At the beginning they were the Jazziacs. That was 50 years ago. Bass player Robert Bell was only 13 years-old when he and his brother Ronald, a sax player, put the band together with some high school friends in Jersey City including trombonist Clifford Adams, guitarists Charles Smith and Woody Sparrow, trumpet player Spike Michens, alto sax player Dennis Thomas, and keyboard player Ricky West. Most of those guys were still in the band 30 years later.
As the name implies, they were going to play pure jazz, but things change. Soul was coming on strong in those years and before long they were known as the Soul Town Band, and they were gigging in Greenwich Village. Robert Bell was known to everyone as Kool, and by 1967 they had changed their name to Kool & the Flames. But there were already Flames, as in James Brown’s Famous. So two years later they changed their name again, and this time it stuck.
That same year a guy named Gene Redd signed Kool & the Gang, as they were now called, to his nascent De-Lite Records label. The band didn’t waste any time making their mark. Their self-titled first album hit the R&B chart, and a couple of singles from the album “Kool and the Gang,” and “The Gang’s Back Again,” hit the Pop chart as well.
Kool and the Gang released two more studio albums over the next couple of years, as well as a pair of live albums, but they really didn’t hit it big until Wild and Peaceful was released in 1973. The album went to #33 on the Pop chart (#6 R&B), and the single “Funky Stuff” became their first Top 40 hit on the Pop chart. I didn’t end there however. Their next two singles went Top Ten, with “Jungle Boogie” rising to #4, and “Hollywood Swinging” doing almost as well, hitting #6.
Their success didn’t last however. By then disco was on the rise, a genre that featured singers and producers and not instrumentalists that were the focus of Kool and the Gang, and over the next four years they were only able to land a couple of singles on the charts. They did manage to win a Grammy during this time however, for the song “Open Sesame” which appeared on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album.
In 1979 the Kool and the Gang express got back on track. They band hired two new vocalists, Earl Toon, Jr., and, critically, James “J.T.” Taylor, a Jersey nightclub singer. They also began to work with the Brazilian jazz fusion producer Eumir Deodato. The first Kool and the Gang – Deodato collaboration was Ladies Night, which spawned two massive singles, “Too Hot,” and the title track. A year later they were back with Celebrate!, the album that included the song “Celebration,” the band’s only #1 hit. You may have heard it at a wedding recently.
More hits followed with Deodato at the helm, including “Get Down On It” and “Big Fun.” The Brazilian parted company with the band in 1982, but they weren’t done yet. Kool and the Gang returned with a quartet of smooth smashes that included “Joanna,” “Cherish,” “Misled,” and “Fresh.” In all they had seven straight gold or platinum records.
Sensing an opportunity, J.T. Taylor left to pursue a solo career in 1986. He was replaced by three vocalists, Skip Martin, Odeen Mays, and Gary Brown, but it didn’t help. Without Taylor, Kool and the Gang were headed nowhere. He returned in 1995 for the album State of Affairs and the band continued recording and touring well into the new century. Their most recent albums were Still Kool in 2007, and Kool for the Holidays last year.