Formed as a jazz ensemble in the mid-’60s, Kool & the Gang became one of the most inspired and influential funk units during the ’70s, and one of the most popular R&B groups of the ’80s after their breakout hit “Celebration” in 1979. Just as funky as James Brown orParliament (and sampled almost as frequently), Kool & the Gang relied on their jazz backgrounds and long friendship to form a tightly knit group with the interplay and improvisation of a jazz outfit, plus the energy and spark of a band with equal ties to soul, R&B, and funk.
Robert “Kool” Bell and his brother Ronald (or Khalis Bayyan) grew up in Jersey City, NJ, and picked up the music bug from their father. A professional boxer, he was also a serious jazz lover and a close friend of Thelonious Monk. With Robert on bass and Ronald picking up an array of horns, the duo formed the Jazziacs in 1964 with several neighborhood friends: trombone player Clifford Adams, guitarists Charles Smith and Woody Sparrow, trumpeter Robert “Spike” Michens, alto saxophonist Dennis Thomas, keyboard player Ricky West, and drummer Funky George Brown (all of whom, except Michens and West, still remained in the group more than 30 years later).
The growing earthiness of soul inspired the Jazziacs to temper their jazz sensibilities with rhythms more akin to R&B, and the newly renamed Soul Town Band began playing clubs in Greenwich Village. After a mix-up with a club owner resulted in the group being billed Kool & the Flames, they moderated the title to Kool & the Gang and found a leg up with the tiny De-Lite Records. Three singles from their self-titled debut album hit the pop charts, and although the position wasn’t incredibly high, Kool & the Gang became a quick success on the R&B charts. Always a staple of their appeal, the group’s live act was documented on two 1971 LPs, Live at the Sex Machine and Live at P.J.’s, including left-field covers of “Walk On By” and “Wichita Lineman” (as well as the not so unusual “I Want to Take You Higher”).
Studio albums followed in 1972 and 1973, but it was with Kool & the Gang’s sixth LP, Wild and Peaceful, that they hit the big time. “Funky Stuff” became their first Top 40 hit at the end of 1973. Then both “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” reached the pop Top Ten. During the next four years, however, Kool & the Gang could only manage an occasional Top 40 hit (“Higher Plane,” “Spirit of the Boogie”), and though they did win a Grammy award for “Open Sesame” (from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack), the rise of disco — a movement centered around producers and vocalists, in direct contrast to the group’s focus on instrumentalists — had appeared to end their popularity.
Then, in 1979, the group added two new vocalists, Earl Toon, Jr. and, more importantly,James “J.T.” Taylor, a former Jersey nightclub singer. Kool & the Gang also began working with jazz fusion arranger Eumir Deodato, who produced their records from 1979 to 1982. The first such album, Ladies Night, was their biggest hit yet, the first of three consecutive platinum albums, with the Top Ten singles “Too Hot” and the title track. Celebrate!, released in 1980, spawned Kool & the Gang’s only number one hit, “Celebration,” an anthem favored by innumerable wedding receptions since. With Deodato, the group produced several more hits, including the singles “Take My Heart (You Can Have It if You Want It),” “Get Down on It,” and “Big Fun,” and the albums Something Special in 1981 andAs One a year later. After Deodato left the fold in late 1982, Kool & the Gang proved their success wasn’t solely due to him; they had two immense hits during 1984-1985 (“Joanna” and “Cherish”), as well as two more Top Tens, “Misled” and “Fresh.” The group’s string of seven gold or platinum records continued until 1986’s Forever, after which James “J.T.” Taylor amicably left the group for a solo career.
Although Taylor did reasonably well with his solo recordings (many of which were produced by Ronald Bell), Kool & the Gang quickly sank without him. They replaced Taylor with three vocalists, Skip Martin (formerly of the Dazz Band), Odeen Mays, and Gary Brown, but failed to chart their albums Sweat (1989) and Unite (1993). Taylor finally returned to the group in 1995 for the release of a new album, State of Affairs. They continued well throughout the 2000s, releasing 2001’s Gangland, 2004’s The Hits: Reloaded, and 2007’sStill Kool (recorded after the 2006 death of co-founder Charles Smith). They often collaborated with new and well-known younger talent.