Kool & The Gang: Kool by name...
Initially formed in Jersey City in 1964 as a traditional jazz outfit called ‘The Jazziacs’, by the end of the Eighties New Jersey-based ensemble Kool & The Gang had sold an incredible 70-million-plus albums worldwide, and today remain unquestionably the biggest-selling funk/soul band of all time.
Indeed, having first changed their name to ‘Kool & The Gang’ back in 1969 on signing to then-manager Gene Redd’s De-Lite Records, the group enjoyed their first run of major success in the early-to-mid Seventies via such critically-acclaimed albums as 1973’s ‘Wild & Peaceful’; 1974’s ‘Light Of The Worlds’; and 1975’s ‘Spirit Of The Boogie’ regularly hitting the US R&B Top Ten - and spawning classic funk smashes like ‘Funky Stuff’, ‘Jungle Boogie’ and ‘Hollywood Swinging’ along the way.
Meanwhile, adapting their harder funk sound to suit the then-rapidly-emerging disco market, the mid-to-late Seventies found The Gang releasing more dance-flavoured albums like ‘Everybody’s Dancin’’ - with 1977’s ‘Open Sesame’ in particular prestigiously earning them two Grammy Awards and its title track later going on to appear on 1978’s world-conquering’ Saturday Night Fever’ disco soundtrack.
Nevertheless, with musical tastes changing yet again, late 1978 found an ever-resilient Kool & The Gang evolving once more by hiring - for the first time - a permanent lead-singer/frontman, in the form of handsome, smooth-sounding Hackensack, New Jersey schoolteacher James ‘J.T.’ Taylor. A move which brought immediate rewards with the 1979 release of their ‘Ladies Night’ album (and its chart-topping title-track single) providing the band with their first taste of international pop success.
All of which in turn marked the start of a hugely-successful eight-year run which would see the rejuvenated Kool & The Gang establish themselves as an unstoppable international funk/pop force via such enduring bona fide global smashes as 1980’s chart-topping ‘Celebration’; 1982’s ‘Get Down On It’; 1983’s ‘Joanna’; and 1984’s ‘Cherish’ pioneering a string of multi-million-selling albums like 1980’s ‘Celebrate’; 1981’s ‘Something Special’; 1982’s ‘As One’; 1983’s In The Heart’; 1984’s Emergency’; and 1986’s ‘Forever’.
Nevertheless, it was a hit-run that would stop almost immediately following the departure in 1987 of the group’s aforementioned charismatic lead-singer ‘J.T.’ Taylor - with later albums like 1989’s ‘Loved’ and 1993’s ‘Unite’ sadly making little impact. A situation which remained unchanged when Taylor rejoined the group for their disappointingly-poor-selling 1996 LP ‘State Of Affairs’, before leaving them once more in 1999.
Despite their ongoing lack of chart presence, however, Kool & The Gang’s music has nevertheless remained relevant in today’s marketplace through the frequent sampling of their earlier classic funk tracks by today’s hip hop generation (high-profile examples being the use of the band’s ‘Summer Madness’ throughout D.J. Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s international rap/pop smash ‘Summertime’; plus the prominent sampling of ‘Hollywood Swinging’ on Bad Boy rapper Mase’s 1997 transatlantic hit ‘Make Me Feel So Good’). While the band’s biggest hit - their joyous 1980 Number One ‘Celebration’ - has impressively become one of the most played songs of the last 30 years - remaining to this day the theme-song of countless sports teams, as well as being as close to a universal wedding-reception-standard as you can get in terms of American music.
Thus, with Kool & The Gang about to embark on their first UK tour in years (as headliners of this winter’s ‘80s Rewind - The Christmas Tour’) the time is definitely right for ‘Blues & Soul’ Assistant Editor Pete Lewis to catch up with aforementioned group founder-member/bassist Robert ‘Kool’ Bell in his Paris hotel for an in-depth conversation about his iconic band’s trailblazing 46-year career, plus their current touring and recording activities.
PETE: Can you fill me in on the current line-up of Kool & The Gang for your upcoming UK tour?
