Kool & the Gang (US)
Celebration, Get Down On It, Fresh, Cherish
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Formed by Robert “Kool” Bell, his brother Ronald Bell and a bunch of their New Jersey teenage friends in the mid-60s (then called the Jazziacs), Kool & the Gang played traditional jazz in regional venues for several years, slowly morphing their style to incorporate emerging funk sounds of Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown. They were signed by the De-Lite label in the early ’70s and gathered a small but loyal national following (in particular for their 1971 release Live at the Sex Machine). The group’s fortunes exploded in 1974 with Wild and Peaceful, an infectiously raw album that spawned three smash hits, “Funky Stuff,” “Hollywood Swinging,” and “Jungle Boogie,” all featuring great instrumentation and lyrics virtually shouted by the group. However, as quickly as they rode to fame, Kool & the Gang faded, their rough sound appearing out of place against the slick, dance-oriented sounds that began to dominate popular radio in the late ’70s.
Kool & the Gang was an afterthought in the music world in 1979, when they brought in the honey-sounding lead James J.T. Taylor and pop/jazz producer Eumir Deodato for one last gasp, a shiny dance album called Ladies Night. Deodato simplified and sweetened the group’s jazz stylings in a heavily produced package, fronted by Taylor’s irresistible tenor voice. It was an across-the-board smash, leading to two top hits, the title cut and the midtempo “Too Hot.” It was also the beginning of a nearly unprecedented string of top-10 pop and soul hits for the group that would make Kool & the Gang the top-selling soul group of the ’80s. Ladies Night was followed by the even bigger Celebration, the joyous title cut of which becoming the theme song of countless sports teams in the ’80s and one of the most-played songs of the past 25 years. The next five years brought hit after hit, including chart toppers “Misled,” “Cherish,” “Take My Heart,” “Joanna,” “Fresh,” and “Let’s Go Dancin’.” The infectious innocuousness of their music sometimes went to a silly extreme (“Get Down On It”), but the group clearly created a catalogue of enjoyable, well-performed cuts, both during Deodato’s tenure as producer and after they took over the production of their albums in 1983 — songs that have generally aged well. Their 1987 album, Forever, was another smash, but also provided warning sign that the fresh sounds Kool and the Gang introduced in 1979 had run their course and had begun to sound formulaic.
In 1987, Taylor left the group to pursue a modestly successful solo career (he had one major hit with “All I Want Is Forever,” a duet with Regina Belle), and the group continued on but never had another chart hit. They spent the next decade on the oldies circuit before Taylor rejoined for a 1996 reunion tour and the album State of Affairs, an extremely enjoyable disc (and the group’s strongest lyrically) that was ignored by both Pop and Soul radio.
Now a quintet consisting of brothers Robert “Kool” Bell, Ronald Bell (Khalis Bayyan), George Brown, Dennis Thomas, and Charles Smith (all original group members), the group tours internationally, and has a particularly large following in Asia. J.T. Taylor has continued his solo career, with limited success.