Milan B. Williams

Keyboardist with the Commodores


Milan B. Williams, keyboard player and songwriter: born Okolona, Mississippi 28 March 1948; three times married (two sons); died Houston, Texas 9 July 2006.

The searing keyboard riff that forms the backbone of the instrumental funk classic "Machine Gun" is the most widely known emblem of Milan B. Williams. A founding member of the Commodores, he was the group's main keyboard player for their first two decades, during which they became the biggest act on Motown, selling around 60 million LPs. "Machine Gun" was the title track of their 1974 début album, their first hit, and one of many Williams wrote or co-wrote with them.

Milan Williams was first inspired and encouraged to take up the piano as a boy by his older multi-instrumentalist brother Earl. While still at high school in his home town of Okolona, Mississippi, Milan formed a three-piece group, and by the time he left to study engineering at Tuskegee University, Alabama, he was a proficient player. There he joined the college funk group the Jays. Their main rivals were another group called the Mystics, who included the sax player Lionel Richie.

In 1968, after the Jays disbanded, Milan Williams was drafted into Richie's group, which adopted the new moniker of the Commodores when their trumpeter William King, blindfolded, chose it randomly from a dictionary. Though they would later become infamous for the romantic ballads such as "Easy" and "Three Times a Lady" that Richie wrote, the Commodores were basically a hard funk act in their early days, and cut their teeth at "frat" parties, and club and bar openings around Alabama.

In 1969, after performing at a talent show in New York, the group met Benjamin "Benny" Ashburn, who became their manager. Under his guidance, they recorded their first material (mostly covers) for Atlantic - which only surfaced much later. Ashburn invited Suzanne de Passe, who worked with Berry Gordy, to hear the sextet, which led to them being chosen by Motown to support the Jackson Five, playing huge venues with them for three consecutive years.

The Commodores signed a recording contract in 1972, although it would be two more years before their first album for the label appeared. "Machine Gun" was a Top Thirty hit on both sides of the Atlantic, but as the group's popularity soared in later years, it took on a life of its own, featuring in a number of movie soundtracks, including Boogie Nights (1997). The tune's energy and atmosphere of anticipation has also made it a perennial favourite at US sporting events.

Other significant hits and classics that Williams wrote for the group during their mid-Seventies to early-Eighties heyday included "Patch It Up", "The Bump", "Captain Quickdraw" (after his codename on CB radio, of which he was an enthusiast), "Wonderland", and "Old-Fashion Love". He also had a big hand in writing their huge hits "Brick House", "Too Hot Ta Trot" and many others.

A keen golfer and an avid fan of new technology, he eventually had his own studio, and, at the peak of the Commodores' success, enjoyed flying his own four-seater plane between their US dates.

After the 1982 departure of Richie to pursue a solo career, Williams took on some production duties for the Commodores. He settled in Los Angeles in the early 1980s, and eventually left the group in 1989 after a dispute over their direction, and an abortive decision to tour South Africa. Though he continued to write, there were no solo releases, and he developed entrepreneurial interests in Nigeria and a number of other African countries.

Jo-Ann Geffen, spokesperson for the Commodores, remembers him as a humble man unfazed by the trappings of fame, who felt blessed to have been able to live his dream of making music: "He was quiet. Spoke when he had something to say. He was a good husband, a good dad and a great friend."

Jon Lusk

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