What were you doing in the year 1980? I know, many of you reading today probably were not born until well after 1980. However, if you are in my age group, you can remember well your activities. I was in high school, quite an active member of the school’s marching band. We played a lot of popular music from the day. In that year, 1980, one song dominated the radio waves and became an anthem of that year. The song was performed by the group Kool and the Gang, and it was titled “Celebration”. Now I’m sure most of you know that song, even if it was created long before you were born.
Kool and the Gang is a group that made a lot of hit music for a long time. In 1964, thirteen-year-old Robert Bell, his brother Ronald, and five high-school friends in Jersey City, New Jersey, formed an instrumental band called the Jazziacs. They changed their name to Kool & the Flames in 1967, then Kool & the Gang in 1969 and were signed by Gene Redd to his new record label De-Lite Records in 1969.
The band’s début album, Kool and the Gang, produced three hit singles on the pop and R&B charts of Billboard magazine. The followup album is the one that I remember as the one that put the band over the top. Wild and Peaceful gave the band three more hits: “Funky Stuff” in the Top 40 pop chart and “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” in the Top 10. The latter two songs sold over one million copies and were certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
As a youngster, the only music group I thought about was the Jackson Five. Anyone else was just an afterthought. Nevertheless, once Kool and the Gang broke out in 1974, I was like so many other people and loved what I heard. In fact, both Jungle Boogie and Hollywood Swinging get a lot of airplay on radio today. Many young people can recognize these songs even if they know very little about Kool and the Gang.
Today, a group in a position like Kool and the Gang would reflect and speak about what they have accomplished over fifty years together in music. Certainly any group with that type of longevity in the music industry would celebrate the many hits and more. These fellows are celebrating all right, but they also are still making music and touring. Why?
Perhaps the success has given Kool and the Gang a reason to continue working. Remember, these guys have made music together since they were thirteen years old. For most of us it’s hard to think back to things we were doing at thirteen that we are still doing…..thirty or forty years later. If we are very successful early and it continues along the way, that seems to be the formula for a musical long life. Of course, no group I know keeps all of its original members over a span of forty years. Kool and the Gang has a very long list of past members that have left the group and gone on to other ventures, or lost in death. Like ultimate funk band Earth Wind and Fire, Kool and the Gang has held on to a core of original members who have tasted the sweetness of great success.
Some of you might wonder why I chose to feature Kool and the Gang this week. Well, the band is making a stop here in South Florida later this week. Many of you out there might have an opportunity to celebrate along with the band as they continue to tour the US. However, this band has done so much over the years, and even in recent times, that it’s hard to list everything. There are some big highlights.
One of the major highlights for Kool and the Gang had to be the arrival and time spent by former lead singer James “J.T” Taylor. In 1979, James “J.T.” Taylor joined as lead singer. Kool and the Gang starting working with Brazilian fusion musician Eumir Deodato as producer, and they moved away from funk and closer to rhythm & blues and pop music. The songs “Ladies’ Night” and “Too Hot” were hits and the album Ladies’ Night was certified platinum by the RIAA. Even more successful was the album Celebrate! also certified platinum, giving Kool and the Gang its first number one hit (“Celebration”), which Robert Bell called “an international anthem”. More international hits followed in the early 1980s, including “Big Fun”, “Get Down on It”, and “Joanna”. The album Emergency yielded four Top 20 pop hits, including “Fresh” and “Cherish”. n 1988, Taylor left the group to pursue a solo career. He was replaced by three vocalists: Sennie “Skip” Martin, Odeen Mays, and Gary Brown. He returned for State of Affairs (1996).
J.T. was a part of much of the success of Kool and the Gang and I don’t think we could speak about the band without mentioning his stellar contribution. Also noteworthy were the contributions of Rik West, Charles Smith and Robert Mickens who were former members lost in death through the years.
Another fun fact about Kool and the Gang is that they are the most sampled band in history…..right now. “Summer Madness” was used by DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince for their 1991 single “Summertime”. “N.T.” has been sampled by Boogie Down Productions, Brand Nubian, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Nas, N.W.A, Kris Kross, Jermaine Dupri, and Snoop Dogg. “Hollywood Swinging” was sampled by DJ Kool, Mase, and Too Short. “Celebration” was used by Boards of Canada in their song “The Way You Show”.
What’s next for Kool and the Gang? Well, there easily could be more music. Just last year Kool & the Gang released their new track “Sexy (Where’d You Get Yours),” the funk-soul legends’ first new single in nearly a decade. Obviously there is plenty music left in the tank. Therefore, we’ll just wait for now and enjoy the celebration.