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Members include: Robert "Kool" Bell, bass; Ronald Bell, saxophone; George "Funky" Brown, percussion; Robert "Spike" Mickens, trumpet; Claydes (Charles) Smith, lead guitar; James "J.T." Taylor, vocals (joined group, 1978); Dennis "Dee Dee" Thomas, saxophone, flute; Ricky Westfield, keyboards (left group, 1976). Addresses: Record company--Sanctuary Records Group, 369 Lexington Ave., Sixth Fl., New York, NY 10017. Website--Kool and the Gang Official Website: http://www.koolandthegang.com.
Kool & the Gang were one of the most successful R&B and pop groups of the 1980s, placing more singles in the pop top ten during the first half of that decade than any other group. They experienced moderate success during the funk years of the early and middle 1970s as well, appearing regularly on R&B charts and impressing live audiences with their showmanship and instrumental skills developed during the group's early years as a jazz ensemble. Kool & the Gang remain known above all for a single song: "Celebration" (1980) is as close to a universal wedding reception standard as exists in American music, and it is often played at parties and dances for audiences not even born when the song was recorded.
Kool & the Gang came together in 1964 as the Jazziacs in Jersey City, New Jersey. At the center of the group were two brothers, Robert and Ronald Bell, born in 1950 and 1951, respectively, in Youngstown, Ohio. Their father, a champion featherweight boxer, had also dabbled in jazz and was a friend of pianist Thelonious Monk. When the family fell into dire poverty due to steel mill closures in Youngstown, their mother, Mabel, sent President John F. Kennedy a letter containing a picture Ronald Bell had drawn of their falling-down home, and Kennedy read the letter on national television. Robert Bell was a bassist, and Ronald played tenor saxophone. The other members of the Jazziacs were trumpeter Robert "Spike" Mickens (born in Jersey City in 1951), saxophonist and flutist Dennis "Dee Dee" Thomas (born in Orlando, Florida in 1951), lead guitarist Claydes Smith (born in Jersey City on September 6, 1948), keyboardist Ricky Westfield, and percussionist George "Funky" Brown (born in Jersey City on January 5, 1949).
Performed in Jazz Coffeehouses
Members of the group had known each other and played in various bands as high school students in Jersey City. Several were influenced by hearing jazz in their parents' record collections or by becoming aware of the growing jazz club and coffeehouse scene in nearby New York City. Several future Kool & the Gang members, including both Bell brothers, formed a group called the Five Sounds Jr. (to distinguish it from another local Five Sounds) and landed jazz gigs at a coffeehouse at Jersey City's St. John's Church, and then, in early 1964, at the Café Wha? in New York's Greenwich Village. There they performed with a host of other then-unknown African-American talents, including Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, and folksinger Richie Havens. They changed their name to the Jazz Birds and then to the Jazziacs. Robert Bell, who had been involved with a street gang, decided he needed a more jazz-oriented nickname. He selected "Kool," spelling it with a K because so many other young people at the time had names beginning with "Cool."
The Jazziacs evolved to the Soul Town Band as musical fashions shifted away from jazz, and then, in 1968, to Kool & the Flames. They were signed to the Redd Coach label, and the following year they began to record for the associated small De Lite label in New York, taking the name Kool & the Gang to avoid confusion with James Brown's band the Famous Flames. With shows featuring costumes and choreography, they made an impact from the start, and two singles from their debut Kool & the Gang album reached Billboard's national rhythm-and-blues sales chart.
Kool & the Gang issued a live album as their sophomore release--an unconventional decision, but one that worked well for a band known for its live performances. The singles "Funky Man," "Who's Gonna Take the Weight?," and "I Want to Take You Higher" became hits, and Kool & the Gang launched an international tour in 1972. Ronald Bell was given a Koran in Germany, and both Bell brothers became members of a Nation of Islam temple in Jersey City and took Islamic names. Ronald Bell from that point on often used the name Khalis Bayyan.
The 1973 album Wild & Peaceful was certified gold for sales of 500,000 copies and cracked Billboard's rhythm and blues top ten. Other Kool & the Gang albums of the mid-1970s sold moderately well. Open Sesame (1976), with its title track featured in the film Saturday Night Fever, brought the group a pair of Grammy Awards. But the decline of the heavily instrumental and often spiritual funk sound and the simultaneous rise of more mechanical disco began to put a crimp in their popularity. In 1976 Ricky Westfield left the band, and the remaining group members made two important decisions that would soon result in skyrocketing popularity. The first was to hire a lead vocalist. Most of the Kool & the Gang hits to that point had lyrics, but weren't really vocally oriented. "We had never had a real lead singer, and couldn't perform a lot of the tunes we wrote," Kool told Robert Palmer of the New York Times. They picked Hackensack, New Jersey, schoolteacher James "J.T." Taylor after an audition lasting just a few minutes.
Worked with Producer Deodato
The second decision was to begin working with Brazilian-born dance producer Eumir Deodato. By 1979 all the elements were in place: strong, smooth lead vocals from Taylor, state-of-the-art production from Deodato, and a continuing commitment to elaborate stage shows and a funky rhythmic groove from the band as a whole. The changes brought immediate results. In 1979 "Ladies Night" topped the R&B charts for three weeks and cracked the pop top ten. The following year Kool & the Gang released the album Celebrate, which earned double-platinum status for sales of over two million copies.
