I Feel For You.”
And then there were the Commodores.
The band – Richie, Orange, Milan Williams, Ronald LaPread, Thomas McClary, William King – were contracted to Motown on June 1, 1971. After their nationwide tour that year opening for the Jackson 5, the Commodores secured their first MoWest single release: “The Zoo (The Human Zoo),” written and produced by Pam Sawyer and Gloria Jones, and arranged by the group with Jones.
“We were the first producers for the Commodores,” Gloria explained to me, “and gave them their style, which they never did change. Walter Orange was doing all the leads. I suggested to [Motown creative head] Suzanne DePasse that I wanted to change the sound. I said, ‘I’d like to put Lionel behind the microphone.’ He was playing the sax. They had been performing together for many years, they were excellent. They had this rawness, this freshness and energy. They were actually a band that could perform right there in the studio.”
“The Zoo (The Human Zoo)” was released in March 1972, coupled with a Hal Davis production, “I’m Looking For Love,” arranged by…James Carmichael. The group’s other sessions were produced and arranged by Terry Woodford and Clayton Ivey, and Tom Baird. Nothing connected with record buyers. The breakthrough occurred with the release in March 1974 of “Machine Gun,” produced by the band with…James Carmichael.
“The Commodores up until that time had worked with other producers,” Carmichael recalled, “but they felt they wanted someone who was more arranger-oriented. They were familiar with my work.” The Gadsden native had his own ambition – to be a producer for Motown’s top acts – and the Commodores were far from one of those yet. Nonetheless, he believed it would be better if the record company allowed them to record their own material. Thus, the instrumental “Machine Gun,” composed by Milan Williams was committed to tape. It became the Commodores’ first chart record.
Most of the subsequent Machine Gun album featured their own material; their next, Caught In The Act, was entirely written by the band, and produced with Carmichael. The LP’s biggest hit single, “Slippery When Wet,” was Motown’s first R&B Number One to feature the kind of ensemble funk popularised in 1974-75 by the Ohio Players, Kool & the Gang, and Earth, Wind & Fire. But Lionel Richie’s ballads contained the keys to crossover: “Sweet Love,” “Just To Be Close To You” and “Easy” were the Commodores’ first three Top 10 pop hits.
“When Lionel’s songs became the focal point of excitement,” Carmichael told Roberta Plutzik, author of a Richie biography, “they realised this might be the way to get into the pop market. From that point on, we had to have a song he wrote on every album, and we had to have a focus on it. We were going to approach this idea of crossover slowly and intelligently; nothing rash.”
That summed up Carmichael’s modus operandi: slow, intelligent, and also painstaking. He was a perfectionist. I heard that for myself once at Motown’s Los Angeles studios, witnessing the band recording vocals for “High On Sunshine” with Carmichael – again and again, over and over. It was remarkable to watch, and listen. For his part, Carmichael has also given credit to engineers Cal Harris and Jane Clark (Chris Clark’s sister), who worked with the Commodores from their early days at Motown.
“You need somebody to keep you objective,” Lionel Richie said soon after he was flying high as a solo star. “Best thing I ever did was, I called James Carmichael on the ’phone and said, ‘James, I want you to come down here and just sit there and tell me, “Uh-huh” and “Uh-huh.” That’s all – yes and no. And I know James won’t give me any BS, he gives it to me straight across the table, and you need an outside ear.”
An outside ear. Yes and no. No bullshit. For James Carmichael, that may have been easy like Sunday mornin’.