KOOL: “Well, of course we still have the four original members who started the band back in the Sixties - George Brown (drums); Dennis Thomas (alto saxophone); my brother Khalis Bayyan (tenor saxophone); and myself (bass). Then we also have Clifford Adams on trombone and vocals, who’s been with us for about 30 years; Robert Mickens on trumpet/vocals, who’s also been with us for around 30 years; my younger brother Ahmir Bayyan on rhythm guitar; ‘Skip’ Martin, who’s been our drummer for about 10 years... Then we have Shawn McQuiller, who handles lead vocals as well as playing guitar - he first joined the group the first time ‘J.T.’ (Taylor) left back in 1987. Plus we have a young man called Lavel Evans, who does background vocals and also leads on two songs - ‘Cherish’ and ‘Tonight’; Curt Williams, who’s been our keyboard player for a while... Plus my son - who goes by the name of Prince Hakim - will also probably be with us, to add a little hip hop flavour to songs like ‘Jungle Boogie’ and ‘Celebration’… And that’s IT!”
PETE: So what’s the band currently up to in terms of new recordings?
KOOL: “Well, we just cut a song with Nile Rodgers and Chic called ‘I Love A Dance’, which we’ll probably be putting out at the top of next year. Then also, if you go up on YouTube, you’ll see my brother has put together a promotion-type thing called ‘Real Kool TV’. Where he has little 30-second snippets of new ideas we’ll be working on recording-wise over the next year. Which, though we always like to dabble with the traditional Kool & The Gang ballads, will mostly be on a dance level. And release-wise for us everything right now pretty much starts on our own, new label that we have called KTFA Entertainment. Which stands for Keep The Funk Alive.”
PETE: So let’s start with your early days of growing up as a child in Youngstown, Ohio…
KOOL: “Well, our family left Youngstown, Ohio in 1960 - when I was just 10 years old. So when I was living there I had no real ambitions of becoming a musician. In fact I was more into being a MECHANIC - because of the way my grandfather used to keep us under cars all the time helping him!.. Though, having said that, I can also remember how my brother and I used to get these old paint cans and play them like bongos! You know, if there was some paint left in the can it always had a certain tone. And so that was actually our first experience with music - beating those old paint cans!”
PETE: So what impact did moving with your family to Jersey City, New Jersey at the age of 10 have on you?
KOOL: “Well, Youngstown was more of a country town, while Jersey City - being right across from New York City - was more of an AGGRESSIVE town! So for us it was very much a vibe of young boys from the country trying to fit IN! Because of course the streets were rougher, and you had to be careful making your way around to avoid somebody beating you up! So I guess I became a little more hardcore in trying to deal with my new environment, which in turn led to me getting involved with some of the street gangs of the day! You know, I was just basically trying to fit in - and it was at that time I actually came up with name ‘Kool’! Because everyone in the gangs had a nickname. And, as there was already a gentleman who called himself ‘Cool’ but spelt it with a ‘C’, I decided to become ‘Kool’ with a ‘K’!”
PETE: In 1964 you formed the instrumental group The Jazziacs in Jersey City…
KOOL: “Yeah, me; my brother Ronald; Robert ‘Spike’ Mickens; his brother Butch Mickens... That was the first group that we formed, and we were basically playing Afro-jazz. You know, there was a big Latin Jazz environment going on at the time - Mongo Santamaria, Willie Colon… But then we were also listening to people like John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis... And so our music reflected all those influences.”
PETE: So how do you now recall those days of playing purist jazz in the clubs and coffee houses of New York and Jersey City?
KOOL: “Those days were FUN! Hanging around in Jersey City, hanging out in Greenwich Village... You know, every Sunday we’d go all the way to Café Wha? in The Village, New York for what they’d called ‘Hootenanny Night’! Where we’d play before the big acts came on, and they’d give us a turkey sandwich and some potato chips! I mean, back then we weren’t playing for money, we just loved what we were DOING!.. So yeah, that was the very beginning - and it did give us the chance to get some real exposure! Like once I remember we worked our way up to play at The Village Gate, which in The Village back then was like playing Wembley! You know, if you made it from Café Wha? To The Village Gate, in those days you were big-time!”
PETE: So how did you then gradually evolve from a jazz purist outfit to a more street-oriented funk band?
