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Original members include Clifford Adams, trombone; Robert "Kool" Bell (born in 1950), bass; Ronald Bell, keyboards; George Brown, drums; Robert Mikens, trumpet; Charles Smith, guitar; and Dennis "D. T." Thomas, alto sax. Later members include Robert "Robbie G" Gobel (played on 1994 release, Unite); Gerard Harris (played on 1994 release, Unite), guitar; Sennie "Skip" Martin (joined band 1988), lead vocals, trumpet; Odeen Mays, Jr. (joined band 1988), lead vocals, keyboards; Shawn McQuillar (played on 1994 release, Unite), lead vocals, guitar; James "J. T." Taylor (joined band 1977), lead vocals. Addresses: Management--Bowen Agency Ltd., 504 W. 168th St., New York, NY 10032. Record company--JRS Records, 7758 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90046.
"In this business, you're always proving yourself," said James "J. T." Taylor, former lead singer of Kool & the Gang in a 1984 interview with Musician. "That's why we try not to say we ever made it," he continued, "because you never made nothin'. You can accomplish things to a certain point, but what have you ever made?" In 25 years of recording, the ten-member funk/pop amalgamation has made 34 separate albums that have sold over 40 million copies; won a Grammy award and four American Music awards for Best Soul Group; and released a string of platinum releases. Part of their success is perhaps their continued struggle to prove themselves as some of the top musicians in the fickle trends of American popular music.
According to Rolling Stone's Christopher Connelly, "In two decades, Kool & the Gang have run the gamut of black music styles, from hard-edged, James-Brown-like funk to disco to brown-eyed pop." Starting in the early 1970s with their smash singles "Jungle Boogie" and "Hollywood Swinging," and later with disco hits "Emergency" and "Ladies' Night," Kool & the Gang established themselves as chart-topping R&B artists. The band's attention to popular music trends has transformed their original horn-driven (two saxophones, two trumpets, and a trombone) dance music through periods of late-1960s "street funk," to 1970s disco, to 1980s pop and synthesized sound.
In 1980 Kool & the Gang's single "Celebration" captured the nation's mood of victory with the increasing prosperity at the beginning of Ronald Reagan's presidency and the return of hostages taken from the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, and held for over a year by radical Moslems in the country. The song was often played over sound systems in packed stadiums, whether for sporting events or their own sold-out concerts. Mark Rowland of Musician described Kool & the Gang's concert style as having the "choreographed kineticism of a Busby Berkely movie," containing in its breadth "a series of syncopated gymnastics enough to boggle the Temptations." In one concert, J. T. Taylor performed onstage in a raincoat amid the background rumble of simulated thunder.
The thunder, however, may have foreshadowed the group's need to prove themselves as changeable yet again in the fairweather popular music scene. Although Steve Sutherland of Melody Maker once described Kool & the Gang as "damned canny when it comes to translating 'the sayings of the street' into cold, hard cash," reviews of their 1988 release, Everything Is Kool & the Gang, were not favorable. Musician, which four years earlier lauded the group as a basically unshakable funk institution, described the album as rife with "drab discofield remakes that suck all the funk from the likes of 'Jungle Boogie' and 'Hollywood Swinging.'"
In 1964 Robert Bell, his brother Ronald, and five high school friends formed the instrumental band called the Jazziacs. Their father was a boxer on the upper west side of New York City and ran a gym below the flat of jazz great Thelonius Monk, who became Robert Bell's godfather. Miles Davis, another jazz star who used to work out between gigs, also frequented the gym daily and was friends with Bell's father. Robert adopted the nickname "Kool" (for his mild or "cool" temperament) and was only 14 when he picked up the bass and began leading the Jazziacs at scattered gigs in New Jersey lounges.
Along with the Bell brothers, the band still includes original members Robert Mickens (trumpet), Dennis "D. T." Thomas (alto saxophone), Charles Smith (guitar), Clifford Adams (trombone), and George Brown (drums). Together they began covering contemporary pop and motown, collaborating occasionally with jazz musicians McCoy Tyner, Leon Thomas, and Pharoah Sanders.
