One of the things that was hard to find fault with from the 2016 Grammy telecast was a tribute to Lionel Richie. First off, it was nice that they actually paid tribute to someone who was still alive to appreciate it. (Isn’t it sad that the reverse is always easier and more readily given?) Richie has a long line of hits and, therefore, was already worthy of the honor even though his softer sides, like “Hello” and “Say You Say Me,” have mired him in the Adult Contemporary memory bank. In the 1980s Richie; Stevie Wonder, still a potent hit-maker; and to perhaps a lesser degree DeBarge kept the Motown label in the pop culture mix, setting the tee up for Boyz II Men at the end of the decade.
Therefore, the honor served by the awards broadcast was not misplaced. It also gave the Grammy folks another reason to pull John Legend out of their cold storage locker, for yet another year. I’m sure he appreciates that.
What struck me as odd was that, of all the songs that could have been in the celebration of all things Lionel, “Brick House” was one of them. Richie was certainly a member of Commodores when the song appeared on their eponymous-titled 1977 album, but he probably had the least to do with the tune than, say, “Easy” or “Sail On.” Although not credited, the lyrics were contributed by Shirley Hanna-King, wife of William “Wak” King who was the band’s choreographer and a sort of multi-instrumental secret weapon. The notion that Shirley was the lyricist is intriguing, but we’ll get there in a moment. To further separate Lionel from “Brick House,” the track is sung with the sly, lascivious tone of drummer Walter Orange. The only Commodores hit that could be farther from Lionel’s direct influence would be “Night Shift” recorded after he left the band.
It would have been really confusing if the Grammy people added that one.
In the mid-70s a lot of funk bands were stretching out, often to the point that people could easily forget they were funk bands. Commodores straddled that line between funk and soul, so it was easy to find distinctions between the aforementioned “Sail On” and a groove like “Brick House.” The same thing occurred with Kool & The Gang, where tracks like “Hollywood Swinging” and “Jungle Boogie” couldn’t be further from “Joanna” or “Cherish.”
But none of Commodores’ other songs, nor Kool & The Gang’s two stated tracks, could be as perplexing as this one. Depending on what you deem a compliment or not, “Brick House” might not be the most flattering statement you provide to a woman. The term is a colloquialism that connotes something big and sturdy, something you wouldn’t want to blow over in a hurricane, f’rinstance. The phrase is “She’s built like a brick s***house.” If you have a good sense of humor and can see past the outhouse analogy, as Shirley Hanna-King surely did, you can forget the nastier elements of the term. We’ve been doing that for years.
Shirley wasn’t alone in being able to flip the gender script. Out of the many songs I could name, I’m reminded of Johnnie Taylor’s track for Stax, “Who’s Making Love,” with lyrics provided by Bettye Crutcher. The difference is that Crutcher took a writing credit for that, where Shirley did not for “Brick House.”
Circling back, we have to ask the question again. Why did the coordinator or producer for the Grammy telecast not do the homework to figure out perhaps “Brick House” wasn’t the right song to celebrate Lionel Richie with? Didn’t anyone with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences have the materials to do the research with? If the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences hasn’t access to who were the most responsible for certain recordings, why are they the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences? (Apparently I really enjoy typing “The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences”…) Richie enjoyed the performance though, and that’s good.
It should be noted, however, that William King and Walter Orange, with J.D. Nicholas, still perform as Commodores. It seems right to draw attention to those who were more directly involved with the making of this song.