KOOL: “After the whole Jazziacs experience we got involved with an organisation in Jersey City called Soul Town. They were basically following, and modelling themselves on, Motown. And so, through working with them, we became the back-up band for a lot of the local talent around Jersey City. Which meant we had to learn the hit records of the time. Because some guys there were trying to sound like James Brown; other groups were singing hits by The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, Diana Ross & The Supremes… And so, because we had to back all these people up, we started mixing the popular R&B and funk with what we were already doing ourselves on the jazzier side... Which eventually saw us starting to create a sound that later became ‘the Kool & The Gang sound’. Which was a mixture of R&B and jazz and funk.”
PETE: And how did you eventually, in 1969, come to re-name yourselves ‘Kool & The Gang’?
KOOL: “After we’d left the whole Soul Town thing there was this club we used to play at in Newark, New Jersey called The Blue Note. And one of the MCs working at the club would always be calling out my name - like ‘Hey man, that’s Kool on bass!’… Then one night, in 1968, we got to the club and, as we weren’t with Soul Town anymore, he came up with this idea of renaming us ‘Kool & The Flames’ - you know, playing on the whole ‘cool as ice/playing with fire’-type thing. So we agreed. But then, when we went to our first manager - Gene Redd - we suddenly realised James Brown’s group at the time was called ‘The Famous Flames’! So, because we didn’t want a problem with The Godfather, we were like ‘Well, let’s change the name!’!.. So, as we were getting ready to record our first record, we thought up numerous names we could call ourselves. But, because we couldn’t really come up with anything, we were like ‘Let’s just call ourselves Kool & The Gang!’!.. You know, because the sound we had had a rough, hard-edged street sort of feel, we felt it suited us... And that right there was the birth of Kool & The Gang!”
PETE: After signing to De-Lite Records in 1969, the early-to-mid Seventies saw you achieve consistent success on the US R&B charts with acclaimed albums like 1973’s ‘Wild & Peaceful’ and 1974’s ‘Light Of The Worlds’; plus classic funky hit singles like ‘Jungle Boogie’ and ‘Hollywood Swinging’…
KOOL; “Oh, that was a very interesting time. Because it was the beginning of our career, in terms of going and out and playing and touring and travelling outside of just Jersey City and New York. You know, we were now hitting Washington, Philadelphia, Virginia - and lots of OTHER territories with our music. And so our popularity began to grow, particularly on the East Coast and the South East - to where we were playing with groups like War, Ohio Players and Graham Central Station, as well as making quite a mark on the college circuit.”
PETE: So what was the thinking behind you ultimately moving away from the harder funk/R&B and into a more commercial disco-funk vibe in the late-Seventies?
KOOL: “Well what happened was, during the mid-Seventies - when we were doing the funkier songs like ‘Funky Stuff’ and ‘Hollywood Swinging’ - disco music started becoming more and more popular. You know, you had Donna Summer, the MFSB band, Barry White… And so we tried to fit into that scene for a minute with an album called ‘Everybody’s Dancin’’, and then also our (1977-released) track ‘Open Sesame’ went on to become a part of the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack. Which in turn got us into the whole massive Bee Gees/John Travolta scene of the day. So things were kinda rollin’ on that front. But then the so-called ‘anti-disco’ movement started happening in The States, which made us feel we needed to make ANOTHER change. Which is how we eventually came up with a more mainstream, poppier take on the funk-disco thing with the 1979 ‘Ladies Night’ album.”
PETE: The ‘Ladies Night’ album also saw you making an important line-up change, in that it found you - for the first time - bringing on board a straight-up lead-singer/frontman in the form of Hackensack, New Jersey’s James ‘J.T.’ Taylor…
KOOL: “As I say, we felt at the time we needed to make a change. And what happened was, Dick Griffey - who, in addition to heading Solar Records, was also a promoter - came up to us after a show where we’d opened for The Jacksons. He was like ‘Listen! You guys are great! You’re funky, you’ve got your thing going... But you guys need a FRONT man! You need a lead SINGER!’… And so we were like ‘You know what? You got a POINT there, Dick!’... Because at that time you had The Commodores with Lionel Richie, you had Earth, Wind & Fire with Philip Bailey and Maurice White... So it was at that point we decided to look for a lead singer! And it just so happened that the owner of The House Of Music - the studio where we were recording - knew ‘J.T’. So he introduced him to us, we auditioned him... And then everything else became HISTORY - because he fitted right in with the songs we were about to do with our new producer (Brazilian jazz/pop maestro) Eumir Deodato, like ‘Ladies Night’ and ‘Too Hot’.”