In 1967 the Jazziacs changed their name to the Soul Machine Review, and when they finally signed with Red Coach records in 1969, they changed it again to Kool & the Gang, modifying their originals to combine "street funk," R&B, and pop. According to Connelly, "Kool's bass lines suggested the melodic contours of a song, while horns provided contrapuntal fills, and solos were sculpted around more traditional jazz harmonies." He concluded that "the result was a kind of easy-listening funk," sophisticated for pop, but "propulsive enough to shimmy to." Their early hits, "Let the Music Take Your Mind," "Funky Man," and "Love the Life You Live," made them a street-music sensation, the kings of sweaty dance parties.
Red Coach released Kool & the Gang's first album, Kool & the Gang, on the De-Lite label in 1970, but the group didn't reach critical and popular success until the 1973 release of Wild and Peaceful, which contained the smash gold singles, "Funky Stuff," "Jungle Boogie," and "Hollywood Swingin'." According to Vernon Gibbs of the Village Voice, the Gang's following albums detailed the group's "spiritual phase," driven by some members' growing Muslim convictions and the climate of the country in the mid-1970s.
Although 1974's "Light of the Worlds" achieved gold status, Kool & the Gang's popularity was soon squelched by the country's increasing disco fever. "Ironically," wrote Gibbs, "it was the inclusion of 'Open Sesame' on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack (it had already been a black hit) that gave them another glimpse of lif at the top and prompted drastic changes that were long overdue."
By 1977 Kool & the Gang had reached a self-described "career crossroads," finding themselves to be too progressive for disco and too sugary for funk. "We thought that musically we were there," Kool told Rolling Stone, "but we just didn't have the vocals that the Commodores had with Lionel Richie and that Earth Wind and Fire had with Maurice White and Philip Bailey."
The change that the group needed was J. T. Taylor, a schoolteacher and amateur nightclub singer from New Jersey (not to be confused with the folksinger from Martha's Vineyard). Like most of the members of Kool & the Gang, Taylor's familiarity with "the sayings of the street" came from personal experience. "I have eight sisters and two brothers, and when I came here I found that Kool and his brother grew up in a similar situation," Taylor told Musician in 1984. "We have a lot in common--poverty, hard times growing up and all."
Taylor was also no stranger to Kool & the Gang's music. In fact, when he was 13 years old, he and his friends started their own band called Kool & the Gang, modeled after the original.
Taylor's drummer named himself "George" after George Brown, and his bass player named himself "Kool." They even made up T-shirts with the original bandmember's names on the back. The only name that was missing was James Taylor's; at the time, Taylor was essentially trying himself out as the absent lead singer in all of the Kool & the Gang songs.
Taylor's high school imitations gave way to reality when the Gang was actually looking for a lead singer; he was already a perfect fit. Taylor later told Musician that when he returned to his old neighborhood to visit, one of his old bandmates called out across the street, "Remember those T-shirts? Now you're with the real guys!" With Taylor on board, the band hit the streets to do some research. They drove around the city and hung out at various clubs and functions. The material that they gathered later became their first platinum album, Ladies' Night, which was released in 1979.
"It was like starting all over again," Kool told Musician. "We had to tour all the time. New bands like GQ and Instant Funk were getting platinum albums. We had to wonder what they were doing since our music had been danceable since 1969." In a sense, Ladies' Night was a comment on the very club scene that the band was trying to break into; in their tours around the city, they found that every Wednesday night was consistently "Ladies' Night" at clubs and discos. "We were trying to capture what was going on," Kool told Melody Maker. "Our music became an extension of people's experience." Taylor's melodic voice gave the album instant popularity, the singles "Too Hot" and "Ladies' Night" reaching gold and platinum status.
"We'd always been about change," Kool told Melody Maker, citing the band's traverse of musical genres over the decades. "It's the result of a [cotinued] growth pattern." Yet Kool & the Gang were criticized for this move out of instrumental-based music into pop conformity with the addition of a front man; it was seen by some fans as an abandonment of their black cultural roots and urban street-sound. D. T. Thomas told Billboard magazine in a 1988 interview that during this period, the Gang didn't think of their audience in terms of color. "It's true that our material ... has been very heavily crossover. We were doing that purposely, but it was never with the intention of leaving our black base."
