Frankie Valli, Lionel Richie Perform Funk-ified ‘Grease’ on ‘The Midnight Special’

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Lionel Richie (back row, far R) with his Commodores bandmates

Before Lionel Richie became a star solo performer, songwriter and producer, he was a member and frequent lead singer of the funk and soul group the Commodores, which he co-founded while in college in Alabama in the late ’60s. The popular band, soon signed to Motown and with Richie and drummer Walter “Clyde” Orange singing lead, enjoyed a string of hit singles in the ’70s, ranging from ballads (“Sweet Love”) to funk (“Brick House”). Things changed for Richie at the start of the new decade when he wrote “Lady” and the group turned the song down. It was subsequently pitched to Kenny Rogers, who at the time was as big a recording star as there was. Rogers loved it and with Richie producing, the song became “The Gambler”‘s biggest hit of his mighty career, reaching #1 on the Hot 100 for six weeks in 1980 while also topping the country singles chart.

Soon, Richie, born June 20, 1949, wrote and produced a duet with Diana Ross, “Endless Love,” the theme song for the feature film of the same name. The 1981 single was #1 for a staggering nine weeks on the Hot 100 (and the year’s overall #2 song). By 1982, Richie left the Commodores to pursue a solo career and in the years that followed, he was bank, with plenty more chart-toppers including such juggernauts as “Truly,” “All Night Long (All Night)” and “Hello.” In 1985, Richie co-wrote the charity single, “We Are the World,” with Michael Jackson. The song—with Richie serving as the first of its 21 all-star soloists—became one of the best-selling singles of all-time. [A 2024 documentary on the making-of the recording, The Greatest Night in Pop, is airing on Netflix.]

But in 1979, the Commodores, with Richie still a part of their lineup, were riding high with Midnight Magic, their fourth straight studio effort to top the R&B chart and their sixth #1 R&B hit, “Still” (and second #1 on the Hot 100, following 1978’s “Three Times a Lady”). On November 9, 1979, the six-man band of Richie, Orange, lead guitarist Thomas McClary, bassist Ronald LaPread, keyboardist Milan Williams, and multi-instrumentalist William “Wak” King appeared on the popular syndicated music series, The Midnight Special. Their first number was “Brick House.”

Also performing on that show was Frankie Valli, the legendary frontman of the Four Seasons, 45 years old at the time. The great singer was just a year removed from scoring a solo smash with the title track from the movie musical Grease. The producers of the show organized the unique pairing of Frankie Valli and the Commodores with the then-30 year-old Lionel Richie trading vocals with the older star. The performance begins as a straightforward cover of “Grease” and evolves into a funk-ified version of “Grease” led by LaPread’s nifty bass lines.

Both Frankie Valli and Lionel Richie tour. Tickets to see them and many other legends are available here.

Greg Brodsky

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