A Band in Command! The Commodores headline the 2017 Jacksonville Jazz Festival

The Commodores 2015

Growing up on the northwest side of Jacksonville, Walter “Claude” Orange often sat on the front porch of his house on 29th Street listening to the Stanton High School marching band.  When the wind was just right, the horns and the drums united in a ground swell of wonder and possibility. “When they turned all the way facing north, it was like ‘wow’! I would get so excited listening to those drums,” says Orange. “Eventually when I went to Northwestern High School, the first thing I went looking for was the drum section. That was my inspiration to play the drums. That was it.”

Orange followed the beat all the way to the top as drummer, vocalist and songwriter for the legendary Commodores. He wrote the song that earned the band’s first Grammy Award with ‘Nightshift’ as a tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson. He took a funky little rhythm used it as the foundation for one of the band’s best known hits ‘Brick House.’

Playing the Jacksonville Jazz Festival for the first time in his 46-year career, Orange and The Commodores join the distinguished alumni to grace the jazz fest stage from Miles Davis, Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Buddy Guy, Mavis Staples, and Harry Connick Jr. close out the Jacksonville Jazz Festival on the Main Street Swingin’ Stage. Since the band’s heyday in the 70s and 80s, The Commodores continue to perform around sixty dates a year, filling their sets with crowd favorites from R&B, soul and pop charts. “We look forward to playing the jazz fest,” says Orange from his home in Coral Springs. “And I’m excited to be coming home.”

Orange was a member of the last graduating class of Northwestern Junior and Senior High School before the transition to Raines High School.  He studied under Northwestern’s band director Billy Moore, who later relocated to Atlanta to play drums with Ray Charles’ band. He left home in 1965 on a full scholarship to Alabama State College in Montgomery, Alabama, and he’s the only member of the Commodores to have majored in music.

“I stopped by the club to see Mr. Ray Charles and told him who I was. I told him ‘I’m Walter Orange, and my band director was Billy Moore’ and he said to me ‘oh, ‘Ol’ High-Butt Billy?’ I wanted to say to him ‘How did you see that?’”

About 15 years after Orange finished college and joined The Commodores, the band was playing a gig at a club in New York City. Orange heard that Ray Charles was playing at a nearby venue and decided to pay a visit to his former band leader. “I stopped by the club to see Mr. Ray Charles and told him who I was. I told him ‘I’m Walter Orange, and my band director was Billy Moore’ and he said to me ‘oh, ‘Ol’ High-Butt Billy?’ I wanted to say to him ‘How did you see that?’”

Orange is as gifted a storyteller as he is a musician. He recalls the first time he saw The Commodores perform. Instantly, he knew he was witnessing something fresh and new. “They were different,” he says. “They were all dressed alike, and they were doing routines with a sound that would not wait.”

It was during a Valentine’s Day performance at the Elk’s Club in 1969, the Commodores’ original bass player Michael Gilbert was checking out another young band that was also making a lot of noise. Orange was the drummer, and Gilbert liked what he was doing. So much so that he asked if Orange would consider joining The Commodores after original drummer James Ingram joined the Navy. “Long story short, I went to Atlantic City to meet The Commodores and from that point on, I’ve been a Commodore ever since,” he says.

It would be a great story if it ended there. But that was just the beginning. In the Motown music industry, it was all about who you knew – and who knew you. Manager Benny Ashburn knew a woman who was handling a hot, young group called the Jackson 5. Ashburn told the band that he set up an important audition some eighteen hours away from Tuskeegee in New York City, but he wouldn’t tell them what it was for. The band played a single set and made the long journey back to Alabama. Two weeks passed without any word. “Finally, Benny called my house in Montgomery and wanted a meeting with all the guys,” says Orange. “That’s when we found out we booked the tour with the Jackson 5 when Michael was about nine or ten.”

2017 Jacksonville Jazz Festival

The opportunity to open for the Jackson 5 brought them to the attention of Motown Records and a new partnership with arranger James Carmichael, who agreed to be their producer. Orange says Carmichael deserves the credit for molding the group’s sound and giving them direction. Carmichael helped the band deliver a string of radio-friendly hits like ‘Easy’, ‘Just to be Close to You’, ‘Sail On’, ‘Three Times a Lady’, ‘Still’, ‘Sweet Love’, and ‘Lady (You Bring Me Up)’. However, it was Orange who laid the foundation that would become the funky anthem ‘Brick House’. “I was just doodling on my drums, and I came up with this rhythm. I went in early and put the vocal down. I didn’t ask permission,” he says. “They said, ‘Brother Clyde, I think you’ve got yourself one’.”

When vocalist Lionel Richie left the band in 1982 to embark on a solo career, it rocked the boat, especially for Orange, who traded lead vocal duties with Richie. “I was playing drums and singing and playing right there with him. We had our routines and dance steps. After he left, we had a period where we had to make believers out of people again,” Orange says. “But our sound never changed. We just had to find someone to fill that void and that space. It didn’t feel good, but as our manager told us, the show must go on.”

Looking back, Orange says hard work, faith and a zero-tolerance drug policy is at the core of the brotherhood he shares with his bandmates and all the fuel they need to keep showing up and doing what they were destined to do. “When we’re up on stage, we mean business. We give you everything you want to hear. We have a love for what we do. We have a respect for what we do today,” he says. “We go out and deliver these songs, and we enjoy what we do. That’s what keeps the Commodores going, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. We enjoy each other and the camaraderie. We’re family.” Catch the Commodores on May 28th at the Jacksonville Jazz Fest. 

About Liza Mitchell