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MED Foundation Gala: The Spinners, Ohio Players & the Commodores

  • Written by Christopher Hope/Special to The New Tri-State Defender

MEDgala-pg8c-600With The MED Foundation Gala as the setting and The Peabody Hotel serving as the venue, an estimated 800 people were treated to a glamorous evening (March 23) accented by three legendary R&B groups – the Spinners, Ohio Players and the Commodores.

A few hours before their performances, I seized the opportunity to talk with members of each group.

Here is some of what I heard and learned:

Ohio Players

MEDgala-pg8a-600Christopher Hope: When it comes to fundraisers, are those shows treated any different than a regular show?

Clarence "Chet" Willis: When it comes to performance, it can almost become routine sort of speak. When you have some situations where you're doing something for a good cause, it's motivating. We have a hospital where I live in Atlanta named Grady that is like The Med here in Memphis. I was like, "Oh, this is one of those hospitals that help people that don't have the necessary expenses to pay for their medical problems. This hospital (the Med) is a hospital that has upped the bar and that's a good thing."

CH: Do you have moments in your down time that you just play your guitar for your own personal enjoyment?

MEDgala-pg8d-400C. Willis: Lately, if I'm not doing a show with the band and I'm not at the studio at my home, the times I pick up my guitar just to play, it's exactly what that is. When I do that, there's nothing planned as far as trying to do a song because songs come. Songs are like a transmission from God. Sometimes it's like if I'm going to sit down and try and go through the mechanics of trying to put together a song, it doesn't work.

Sometimes if you're just sitting around, then all of a sudden I feel like these chords....It's like you just happen to be receiving at that particular time. God is transmitting all the time....

CH: When you record songs that turn out to be hits, do you think that 20 or 30 years down the road it would be the song, a crowd favorite?

C. Willis: Never! ... I don't think any of us ever thought that because at the time the song or the idea felt good and it happened to resonate with the people. The thing that it is still resonating with folks, that's a good feeling. One thing to say about something that is good, we were...blessed to have the opportunity to do these things at that particular time....It doesn't matter what millennium it is. If it's good, it's good.

CH: What gets you up and excited for a show?

C. Willis: We have what we call a show that is basically when we do all the hits people can relate to. They pretty much know all the hits because they've been around for so long. It's refreshing to know they still remember these songs and have a good time listening to them and dancing.

Spinners

MEDgala-pg8b-600CH: When it comes to fundraisers, are those shows treated any different than a regular show?

Spinners (Marvin Taylor, Charlton Washington and Henry Fambrough): We do 2-3 shows like this a year. When we come out, we give our all. One time we went to the hospital to visit the kids that had cancer. It was very heart touching. Some came (to the show) and some couldn't make it. For those who could come, we invited them on stage. It was very heart touching.

So to come here and be a part of this event is huge! We were told The Med helps to take care of those who may not have insurance benefits to cover their medical cost. So for the Spinners to be asked to be a part of this, we are privileged to do so.

CH: Do you have any Memphis connections?

Spinners: We've been coming through Memphis since the '60s and '70s. We were once part of your Memphis In May event.

Marvin Taylor: I have family here in Memphis, so I've come here for family reunions and performed at Silky Sullivan's.

CH: How often do you tour?

Spinners: We're on the road about 65-70 percent of the year. We work all throughout the year, but we may take two weeks off. During the week mostly, we don't work. We work the weekends. When the summer comes, it's more during the week. In the summer, we're like, "Man, I wish I could go home." When winter comes around, we're like, "Man, I'll be glad when I can get out this house!"

Commodores

CH: When it comes to fundraisers, are those shows treated any different than a regular show?

Commodores (Walter "Clyde" Orange and James "J. D." Nicholas, who replaced Lionel Richie as lead singer): It's always great to be a part of something that benefits other people; to reach out and to lend a helping hand. It's about give and take....

CH: What gets you up and excited for a show?

Commodores: Just the fact that we have an audience that's waiting for us....We are very blessed that we are able to still continue to tour...especially at this stage in our career. We're just happy to be able to perform in front of audiences today just like we were back in the day.

CH: When you come to Memphis, is there a place you make sure to visit?

Walter 'Clyde' Orange: Beale Street! I have a best friend (who) lives here in Memphis. We went to Alabama State College. We played in the marching band. We know much of the same people and there are some good people here in Memphis. Do y'all still have that pyramid-looking thing? We have one like it in Vegas.

CH: Of all the songs you've recorded, what is your favorite?

W. Orange: "Brick House!" That song was really a blessing for us. "Brick House" is an interesting story. It wasn't always called "Brick House." It was called "Matchbox." We needed a song like the Ohio Players' hit, "Fire." Our producer demanded that we write something. We always started with writing the music with no words. We wrote the music, went in the studio and recorded it and that's all we listened to, to see if the song would go on the album or not. When it got to that track, it was two thumbs down. So that means it's kicked to the side and you never hear from it again.

Without anyone knowing, I went into the studio with our assistant engineer and put words to it. I liked it so much because it was the only "funky" song that we had. We had all of these ballads with Lionel Richie that we needed something to move the crowd.

When our producer came in and heard it, his famous words were, "Clyde, I believe that you got you one!" Most people would think it's Lionel Richie or it's his production. It's not. Through the industry, it strengthened our work.

CH: How did you become a member of the Commodores?

John J. D. Nicholas: I used to sing with Heatwave and we came in to do "Soul Train." The Commodores were there to do the same show. After the show, they asked us to open for them on the tour they were about to start.

Many years later, Heatwave disbanded and because we kept in touch, the Commodores asked me would I come over because they needed a new co-lead singer. I was always a fan and would even go to see them in concert in London where I'm from. I've been with them 29 years now and we're still having as much fun as we did back then!

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