After 50 years and 23 albums, the legacy of Kool & the Gang has become so much a part of our national fabric it’s hard to remember a time when their music wasn’t a perpetual party anthem source, blasted at bar mitzvahs and weddings and high school graduations. In 1981, the band’s dance-floor juggernaut “Celebration” took on monumental historical value when it was played as the American hostages returned home from Iran. Even today there are kids who may not know who Kool & the Gang is, but they know their songs, a hefty catalog of funk-jazz-R&B-pop fusions like “Ladies’ Night,” “Jungle Boogie” and “Get Down on It” that remain evergreen favorites at life-cycle events and other happy occasions.
Formed in 1964 in Jersey City, N.J., by then-teenage brothers Robert “Kool” Bell and Ronald “Khalis” Bell and neighborhood buddies Robert “Spike” Mickens, Dennis “D.T.” Thomas, Ricky West, George Brown and Charles Smith, the group is scheduled to receive its star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Oct. 8. Morphing over the years, they were first the Jazziacs, then the New Dimensions and then Kool & the Flames (which hewed too close to James Brown and the Famous Flames) before finally settling on their current name.
Since its debut release, 1969’s eponymous “Kool & the Gang,” the two-time Grammy-winning group has sold over 70 million records worldwide.
But no one was more taken aback by the massive popularity of its trademark hits than the band members themselves.
“I had no idea that ‘Celebration’ would turn out to be as popular as it is,” says tenor saxophonist Ronald “Khalis” Bell. “When we were writing it, I was inspired by a Scripture reading in which the creator is creating this human being and (the human beings) are praising Him for doing that, so that’s where the original inspiration came for that. You know, ‘Everyone around the world come on….’ Everyone has a reason to celebrate something.”
But like all collaborative efforts in pop music history, there were myriad influences in all of Kool’s songs (the ballad “Joanna,” off 1983’s “In the Heart,” was based on Smith’s mother; “Ladies Night” was inspired by Studio 54).
“ ‘Celebration’ came from the American Music Awards,” says Brown, the group’s percussionist. “We had won the American Music Award — we had won a couple of them that evening — and it was sort of a celebration because it was a great night for us. We were on a tour bus and we started to come up with the idea for the song. It wasn’t contrived for weddings and bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs. We were just coming home and it was just something we felt we wanted to do.”
Along with a collective passion for “music from the heart,” what’s kept the band going these past five decades is its ability to adapt to the ever-changing ebb and flow of the music industry. Certain members of the band have come and gone, but the group as a whole always remained intact, experimenting with an artistic open-mindedness. Whether sharing a stage with Richie Havens or Ray Charles or Sammy Davis Jr. or Van Halen — with whom Kool & the Gang toured in 2012 — the group has reinvented itself many times over.
The band’s signature horn arrangements gave way to the more rock-oriented sound on its 1984 album “Emergency,” from which the singles “Fresh” and “Cherish” landed at top spots on the charts. In 1981, Kool & the Gang even lured Marvin Gaye out of his self-imposed exile in Belgium to play with them in London. (“To this day he’s my idol,” says Brown. “It was an incredible thing.”)
“I listen to all types of music, be it hip-hop or jazz or rock ’n’ roll, and we have tried over the years to come up with a good title and a good song and it becomes whatever that is,” says Robert Bell.
“Our music is universal, I think,” adds Ronald Bell. “It’s got pieces of rock, pop, R & B, jazz, hip-hop — everybody around the world loves it.”
Perhaps coolest of all, according to some sources, Kool & the Gang is currently sampled on hip-hop records more often than any other musical act, with excerpts appearing on rap songs by artists such as Heavy D, Das EFX, the Beastie Boys and Ice Cube.
“I became the most sampled drummer in history,” says Brown. “I always love what people do when they use our music. It’s an honor whenever someone covers us.”
As it charges into the next decade following an enviable half-century run, Kool & the Gang has no plans to stop making music. Various members are working on multiple projects, including a memoir about the group and a stage musical tentatively called “It’s a Celebration.” Ronald Bell is also spearheading a project to re-record the band’s entire catalog using new technology that will eventually be released as a box set titled “Legacy: The Collective Genius of a Band Called Kool & the Gang.”
“Our core band, the four of us, we’re the survivors,” says Bell. “We’ve lost three members from the original, and then JT (Taylor) came and he left to pursue a solo career, but other than that, we’ve never left. With us it’s always been about the music. We still travel, we still tour around the world and we’re still making music. We just love the music and we like each other pretty much. Of course, that’s not to say we don’t have our differences. We agree to disagree and 50 years later we’re still here.”