Kool & The Gang - Biography
By Lee Hildebrand
Kool & the Gang created a style of upbeat, mostly instrumental funk fueled by a punchy, jazz-imbued horn section that filled dance floors during the 1970s. The horns were arranged by tenor saxophonist and musical director Khalis Bayyan (formerly known as Roland Bell) and steered by the buoyant electric bass of Bayyan’s brother, Robert “Kool” Bell. Their funk sound, however, was a precursor to a lighter pop approach that featured the silky tenor voice of James “J.T.” Taylor, which made the New Jersey-based band one of the most consistent crossover attractions of the following decade.
Between 1969 and 1989, the brothers Bell and company placed 47 singles on Billboard’s R&B chart, 12 of which also made the pop Top Ten. Of the prolific group’s more than two dozen albums, four went platinum: Ladies’ Night (1979 De-Lite), Celebrate! (1980 Mercury), Something Special (1981 Mercury), and Emergency ((1984 Mercury). The biggest of the band’s hits, 1980’s number one pop and R&B charter “Celebration,” became a victory anthem for many occasions during the decade. The Bayyan composition, inspired by the creation story in the Holy Qur’an, greeted American hostages arriving home from Iran on January 26, 1981, and served as the theme song for that year’s Superbowl and also for the Oakland A’s. Walter Mondale used the song to celebrate his nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1984, and it also became a perennial favorite for wedding ceremonies.
The brothers were both born in Youngstown, Ohio, Kool on October 8, 1950 and Khalis on November 1, 1951. Their father, Bobby Bell, a professional boxer and jazz aficionado, moved the family to Jersey City in 1961. The brothers’ group began as an African percussion ensemble that utilized sticks and cans, but after Kool taught himself to play a borrowed bass, it became a band called the Jazziacs in 1966. The core lineup consisted of Kool, Khalis, trumpeter Robert “Spike” Mickens, saxophonist/flutist Dennis “Dee Tee” Thomas, guitarist Claydes “Charles” Smith, and drummer George Brown. Keyboardist Ricky Westfield joined in 1970. Among their influences were Art Blakey, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Rashaan Roland Kirk, Hank Mobley, Thelonious Monk, Babatunde Olatunji, Mongo Santamaria, and Horace Silver. Such prominent jazzmen as Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner, and Leon Thomas sometimes sat in with the band during jam sessions at St. John’s, a club in Jersey City.
The Jazzaics’ musical approach started changing in 1968 when they joined the New Jersey-based Soultown Revue and needed to learn current R&B hits in order to accompany the troupe’s vocalists. They soon discovered than playing soul music paid better than jazz. They changed their name to New Dimensions at first, then to Kool & the Flames, and finally to Kool & the Gang. The group inked a contract with onetime King Records producer Gene Redd’s tiny Redd Coach label in 1969 and cut a single titled “Kool and The Gang.” The record replicated much of the excitement the band was stirring up in person and came complete with crowd noise. The single was picked up by the slightly larger New York-based De-Lite label and became a number 19 R&B hit. Two live albums were issued in 1971, Live at the Sex Machine (1971 De-Lite) and Live at PJs (1971 De-Lite).
Additional R&B charters, many incorporating vocal chants by the group into its lively party grooves and horn riffs, continued through 1973, at which point Kool & the Gang finally scored a number five on the R&B chart with “Funky Stuff.” The song appeared on Wild and Peaceful (1973 De-Lite), an album that spun off two even bigger hits with “Jungle Boogie” hitting number two on the R&B charts and number four on the pop charts, and “Hollywood Swinging” hitting number one on the R&B charts and number six on the pop charts. Two more R&B chart-toppers followed with “Higher Plane” from 1974’s Light of Worlds (1974 De-Lite) and “Spirit of the Boogie” from 1975’s Spirit of the Boogie (1975 De-Lite). “Summer Madness,” the B-Side of “Spirit of the Boogie,” turned up two years later on the soundtrack of the mega-hit movie Rocky starring Sylvester Stallone.
As disco took firm hold of pop music between 1976 and 1988, Kool & the Gang’s chart action dipped considerably, although their tune “Open Sesame,” a numb six R&B hit in 1976, made it onto the soundtrack of the next year’s Saturday Night Fever (1977 RSO). During this period in which the band was expanding its following to fans outside the African American community, its entire membership converted to the black separatist Nation of Islam headed by Elijah Muhammad.
