The Commodores experienced a number of shifts in the early '80s: longtime manager Benny Ashburn passed in 1982, in 1983 Lionel Richie left with the group's producer, James Anthony Carmichael, to began a solo career. The band's lead vocal duties were given to joining member J. D. Nicholas, formerly of Heatwave. They asked producer Dennis Lambert, who'd been one half of the songwriting/production duo Lambert & Potter (Tavares, the Four Tops' string of hits on ABC Records) to begin working with them. Lambert and drummer Walter Orange were listening to Lambert's demos when one of them piqued Orange's interest. The song's solo lyric was "Marvin, he was a friend of mine." Orange suggested that the song be completed, with Lambert adding that it should be similar in concept to the Righteous Brothers' 1974 hit "Rock and Roll Heaven," a track he'd produced.
Handing over the basic song idea to songwriter Franne Golde to complete, she decided to base the song around a celestial night shift concert after viewing the 1982 movie Night Shift. During the recording of the song, it was decided that Orange and Nicholas should sing a verse each. A tribute to Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson, "Night Shift" held down the R&B top spot for four weeks and peaked at number three pop in the early part of 1985. Ironically, it inherited the R&B top spot from another Gaye tribute, Diana Ross' "Missing You." The Night Shift LP went gold, parking at number one R&B for three weeks and going to number 12 pop.