PETE: Bringing ‘J.T.’ on board with the chart-topping 1979 ‘Ladies Night’ single and album project significantly marked the start of an eight-year run of multi-million-selling, worldwide mainstream success. Which saw songs like ‘Celebration’, ‘Get Down On It’, ‘Joanna’ and ‘Cherish’ elevate Kool & the Gang to bona fide global supergroup status…
KOOL: “Yeah, ‘Ladies Night’ definitely marked the start of a very successful time period for us. You know, it was the first record where we featured a lead singer and it kinda put us on whole other level. Because, while we’d had Number One records before on the R&B stage, ‘Ladies Night’ took us all the way to the Top Five on the POP charts! And that in turn prepared us for a year later, when we released ‘Celebration’ - a Number One song that happened to just grab the WHOLE WORLD! I mean, to have a once-in-a-lifetime song like that was just PHENOMENAL!”
PETE: So how do you now recall those heady days of pan-global success in the early and mid-Eighties, which resulted in you selling over 70 million albums worldwide?
KOOL: “Well, we had a helluva schedule! But it was definitely also a lotta FUN! Because we were travelling to a lot of places we hadn’t been to before with the music, working hard on the performances to make sure we did a great show for our fans... And I guess it was also a learning experience too, in terms of making sure we handled the BUSINESS side of it all. You know, I got more involved in dealing with the record companies, the promotion, the radio stations... As well as setting up the right team in terms of having a good accountant and good lawyers - to make sure we watched our money, paid our taxes... Because we ALL become victims of that! You know, when you’re having those big hits and you’re constantly running around all over the globe, sometimes you do forget about the financial side.”
PETE: Your run of global success pretty much ended with James ‘J.T.’ Taylor leaving the group in 1987. What was the story behind his departure?
KOOL: “The first time ‘J.T.’ left he basically just wanted to venture out on his own. You know, he had some issues with our management, he wanted to try something different… Plus you have to remember, at that time there were other front-men who’d ventured out and done very well with their solo careers - like Lionel Richie had left The Commodores, Michael Jackson had left the Jackson family… And so I guess ‘J.T.’ felt ‘Hey, I can do it too!’!... And that’s really all it was.”
PETE: ‘J.T.’ then rejoined the group in 1995 for the disappointingly-poor-selling 1996 ‘State Of Affairs’ album, before leaving again in 1999. Since which time Kool & The Gang has basically reverted to being the kind of group they were during the late-Sixties and Seventies - an all-playing/all-singing band without an identifiable front-man…
KOOL: “We decided to get back together again with ‘J.T.’ in ’95 after agreeing that he could be a part of the group ALONGSIDE his solo career. You know, ‘You can still be a part of Kool & The Gang AND do solo projects’... And for a while we thought that was the road we were all heading down. But, though for the first couple of years it was fine, by ’99 he was wanting to do it all on his OWN again! So, though we tried, the second time around it just didn’t work OUT! He left again, and so from there we kind of decided to go back to how we STARTED! And what I mean by that is, though the Eighties saw us adopting the ‘band-with-a-lead-singer’ concept, when we started in the Sixties we were just ‘a BAND’ and we pretty much continued that way through the Seventies... Which is why we’ve since brought in guys like Shawn McQuiller - guys who are not just singers but are also MUSICIANS! You know, we basically kinda went full-circle. Which I guess is where we’re at right now - having a line-up of guys that can both sing AND play, rather than having all the lead vocal being done by just one front-man… So for this upcoming UK tour you can definitely expect a high-energy show!”
Kool & The Gang headline ‘80s Rewind - The Christmas Tour’ in the UK from November 30 to December 9. Taking in Birmingham LG Arena (30); Wembley Arena (1); Manchester MEN Arena (2); Newcastle Arena (3); Glasgow SECC (5); Sheffield Arena (6); Cardiff CIA (8); and Bournemouth BIC (9). Tickets from National CC Hotline 0844 888 9991; or online at HYPERLINK "http://www.ticketline.co.uk" www.ticketline.co.uk
Words PETE LEWIS