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Kool & The Gang

Characterised by Robert “Kool” Bell’s butt-funking bass, the outfit’s raucous horn blasts and in-yer-face chorus chants, the sound of prime KOOL & THE GANG can still tear up the tamest dancefloor almost a half-a-century on. `Jungle Boogie’ – subsequently given a very welcome 90s resurrection courtesy of kitsch connoisseur Quentin Tarantino and his peerless “Pulp Fiction” – was perhaps the best example of their killer formula from a musical point of view; from a party point of view, `Funky Stuff’, `Celebration’, `Ladies Night’, `Get Down On It’ and `Fresh’ were downright wild.
Formed 1964 in Jersey City, New Jersey; as high school band The Jazziacs, the aforesaid “Kool”, his brother Ronald – soon-to-be Khalis Bayyan (sax) – alongside a cast of classmates: namely George Brown (drums/percussion), Robert “Spike” Mickens (trumpet), Dennis “D.T.” Thomas (saxophones), Ricky West (keyboards) and friend from another school, Claydes Charles Smith (guitars), each worked their socks off for the next five years perfecting their funky R&B.
In truth it was jazz that ran through the veins of the Bell brothers, what with their boxing father and uncle being old acquaintances of MILES DAVIS and THELONIOUS MONK. Swapping old hat monikers of The Soul Town Band and The New Dimensions, “Kool & The Flames” was soon rubbing shoulders with LEON THOMAS, PHAROAH SANDERS and McCOY TURNER.
On the advice of manager/conspirator Gene Redd (who signed the band to his fledgling De-Lite imprint), 1969 saw a slight alteration to KOOL AND THE GANG, and the introduction of eighth member, Woodrow “Woody” Sparrow (guitar). Unlike their counterparts from the west, TOWER OF POWER, this ensemble were strictly instrumental at this stage, gaining weight among their growing legion of fans through eponymous minor hit, `Kool And The Gang’ and follow-up, `Kools Back Again’; two cuts from their vinyl debut, KOOL AND THE GANG (1970) {*6}, which also featured a cover of The MIRACLES’ `Since I Lost My Baby’. Woody was soon to drop out due to ill health; he died soon afterwards and was not replaced. K&TG’s rigorous concert schedule – documented on both LIVE AT THE SEX MACHINE (1971) {*7} (recorded the previous May) and LIVE AT P.J.’S (1971) {*7} (cut in Hollywood, California on May 29, 1971) – reeked of exploitation for a septet with only one flop studio set behind them. Nevertheless, their early work-outs unveiled `Funky Man’ and covers of BACHARACH & DAVID’s `Walk On By’, JIMMY WEBB’s `Wichita Lineman’ and SLY & THE FAMILY STONE’s `I Want To Take You Higher’; the latter combining a 10-minute medley meet of ISAAC HAYES’ `Ike’s Mood’ & The RIGHTEOUS BROTHERS’ `You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’.
And with another Billboard 200 breaker, “The Best Of Kool And The Gang”; unfettered that September, there was no doubt that Gene Redd’s De-Lite were squeezing every last drop out of their protégés. They’d added vocals/chants for `Let The Music Take Your Mind’ and the aforesaid `Funky Man’ back in 1970, so keeping in vogue with other funk/R&B acts of their ilk, KOOL AND THE GANG honed their skintight, abruptly angular yet fluid approach with the release of studio follow-up LPs, MUSIC IS THE MESSAGE (1972) {*6} and GOOD TIMES (1972) {*6}.
The combo’s commercial turning point was surely when `Funky Stuff’ splashed into the Top 30. The opening track from 1973’s WILD AND PEACEFUL {*8}, that also featured Top 10 club classics, `Jungle Boogie’ and `Hollywood Swinging’ (vox courtesy of Ricky West), KOOL & THE GANG had written one of the definitive chapters in the book of 70s funk.
Nevertheless, chart action was short-lived and over the next half a decade, Muslim converts Bell & Co had to make do with moderate successes; scoring with Hot 100 platters `Higher Plane’ (hp #37), `Rhyme Tyme People’ (#63), the double-A-sided `Spirit Of The Boogie’ & `Summer Madness’ (#35), `Caribbean Festival’ (#55), `Love And Understanding (Come Together)’ (#77) and `Open Sesame – part 1’ (#55); the latter featured on the seminal “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack set.
Their spiritually-inclined parent albums: namely LIGHT OF WORLDS (1974) {*6}, SPIRIT OF THE BOOGIE (1975) {*7}; with addition Otha Nash (trombone/vocals), LOVE & UNDERSTANDING (1976) {*6}; featuring further addition Larry Gitten (trumpet/vocals) and OPEN SESAME (1976) {*5}, trotted along very moderately.