James “J.T.” Taylor, who was born in Laurens, South Carolina on August 16, 1953, had once opened a show for Kool & the Gang when he was lead singer of a band called Filet of Soul. He joined Kool & the Gang in 1978, the year they took another, even more consciously commercial musical direction. They began working with Eumir Deodato, the Rio de Janeiro-born keyboardist, arranger, producer, and recording artist in his own right who shared their fondness for jazz but also had a keen pop sensibility. The group members’ songwriting prowess, Deodato’s high-gloss production style, and De-Lite’s distribution pact with Polygram spawned quick results in the form of 1979’s single “Ladies Night” from the LP Ladies Night (1979 De-Lite). The song hit number one on the R&B charts and number eight on the pop charts. Brown, the tune’s principal writer, has said that the lyrics were inspired in part by his mother’s fondness for The Dells’ doo-wop classic “Oh What a Night.” The song’s closing line, “Everyone around the world, come on, celebration,” in turn inspired the band’s greatest smash, 1980’s “Celebration” from the album Celebrate (1980 Mercury). “Celebration” spent six weeks at number one on the R&B chart and two weeks at number one on the pop charts. Kool & the Gang triumphed again in 1981 with the Marvin Gaye-influenced, reggae-spiced, R&B chart-topper “Take My Heart (You Can Have It If You Want It)” from Something Special.
Deodato dropped out of the picture in 1982, leaving Khalis and the rest of the band, along with engineer Jim Bonnefond, in charge of production. Crossover hits kept coming, most notably “Get Down on It” from Something Special; “Joanna” from In the Heart (1983 Polygram); “Misled,” “Cherish,” and “Fresh” from Emergency (1984 Mercury); and “Victory” and “Stone Love” from Forever (1986 Mercury). Yet even as Kool & the Gang’s releases continued to place high on the charts, the group’s increasingly subdued music (as exemplified by songs such as “Joanna” and “Cherish”) led to something of a backlash among many of their African American fans. Taylor estimated that, by the mid-‘80s, black attendance at the band’s concerts had dropped to ten percent.
Taylor left the gang in 1988, cut three albums for MCA, and scored a number two R&B hit with “All I Want Is Forever,” the 1989 duet with Regina Belle. The post-Taylor Kool & the Gang was less successful, with 1989’s “Never Give Up” marking their final appearance on either the R&B or pop chart. “Hollywood Swinging” did, however, turn up at number five on the dance chart in 2005 after being used on the soundtrack of Be Cool featuring former Saturday Night Fever star John Travola. Taylor rejoined the band in 1995, but his return and the band’s new album, State of Affairs (1996 Curb), failed to spark much of a celebration.
Kool & the Gang’s recordings, particularly those from the ‘70s, have been sampled extensively by other artists. “Hollywood Swinging” has turned up on sides by Mase, Professor Griff & The Last Asiatic Disciples, and Too $hort. Among those who have borrowed from “Jungle Boogie” are Big Daddy Kane, Beastie Boys, Das EFX, EPMD, Ice Cube, Janet Jackson, Madonna, MC Lyte, Public Enemy, and Redman. Coolio, Miles Davis, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Ice Cube, Mad Skillz, Montell Jordan, and Lost Boyz all sampled “Summer Madness.” The most sampled of all Kool & the Gang songs, however, has been the non-charting 1971 single “N.T.,” which has been used in some 40 different songs by artists including A Tribe Called Quest, Big Daddy Kane, Brand Nubian, Chubb Rock, De La Soul, Eric B. & Rakim, Geto Boys, Kriss Kross, Mellow Man Ace, MC Serch, Nas, N.W.A, Public Enemy, Run-D.M.C., Shabba Ranks, Stetsasonic, Terminator X, Warren G, and Yo-Yo.
Many of the group’s hits can be found on the compilations The Best of Kool & The Gang 1969-1976 (1993 – Mercury), Celebration: The Best of Kool & The Gang 1979-1987 (1994 Mercury), The Very Best of Kool & The Gang (1999 Island/Mercury), and The Best of Kool & The Gang: The Millennium Collection (2007 Island/Mercury).
The brothers Kool and Khalis continue to tour the world as Kool & the Gang, along with fellow charter members Thomas and Brown. The band’s most recent release is the double-disc Still Kool (2007 New Door).