Today, 1970s R&B band the Commodores are better known for launching Lionel Richie's enormously successful career. Richie ballads such as "Three Times A Lady" and "Still" receive consistent radio airplay, but their funkier tracks ("Brick House" being the exception) are frequently overlooked. One such example, 1975's "Slippery When Wet," showcases their raunchier side and proves they were much more than a slow dance band.
The Commodores's origins trace back to 1968 at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where original members William King (trumpet), Thomas McClary (guitar), Ronald LaPread (bass), Walter "Clyde" Orange (drums), Richie (saxophone), and Milan Williams (keyboards) formed a group just for fun. As Richie stated in numerous interviews, they simply wanted to play at parties and meet girls. After selecting the name "Commodores" at random from a dictionary, the group soon expanded their reach to Montgomery and Birmingham, eventually traveling to New York to play at Harlem nightclub Smalls Paradise. As AllMusic describes, the group filled the club with friends and family members; unaware of the "planned crowd," the venue's owner booked the Commodores for two more weeks.
In 1971, the Commodores returned to New York to audition for a prized gig: opening for the Jackson 5 on tour. The band's high energy live performances enthralled audiences for the next two years, earning them a spot on the Motown label. Their debut album, 1974's Machine Gun, embodies their early hard funk sound; the title track garnered them their first major hit. A rare instrumental hit, "Machine Gun" instantly connected with R&B audiences and clubgoers, peaking at number seven on the soul charts and number 22 on the Billboard Hot 100. Caught in the Act, their 1975 followup, fared even better with the single "Slippery When Wet."
Several key ingredients make "Slippery When Wet" a classic funk workout. The scratchy guitar riff introduces the song, along with some subtle percussion. Once those two elements have established the rhythm, the effect-enhanced bass slides in like a snake, undulating to accent the tempo. As horns enter the picture, Richie's supple voice emulates the bass, proving his ability to tackle gritty soul as well as soft ballads. "Listen to me brothers, listen well / Brothers, we've got something to tell," he sings, as if beginning a lecture. His topic? Cautioning men against cheating on their wives. "You can't run around being a married man / And taking care of business very well," he warns.
As the band further sets down the groove, Richie snarls as he delivers the track's key argument: "If you ain't taking care of business / This you must expect / Love gets slippery when it's wet." The intricate percussion weaves throughout the track, occasionally dropping out to fully reveal the memorable guitar riff. Richie's confident voice continues counseling his brothers to "keep yourself together" and that "hanging loose can be out of sight" but "it just ain't right." Toward the end of "Slippery When Wet," the other Commodores join Richie, functioning as a Greek chorus to emphasize the song's main message. "Love gets slippery when it's wet," they harmonize, as Richie adds "it'll slip away."
Did the single's message or funky groove most resonate with listeners? Either way, "Slippery When Wet" proved a solid hit, topping the R&B singles chart and reaching number 19 on the Billboard Hot 100. The single thus propelled the album Caught in the Act into the top 30 Billboard album chart and number seven on the R&B albums list. While no one knew it, "Slippery When Wet" would signal the midpoint of their hardcore funk phase. Two more albums, 1975's Movin' On and 1976's Hot on the Tracks, reflected their earlier sound. By 1977, however, the Commodores moved increasingly in an adult contemporary direction. Richie's smooth, polished sound dominated their most successful period; by 1982, he would depart the band to embark on his astonishingly lucrative solo career.
Richie's ballads and pop singles like "Lady (You Bring Me Up)" have retained a timeless quality. The Commodores' funkier years, however, should not be overlooked. Listen to "Slippery When Wet" and further dig into their pre-1977 material; you won't regret it.