Milan Williams, a founding member of the Commodores, died yesterday (July 9) at MD Anderson Hospital in Houston following a bout with cancer. He was 58. Williams played keyboards for the R&B/funk outfit, whose members initially met as students at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Originally comprised of seven members, the Commodores’ lineup eventually included Thomas McClary (guitar), Lionel Richie (saxophone), Walter “Clyde” Orange (drums), William King (trumpet) and Ronald LaPread (bass). After touring as the warm-up band for the Jackson Five, the Commodores signed to Motown subsidiary MoWest in 1972.
The Commodores’ first hit was the 1974 synthesizer-pumped instrumental “Machine Gun.” Written by Williams, the song climbed to No. 7 on the Billboard R&B chart. The group went on to score seven No. 1 R&B hits, including “Slippery When Wet,” “Just To Be Close to You,” “Easy,” “Nightshift,” “Three Times a Lady” and “Still,” the latter two of which also notched No. 1 on the pop chart. Richie left the group for a solo career in 1982, and the Commodores later recorded for Polydor in the late ’80s.
Williams was born in Okolona, Mississippi on March 28, 1948. Before joining the Commodores, Williams played keyboards for another Tuskegee band, the Jays. He is survived by a host of family members, including his wife, Melanie Bruno-Williams, two sons from previous unions, Jason and Ricci, two brothers and a sister. Services will be held July 14 in Okolona. A memorial service is slated for August in Los Angeles.
Noted fellow Commodore Orange, “He was once, twice, three times a brother and we love him. He gave all that he could give to the Commodores. He’ll always be remembered.”