Despite two deaths, Kool & the Gang Live On


Kool & the Gang, one of the biggest groove groups in the world, has performed over 100 concerts a year for longer than Robert “Kool” Bell can remember. He was already adjusting to the unknown feeling of a long stay at home in 2020 when tragedy struck – his brother and longtime companion Ronald Bell, known as Khalis Bayyan, died in September. Less than a year later, the group lost another co-founder, saxophonist Dennis Thomas.

“It wasn’t easy,” says Bell. “We are trying to keep moving forward. But my brother and Dennis have been key members over the years.

“Of course, over the last 20 years we’ve lost other key members,” Bell continues, ticking off names: Charles Smith, longtime guitarist, who died in 2006, Robert “Spike” Mickens, a trumpeter who left the band in 1984 and passed away in 2010, Larry Gittens, another trumpeter (2013), and Clifford Adams, a trombonist (2015). This is the cruel reality faced by a group that began in 1964.

As the original players disappear, the group continues to incorporate new faces. “Some of the new members have been with me for 25 years now,” said Bell, enlightening. “New members can also be former members. You have to keep moving. Keep it moving, and keep it groovin ‘.’ ”

It’s a philosophy like any other for his group, which released Perfect union, their 25th studio album, last year. ‘Hold On’ is an ode to perseverance, with a slippery guitar and pretty harmonies, while ‘High’ channels the sound of early ’70s Latin rock bands like Malo – wrapping brassy tracks around a two. not fast – and “All to Myself” evokes the sweet dance of mid-90s R&B. The album is crisscrossed with square, fast rhythms and perfectly arranged brass sections that have been characteristic of the Kool & the Gang sound since around 1979.

This group has had many iterations. After forming in the 1960s, the band – which had enough brass to blend into a small statue – began to achieve success in the early 1970s with funk based on the daring models of artists like James Brown. But where Brown’s music bristled like a closed fist ready to fly, that of Kool & the Gang was more of a happy wave; it was wild but also peaceful, giving way to unhurried resplendent tracks like “Winter Sadness”. The band’s song-ready, party-ready singles of this era – “Jungle Boogie,” “Higher Plane” – had a lot in common with the first hip-hop they predated by half a decade.

But by the time rap started hitting the charts, Kool & the Gang had moved on, creating a tighter and lighter sound, more repetitive and more dancing. They bonded with Brazilian writer-producer-arranger Eumir Deodato, whose rigorous approach and ideas on harmony and momentum were informed by the time he spent working with Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astrud Gilberto, Marcos Valle and Milton Nascimento, among others. (Brazilian influences also added a jerk to another killer groove set, Earth, Wind & Fire, in the 1970s; Deodato describes their hit “The Way of the World” as “a samba with a drum beat cut in half to make it funk” in 2015.)

The late 1970s was an absurdly rich period for dance music: 1979 alone brought albums like Michael Jackson’s. On the wall and that of Chaka Khan Masterjam, while Chic’s “I Want Your Love”, GQ’s “Disco Nights (Rock Freak)”, Sister Sledge’s “He’s the Greatest Dancer” and Stephanie Mills ‘”What Cha Gonna Do With My Lovin'” all hit the mark. tops of the charts. Deodato helped Kool & the Gang streamline to compete in this cutthroat environment. The group “used to come [in] with their songs which had about six or seven sections, ”the producer said. in a 2005 Red Bull Music Academy interview. “You can do ten songs with this one!” ”

The new approach led to succulent 1979 hits like “Too Hot,” in which the brass instruments are almost silent and the rhythm section evokes a blissful forward movement, but Taylor looks resolutely backwards, exposing the end of a high school relationship in gruesome detail. A commercially renewed Kool & the Gang had another eight years on the charts.

Kool & the Gang in the 1970s. Photo by Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images

It is from this period that Kool & the Gang is remembered the most. Sometimes even the hit parade from that era seems reduced to just two songs, “Celebration” and “Get Down on It,” which are by far the band’s most widely circulated singles. But Bell doesn’t seem to care – he happily notes that “Celebration” was on President Biden’s victory playlist. He’s also counting on the runway to help bolster his recently launched line of bubbles, the bottles of which can be found alongside platinum plates behind him during a Zoom interview. “When people drink Cristal and Veuve Clicquot for the New Year, what song do they play? Bell asks. “‘Party!’ So why not drink some Kool Champagne?

The cheerfulness and ubiquity of these two tracks – along with a third, “Ladies Night” – also helped Kool & the Gang land a successful opening for various rock groups from the same era. (Although one can’t help but wonder why the order of the lineup isn’t reversed.) “People ask, ‘Kool and the Gang with these pop rock bands? How is it going?’ Bell said, pointing to recent passages in favor of Van Halen as well as the first concerts of Elton John and Rod Stewart.

“David Lee Roth said, ‘Look, 60% of our fans are women and you wrote’ Ladies Night ‘,” recalls Bell. “’In the 1980s we had’ Jump ‘and you wrote’ Celebration ‘. So, Kool, let’s go out and party. ‘ Van Halen fans weren’t immediately captivated by the opening act, according to Bell. “We’ve seen Van Halen fans say, ‘Come on, we want Van Halen’. But when we got to ‘Ladies Night’, ‘Get Down on it’ and ‘Celebration’ they got up and started partying.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that much of the music on Perfect union hits the sound of these hits, with crisp verses and brassy hooks. “’Good times’ – it’s almost like ‘Celebration’, says Bell. His brother began to compose the album before his death, and it is dedicated to him. The songs are built around uplifting themes, and Bell repeatedly associates the album with their hopes for “world peace” – a dream the band has endorsed at least since “Heaven at Once,” released in 1973.

This track features a conversation between Bell and what looks like a young boy as the band play a dreamy dinner club soul in the background. “What are you doing to make things better? The young voice asks. “Well, you see, we’re sound scientists,” Kool replies. “We put it mathematically. “


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