Besides the inclusion of a new lead singer, the group's change to a pop sound was enhanced by producer Eumir Deodato, who, starting with Ladies' Night, produced the group's next four platinum and gold albums, between 1979 and 1982. He made room for Taylor's sweet crooning voice by simplifying the production, moving the keyboards up front, switching the vocal chorus into backup sound, and softening the hard-edged funk horns. The result, according to Gibbs, was that Kool & the Gang sounded "more like a new band in their first great surge than veterans who have seen it all."
With the help of Deodato, the group's next album, Celebrate, became one of the biggest hits of their career, the hit single, "Celebration" carving its own niche as a national theme song for the release of the hostages in Iran, as well as scoring the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Superbowl. "Celebrate is the kind of album that is hard to repeat," Kool told Melody Maker. "It happened, the timing was right, the conditions in the world were conducive to what was going on in the song." The lyrics of the title track also seemed to epitomize the group's spiritual values at the time. "Our music is very celebrative," Kool continued in the Melody Maker interview. "Life is very celebrative. When you wake up in the morning and the sun is shining, you're thankful that you woke up and that the creator blessed you to live again."
In 1981 Kool & the Gang released the platinum-selling album Something Special, which included the gold hit-single "Take My Heart." On a concert tour for the album, the group sold out four shows at Radio City Music Hall in New York, signaling their massive national popularity. Gibbs called Something Special "unquestionably the most accomplished album of their career ... every bit as brilliant as the singles 'Ladies' Night' and 'Celebration.'"
Although As One, the fourth Deodato-produced album, reached gold in the United States and outsold all of their other albums in Africa and Europe, Kool & the Gang separated amicably from their producer in 1983 and decided to create their own recordings in-house. "After four albums we wanted to make a change and give ourselves a shot at it," Kool told Nelson George of Billboard magazine. The 1983 album In the Heart credits Ronald Bell, Kool & the Gang, and engineer Jim Bonneford for production, but in all following albums, Ronald Bell became the group's secret production weapon. "We tr to stay open to everything, but we don't worry about it 'cause I think basically Kool & the Gang's sound is established," Taylor told Rolling Stone.
From the mid-1980s until the early 1990s Ronald Bell kept the sound established, however unconventionally; rock guitars began to replace horns, and their sound was transformed under the power of digital technology. Bell called his production set-up the IBMC, or Itty Bitty MIDI Committee, using MIDI computer synthesizers and mixers. In a 1986 Musician article, Jock Baird called the more reclusive Bell brother "a funky jazz mad scientist, Coltrane meets Mr. Wizard, Soul-Train meets micro-chip."
In the 1980s Bell produced the double-platinum Emergency and the gold Forever, on which he played almost all the instruments. "The Itty Bitty MIDI Committee is basically translating musical ideas into computer language, and bringing it out to sound like what they're really meant to be, instead of sounding like stiff, synthetic computer music," Bell told Musician. Through this process, tapes of Kool & the Gang's musicians were taken and translated into MIDI sequencers, and copied and layered, eliminating the need for studio time.
For a band that for over 20 years had experienced as much musical genre change as a band probably could and still stay together, the move to in-house production was just another marker of growth. On the In the Heart album, Ronald said that the rest of the band, "wouldn't even let us put a drum machine on because they were against it at that time. It was new to them.... But now they understand technology." The change to in-house production also helped the members increase their outside production; Taylor produced a rap record, and Ronald Bell produced work by Latoya Jackson and Jimmy Cliff.
The biggest change of the 1980s, however, came with the departure of lead singer Taylor. The vocalist, who left in 1988, reportedly departed amicably with plans to make a solo album. "What happened was that he actually had had some physical problems with his voice last year and he was convalescing. We all felt it was a good time to re-evaluate our status together," D. T. Thomas told Billboard in 1988. The Gang replaced Taylor with singers/instrumentalists Gary Brown, Odeen Mays, and Skip Martin.
