The Commodores’ Thomas McClary talks standing up to segregation as a child, music and what Bury St Edmunds’ audiences can expect

Thomas McClary of The Commodores

Thomas McClary of The Commodores - Credit: Archant

Motown icon Thomas McClary has been a force of change, not just in the music industry with The Commodores but also, it turns out, in society overall. As the band visit Suffolk, Entertainment Writer Wayne Savage talks to him about being one of the first African-American students to attend a white-only school in Florida.

The Commodores featuring Thomas McClary and Lionel Richie

The Commodores featuring Thomas McClary and Lionel Richie - Credit: Archant

One morning, tenth grader Thomas McClary woke up with one thought on his mind. Why should he ride the bus to the all black school across town when he could walk to the all white school?

“My dad looked at me and said, ‘You’re serious (then). If you want to do that, we’re going to support you.’”

Before Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark 1954 United States Supreme Court case which declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional; it caused quite a stir. Especially when the Florida media got hold of the story.

“Once it was out, the pressure was on for me to live up to my word,” laughs McClary. “I was old enough to have a little bit of wisdom about things, but that first day; oh man that was phenomenal.”

The Commodores featuring Thomas McClary. Photo Michael Cairns

The Commodores featuring Thomas McClary. Photo Michael Cairns - Credit: Archant

The only African American at the school, he arrived to find the whole student body standing outside.

“They were saying, ‘If he goes inside, we’re not going to go’.

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“The principal came on the PA system asking for everybody’s attention, wanting everybody to come inside to have a meeting at the auditorium before anybody goes to the classroom. He said. ‘It’s no secret we have a black student trying to come to our school. We don’t want to have any problems but we need to talk about this’,” he laughs.

“None of the students still wanted to go inside.”

A quarterback, pitcher and class president at his former school, his decision to switch made him enemies on both sides of the racial divide.

“I was hated by the whites and then the blacks thought I was turning my back on them because one of their best students was leaving and I had this band that’s very good, blah, blah... So I was in no man’s land,” he laughs.

“At the time I just thought it was the right thing to do and my parents were very supportive, but then you know I had rocks, fruits, everything thrown at me and it was not easy to turn the other cheek.”

McClary’s full of praise for the white students who stepped up to the plate and extended the hand of friendship, which made life really tough for them too.

“There were some brave white friends who got flack and harassed by their friends for it and I commend them.”

He put people’s attitudes down to ingrained ignorance, passed down by parents who don’t understand that the next generation sometimes see things differently and have to be allowed to have their own opinions.

“What you do, you just keep on loving ‘em and they eventually came around and eventually became my biggest fans,” says McClary, who now attends class reunions at both schools.

“They eventually started to tell me, ‘Man we had it all wrong, we were talking about you and telling people you were Uncle Tom and you were just selling out but we didn’t realise at the time you were a trailblazer paving the way for generations to come’.”

The same week he met future Commodores co-founder Lionel Richie - with whom he’d go on to pen many of the band’s hits - at Tuskegee University, Alabama, the student government was organising a protest march. One of the students had been killed at a downtown gas station for using a white only restroom and then governor George Wallace put the National Guard on campus because of riot fears.

Music, McClary realised early on, is a great unifier; the perfect way to break down racial barriers and be a force for social change.

He used to invite fellow students to come to rehearsals and give the band feedback on what songs would sell. The sessions proved so popular they had to move practice to a club off site, with the owner charging them 50c to come along.

The Commodores were hailed as groundbreakers, creating a real, raw sound America hadn’t heard before and a force for change.

“When I look back at the role our music played... There was a place for people to go, to take them away from what they were dealing with and give them hope. It was like going to an oasis where you get replenished...You see how music has been mediator able to communicate... It transcends the language barriers and can penetrate the winters in the souls and hearts of people.”

McClary and his band are making a rare UK appearance at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, next Wednesday, where they’ll perform the hits of The Commodores and more.

With flurries of snow hitting the window outside as we chat, the show sounds just what we need.

“We’re bringing some of that (Florida) sunshine with us and I’m warning you right now be careful because you can catch the ‘I can’t help but dance’ disease,” laughs McClary, who will be joined by his son Ryan who sings and plays in the band as well as writing some of its new songs.

“That’s the awesome part. When you look at life, the only measure is the moments; then it becomes how you spend those moments and then who you spend them with. When I left The Commodores initially it was to basically raise my family and spend some time with my local churches. Now they’re coming back out on the road with me.”

Expect hits including Brick House, Easy, Nightshift, Three Times a Lady and new single Mr Cool Breeze.

The Commodores will be at The Apex, Bury St Edmunds on Wednesday, January 28.

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