Most of those sales were generated by the single "Celebration," the composition of which was credited to Ronald Bell and Kool & the Gang. An infectious call and response between Kool's bass and a group "wa-hoo" suited the song to celebrations of all kinds, and it topped both pop and R&B charts. During the early 1980s Kool & the Gang concerts attracted crowds that were more racially diverse racially than those of almost any other act. The albums Something Special, As One, and In the Heart maintained the group's momentum with smooth but rhythmically catchy singles like "Get Down on It" and "Joanna."
Joined Famine-Relief Project
The 1984 album Emergency was another multimillion seller, spawning the three hit singles "Misled," "Cherish," and "Fresh." That year Kool & the Gang became the only American band to participate in the British Do They Know It's Christmas? all-star famine relief recording project. Forever was another strong seller, and the group's momentum was slowed only by the departure of J.T. Taylor as lead vocalist in 1987. The split was friendly, and Khalis Bayyan produced several of Taylor's solo albums. Kool & the Gang, however, began to founder, with the albums Sweat (1989) and Unite (1993) making little impact.
Bayyan's production skills helped launch the careers of the Fugees and their two solo talents, Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean, and Kool's son Hakim also became a hip-hop artist. Taylor rejoined Kool & the Gang in 1996 for State of Affairs, and the group's drawing power as a live act waned only slightly. Financial problems that had plagued the group evaporated with the growth of hip-hop, for the Kool & the Gang classics of the 1970s and 1980s were among the most sampled of any music of the era, and royalties flowed in, with a big boost from the use of the early 1970s hit "Jungle Boogie" in the film Pulp Fiction. The group's 2004 album The Hits: Reloaded featured remakes of the their famous songs with added new elements by contemporary hip-hop artists. In 2005 Kool & the Gang had a busy schedule that included a tour of Germany, France, and Finland. They were also seeking creative and production assistance for a Mamma Mia-style musical that would be built around a group of songs as well known to the Baby Boom generation as any others in the repertory of popular music.
by James M. Manheim
Kool & the Gang's Career
Formed in Jersey City, NJ, as Jazziacs, 1964; performed at Café Wha?, Greenwich Village, New York City; changed name to Soul Town Band, Kool & the Flames, and Kool & the Gang; made debut album, Kool & the Gang, for De Lite label, 1969; recorded Good Times, 1972, and Wild & Peaceful, 1973; released album Open Sesame, with title track included in film Saturday Night Fever, 1976; added vocalist James "J.T." Taylor, 1978; began working with producer Eumir Deodato; recorded album Ladies Night, 1979; released album Celebrate, featuring single "Celebration," 1980; released sequence of hit albums, including Emergency, 1984; J.T. Taylor left group, 1987 (returned 1995); continued to tour and record, 1990s--.
Kool & the Gang's Awards
Two Grammy Awards for "Open Sesame" (featured on soundtrack to film Saturday Night Fever); American Music Award for Favorite Soul/R&B Band/Duo/Group, and Favorite Soul/R&B Album for Emergency, 1986.
- Selected discography
- Kool & the Gang De Lite, 1969.
- Live at the Sex Machine De Lite, 1971.
- Live at P.J.'s De Lite, 1971.
- Music Is the Message De Lite, 1972.
- Good Times De Lite, 1972.
- Wild & Peaceful De Lite, 1973.
- Kool Jazz De Lite, 1974.
- Light of Worlds De Lite, 1974.
- Spirit of the Boogie De Lite, 1975.
- Behind the Eyes Polydor, 1976.
- Love & Understanding De Lite, 1976.
- Open Sesame De Lite, 1977.
- The Force De Lite, 1977.
- Everybody's Dancin' De Lite, 1978.
- Ladies Night De Lite, 1979.
- Celebrate! De Lite, 1980.
- Something Special De Lite, 1981.
- As One De Lite, 1982.
- In the Heart De Lite, 1983.
- Emergency De Lite, 1984.
- Forever De Lite, 1986.
- Sweat Mercury, 1989.
- Unite RCA, 1993.
- State of Affairs 1996, Curb.
- The Very Best of Kool & the Gang Mercury, 1999.
- The Millennium Collection: The Best of Kool & the Gang Polygram, 2000.
- Gangland Eagle Music Group, 2001.
- The Ultimate Collection Universal, 2003.
- The Hits: Reloaded Sanctuary, 2004.
- Gold Mercury, 2005.
- Still Kool 2006.
- Slonimsky, Nicolas, editor emeritus, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, centennial edition, Schirmer, 2001.
- Albuquerque Journal, May 13, 1005, p. 13.
- Dayton Daily News, June 10, 2000, p. C1.
- Orange County Register, January 31, 2006.
- New York Times, January 2, 1985, p. C14; January 11, 1985, p. A26.
- Star Ledger (Newark, NJ), March 18, 1996, p. 39.
- Washington Post, March 23, 1981, p. C1.
- Washington Times, January 29, 2000, p. 6.
- "History," Kool and the Gang Official Website, http://www.koolandthegang.com/history/index.html (March 6, 2006).
- "Kool & the Gang," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 6, 2006).
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