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ronald LaPREAD

Ronald LaPread is the former bass player for Lionel Richie's Commodores. His story and the way he tells it is entertainment personified.


Two small silver records and a plaque, which says: “Presented to Ronald LaPread to commemorate the sale of more than two million units of the Motown record single ‘Three Times a Lady’.” They’re not silver, those records, they’re double platinum. And the room is lined with more. They swarm across the walls and behind the imposing bulk of their owner, who sits on an enormous sofa beside a massive TV and a spindly gilt-legged chair.

Ronald LaPread was the bass player in the Commodores, one of the biggest-selling groups of the 70s and 80s. This man has earned millions, won more than 40 music awards and nominations. Some of his clothes are embalmed in museums in Nashville and Las Vegas. He has toured the world 18 times, thrown Diana Ross into a swimming pool and played games with the late Michael Jackson while the latter was still a normal-looking if not normal child. He gave up the fame and the fans for family life in Auckland.

Even his TV guitar is a little cut-down thing. Actually, it’s either the first or the second Steinberger ever made – LaPread’s got both. They are over 30 years old, and have been around the world “more than Air New Zealand”.

The long trip from Alabama to Auckland began when he was a 14-year-old student playing in his high-school band. He started on drums, then worked his way through the other instruments. “By the time I was a senior, I had the first chair in all the brass sections. In the band, the man sitting to the left is better than you, but if he misses a part and you challenge him, and you play it right, he has to move down. I would challenge all of them if they made a mistake.”

A few years later, the original Commodores bassist went off to war, and LaPread saw his chance. The band members, all a few years older than him, asked if he knew any bass players. “They knew that I played keyboard; they didn’t know I played bass. As a matter of fact I didn’t know it, either.” That Wednesday LaPread borrowed his neighbour’s bass and amplifier and set about teaching himself to play in time for the weekend’s rehearsal. “The way I learnt to play bass was by listening to the record and trying to match the sound. And when I went to rehearsal, the Commodores were doing the same thing. So I said, yeah, I got this one.”

Nonetheless, he kept on with his engineering degree till an electric shock put him off that career path. Which left music, and LaPread tells a great story of rags to riches, achieved – naturally – through hard work and good luck. “When the Commodores found fame, we had been together six years. Starving, most of those years. We had it so rough, at one time people didn’t want to pay for the whole band.” They would tell Lionel Richie and William King to stay away, bringing them back if they could prove to the club they were getting more people in the door. He says they made about $100 a night then – and Richie and King would get their share. “That was a lot of money.”

*Here the numbers don’t work. LaPread was born on September 4, 1950 – he was 19 in 1969. The Commodores formed in 1967; their first big break was a three-year tour as support act for the Jackson 5, which began in 1972. Their first hit single, “Machine Gun”, was released in 1974. The truth is doubtless somewhere between the million-dollar cheques and the years of starvation, but why spoil the self-mythology?

Speaking of mythmakers, LaPread has a long association with pop’s weirdest one, but he will never refer to him as Wacko Jacko. “Michael Jackson is my mentor. He taught me everything about the business. We would play in the hotel, we would watch him laugh and joke like a little kid, and we would watch him get on stage and hold 150,000 people in the palm of his hand.”

The band became Motown’s second biggest seller after Stevie Wonder, and from this point it’s a pretty wholesome version of the standard star story: a blaze of music, moolah, madding crowds – “nice clean parties”, apparently – and a gradual decline as frontman Lionel Richie’s songwriting cut the funk and increased the syrup. The hits kept coming, though, with the biggest, “Nightshift”, in 1985, three years after Richie had left.

That year a French palmist told LaPread it was his last in the band, prophesying marriage to “a woman who comes from over the water, and she will give you a daughter”. At the time he laughed. “I was travelling with a girl from Munich who thought she was going to come to America and be my wife, and that was not quite what was on my mind.” But 10 months later he flew from Australia to Auckland, falling in love with an Iranian New Zealander on the plane. “One year to the day I was out of the Commodores.”

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