From 1988 until 1994 Kool & the Gang released five more albums, and continued to tour Europe, the United States, and Africa, proving once again the band's tenacity and ability to bounce back in the face of change and the diverse taste of their fans. Even the departed Taylor acknowledged this truth, and in an interview with Melody Maker, he summed up the group's credo best by saying, "If you look at our stories, they're very social.... We just write about everyday experiences.... That's our main objective; that's what we're here to do."
by Sarah Messer
Kool & the Gang's Career
Band formed as the Jazziacs, 1964; changed name to Soul Machine review, 1967, and to Kool & the Gang, 1969; released over 25 albums, 1969-94. Debut LP Kool & the Gang released on De-Lite, 1970; released Ladies' Night with lead singer J. T. Taylor, 1979, and Celebrate, 1980; single "Celebration" was played at the 1980 Superbowl and Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Kool & the Gang's Awards
Received double platinum album for Emergency; platinum albums for Ladies' Night, Celebrate, Something Special, and In the Heart; platinum singles for "Ladies Night," "Too Hot," "Let's Go Dancin'," "Fresh," "Emergency," and "Cherish"; gold albums for Wild and Peaceful, Light of the Worlds, As One, and Forever; gold singles for "Funky Stuff," "Jungle Boogie," "Hollywood Swingin'," "Too Hot," "Take My Heart," "Big Fun," "Joanna," "Tonight," and "Victory"; Grammy Award for "Open Sesame" from Saturday Night Fever; American Music awards for best soul group, 1981, 1983, 1984, and 1987; Tokyo Music Festival award, 1987, for "Cherish."
- Selective Works
- On JRS Records Kool & the Gang, 1970.
- Kool & the Gang Live at the Sex Machine, 1971.
- The Beat of Kool & the Gan Featuring the Penguin, 1971.
- Kool & the Gang Live at P.J.'s Hollywood, 1972.
- Music Is the Message, 1972.
- Good Times, 1973.
- Wild and Peaceful (includes "Funky Stuff," "Jungle Boogie," and "Hollywood Swinging"), 1973.
- Kool Jazz, 1974.
- Light of the Worlds, 1975.
- Greatest Hits, 1975.
- Spirit of the Boogie, 1975.
- Love and Understanding, 1976.
- Open Sesame, 1976.
- Hollywood Swinging/ Summer Madness/ A Kool & the Gang Anthology, 1977.
- Jungle Boogie/ Funky Stuff/ Kool & the Gang Anthology, 1977.
- The Force, 1977.
- Kool & the Gang Spin Their Top Hits, 1978.
- Everybody's Dancin', 1978.
- Ladies' Night (includes "Too Hot"), 1979.
- Celebrate (includes "Celebration"), 1980.
- Something Special (includes "Take My Heart"), 1981.
- As One (includes "Big Fun" and "Let's Go Dancin"'), 1982.
- In the Heart (includes "Fresh" and "Joanna"), 1983.
- Kool & the Gang at Their Best, 1984.
- Twice as Kool, 1984.
- The Very Best of Kool & the Gang: Let's Go Dancing, 1984.
- Emergency (includes "Cherish"), 1984.
- Best of Kool & the Gang, 1985.
- Forever, 1987.
- Everything's Kool & the Gang's Greatest Hits and More, 1988.
- The Singles Collection, 1989.
- Sweat, 1989.
- Kool & the Gang Great & Remixed '91 (released in the United Kingdom and Europe), 1991.
- Unite, 1994.
- Contributed single "Open Sesame" to Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, 1976.
June 20, 2006: Group member Claydes Charles Smith died on June 20, 2006, in Maplewood, New Jersey. He was 57. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com/2006/SHOWBIZ/Music/06/23/obit.smith.ap/index.html, June 26, 2006.
- Billboard, February 13, 1982; December 17, 1983; August 10, 1985; December 6, 1986; November 5, 1988; January 13, 1990.
- Entertainment Weekly, May, 28, 1993.
- Melody Maker, February 6, 1982; January 1, 1985; January 3, 1987.
- Musician, September, 1986; December 1986; October 1998.
- Rolling Stone, March 15, 1984.
- Variety, August 1, 1984.
- Village Voice, March 23, 1982, May 29, 1984.
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