When West (who died in 1986) and Gitten moved aside for keyboardist/vocalist Kevin Lassiter prior to THE FORCE (1978) {*3}, one was even more unsure of whom of the remaining quintet were pictured on the sleeve shot of EVERYBODY’S DANCIN’ (1978) {*4} if there were still six core originals and the newbies in tow (but not Nash).
KOOL & THE GANG – like many black funk acts who’d reached a musical zenith in the early-mid 70s – struggled to find their place as disco became king of New York. With the subsequent addition of South Carolina-born balladeer James “J.T.” Taylor – not he of “Fire And Rain” fame – and Lassiter’s double replacements: Adam Ippolito and the studio wizardry of Brazilian fusion-cheesemeister Eumir Deodato; not forgetting trombonist Clifford Adams and backing singer Earl Toon Jr., the 10-piece group were commercially and musically reborn with the platinum-selling LADIES’ NIGHT (1979) {*6} and its Top 10 spin-off single. If up-tempo R&B rpm’s were not one’s bag, the slick and soulful Top 5 follow-up, `Too Hot’, was another to bolster the merits of JT.
The new decade brought even bigger success as the group moved further into the emasculated sphere of MOR soul-pop with feel-good anthem, `Celebration’; a chart-topping platter that also reached the UK Top 10. The host album, CELEBRATE! (1980) {*7}, was another radio-friendly unit-shifter destined for platinum status; though `Jones Vs. Jones’ only just crept in to the Top 40.
Not without Earl (producer Eumir a temporary guest), 1981’s SOMETHING SPECIAL {*7} spawned a slew of easy boogie-ing dancefloor fodder underlined by big-ticket items, `Take My Heart (You Can Have It If You Want It)’, `Get Down On It’, and one that almost got away, `Steppin’ Out’. Unrelenting and with Ippolito moving aside for Curtis “Fitz” Williams, KOOL & THE GANG dropped the ball a little via AS ONE (1982) {*5}, though it still carried moderate gains, `Big Fun’, `Let’s Go Dancin’ (Ooh La La La)’ and the UK-only `Hi De Hi, Hi De Ho’.
If fans of their vintage 70s funk heyday had long since tuned out, they certainly weren’t given cause to tune back in with cloying, saccharine ballads like `Joanna’, `Tonight’ and token UK exclusive, `Straight Ahead’; all cherry-picked from the Deodato-less IN THE HEART (1983) {*5}. The conveyor-belt of uptown funk R&B or soft-shoe ballads continued unabated for consecutive Top 10 smashes, `Misled’, `Fresh’ and Cherish’; all from EMERGENCY (1984) {*6}.
The latter half of the 80s were less kind to the now seriously uncool KOOL & THE GANG when the sextet-plus outfit inked a deal at Mercury Records. Although `Victory’ and `Stone Love’ again lavished them with Top 10 shoe-ins, the accompanying parent album, FOREVER (1986) {*4}, received less than enthusiastic reviews; then again they couldn’t grumble with a Top 30 entry and its 42 weeks in the Billboard lists.
Opting to dip his toes into the murky waters of showbiz as a solo artist, Taylor parted company with Kool and Co, and duly released his first of three studio sets for MCA: `Master Of The Game’ (1989). Despite drafting in former DAZZ BAND man, Sennie “Skip” Martin (alongside keyboardist/singer Odeen Mays) as replacements for Taylor, Mickens and Bayyan, subsequent albums SWEAT (1989) {*3} and UNITE (1992) {*3} attracted little interest; note that Bayyan was now re-united into the fold alongside newbie singer Shawn McQuiller.
With their former front man J.T. back at the helm and co-credited on the sleeve-shoot of KOOL & THE GANG’s umpteenth set, STATE OF AFFAIRS (1996) {*3}; note that there was no sign of main man Robert, the ever-fluctuating ensemble were floundering. When Taylor once again made his escape for his fourth solo album, bassist Bell took up his rightful position on the hip hop-backed GANGLAND (2001) {*3}; ditto 2004’s THE HITS: RELOADED {*4} and 2007’s STILL KOOL {*4}. The latter was without Claydes Charles Smith, who died after a short illness on June 20, 2006, and was replaced by the Bell’s youngest brother Amir Bayyan.
As time moved along, Skip departed and was replaced by drummer Tim Horton, who stayed long enough for the EAR Music-endorsed THE VERY BEST: LIVE IN CONCERT (2010) {*4} and a surprise support slot in 2012 to hard-rock gods VAN HALEN. Thereafter KOOL & THE GANG added singer Lavell Evans, who propped up 2013’s festive-time KOOL FOR THE HOLIDAYS {*1}. Of late, the remaining stable alumni have added Jermaine Bryson (trombone), Walt Anderson (vocals), Ravi Best (trumpet) and Shelley Paul (tenor sax); the latter to fill for long-time auxiliary Louis Van Taylor.
© MC Strong 2000-2006/GRD-BG // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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