Ten years ago William King a business student at Tuskegee Institute, wrote a 300-page paper on the successes and failure of rock 'n' roll groups. King passed around his findings to five friends, who were hoping to leave their dusty road honky-tonk for big musical success.
Today the six friends are the Commodores. Next week their single "Three Times a Lady" will be the top single release in the country in Bill-board's Hot 100.
"Natural High," their seventh and latest album was shipped double platinum. The 300-page paper has become their blueprint. And they don't mind being hyped as the "Black Beatles."
"We used The Beatles as a model, we are just as diversified," Lionel Richie, the group's main composer and singer quickly admits. The Commodores, according to their record label Motown, has broken Beatle's attendance records in the Philippines.
"What is most important is that we don't want to be - "Who?" - some day. We are planning and timing our strategy. It is all about having some direction," says Richie. Joining the casual conversation before the group's sold-out concert at the Centre last night. Milan Williams, the keyboard players, added. "This year we're taking more steps in the direction of taking over. That's what we want to do - take over."
In all the Commodores have some pretty classy and capitalist credentials: 14 gold and four platinum records and audiences totaling 600,000 during their 1977 tour, which grossed $6.5 million. This year they are appearing in 85 cities, selling out in many cities and attracting young crowds that are 40 percent white.
Without exception they are the hottest thing from Tukegee, where they are still live, since cotton and the peanut.
However, the Commodores are very serious into business - they fine each other if schedules or drug rules are broken and are modishly clean-cut (yesterday afternoon there was not an earing in sight) and family-oriented. When they talk the conversion centers on finance and only coincidentally on music.
"We run everything from how many ink pens are needed in the office to what songs are on the album," says King who drew up the master plan and works the brass. "When you totally control everything around you, then you control your own destiny." The Commodores have several corporate divisions and employ 22 people.
Not surprisingly even their musical diversity is well calculated. In their musical anthology are funky, disco tunes like "brick House," the straight R & B variety like "Won't You Come Dance With Me," and meandering ballads like "Easy," which could almost be mistaken for some blue-eyed soul. "It's intentional because we have so many things to offer. We don't want to be stereotyped," says Williams, who then describes the group's tour on the old SS France in 1973.
"We played to more nationalities and age groups on that voyage than ever before. And we did movie themes like 'Love Story' and some Isley Brothers as well Three Dog Night."
Looking up from a quick game of background, William offers, "You can take over unless you have something for everybody."
For the first seven years of the Commodores' existence they did well but not spectacularly. They built an oversea audience, reaching the top of the musical charts in Nigeria, Japan, Australia and Philippines. Touring with the Jackson Five in 1971 and 1972 was the turning point. "That tour let us see what it was like to be a big business," says King. "We also did some audience building then because those 11- and 12-years-olds are now our fans."
In 1975 the Commodores received top recognition at the Tokyo Music Festival and their song. "Slippery When Wet," was quickly followed by a series of gold records - "Just to Be Close to You," "Brick House." "Easy" and "Too Hot to Trot."
Their success also included film appearances. The Commodores were cut out of the Richard Pryor-Pam Grier vehicle. "Greased Lightning," but survived a cameo in "Scott Joplin" and made five minustes of the recent disco movie, "Thank God It's Friday." Richie snickers slightly and says "We didn't want major roles. We didn't want to come off as entertainers being actors. But we do have ambitions to be actors." When that is pursued, again the spectre of The Beatles and "Yellow Submarine" arises.
The grand design originates in a southern city not known for musical back streets like Memphis or New Orleans. Tuskegee remains the town of Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. For the past year photographers have been posing the Commodores around a heroic statue of Washington who would probably enjoy their business dispositions as well as their crossover appeal.
"Tuskegee keeps us in perspective. In Tuskegee our friends are genuine. In big cities if you are up some people are your friends. At home we don't have to worry about trend," says King, who like the other Commodores was not born in Tuskegee but in other parts of the South besides, adds Williams drolly." You can do something with $200,000 in Tuskegee. You can't in New York."