Kool & The Gang are one of a handful of bands whose music shaped the way I perceive music. They first did so with their early 80’s hits,which were newer in the years I growing up. Their 70’s era music had a similar effect when I was in my mid teens. During the 70’s,the were a jazzy funk band heavy on instrumentals. And with a trade off based collective vocal approach. In the 80’s,they’d turned into a hook filled post disco/funk pop band with lead singer J.T. Taylor. And they returned sporadically with other approaches after that. Each era was its own thing musically. But they were always Kool & The Gang.
With that being my own view on it,it really took me by surprise when reading Rickey Vincent’s book Funk! in the late 90’s that Kool & The Gang were seen by some as a band who’d gone “far beyond devoid of funk”. Opinions are opinions of course. But ever since that time,especially after going online,its a topic that I’ve wanted to explore with different people. And it would seem Vincent’s viewpoint is shared by many people who admire Kool & The Gang. Even apparently among some members. Today,I’m not writing to counter anyone’s opinion. Simply seeking to pull the whole situation together.
The band came together in 1964 when a group of high school friends,among them Robert and Ronald Bell,formed an instrumental group called the Jazziacs. Changing their names to Kool & The Flames,the replaced that word with “gang” to avoid confusion with James Brown’s backup vocal group. Signing with Dee Lite records in 1969,the band actually began to record a series of albums that showcases a percussive,horn based jazz/funk sound that had JB himself referring to the band as “the second baddest out there”,next to him of course.
Songs such as “Hollywood Swinging”,”Jungle Boogie” and “Funky Stuff” even crossed over onto the pop charts. 1974’s “Summer Madness” impressed Sylvester Stallone enough that it was used in the first Rocky movie. The bands 1976 hit “Open Sesame”,an middle Eastern influenced disco/funk groove,actually became part of the blockbuster Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Kool & The Gang’s place in the pantheon of funk and now the disco scene was officially established. One thing that Kool & The Gang still lacked by the end of the 70’s though was a lead singer fronting them.
The same year as Saturday Night Fever, the band released a new album entitled The Force. By this time,the female vocal quartet of Beverley Owens, Cynthia Huggins, Joan Motley and Renee Connell were essentially acting as the bands lead voices. And the male group members,who once shared the leads,often did more backup vocals. 1978’s Everybody’s Dancing,as with its predecessor,was not a commercial success. But it did find the band creating a more pop oriented atmosphere with a sound that didn’t deviate much from their “Open Sesame” era sound.
Kool & The Gang’s 1977-78 albums were two of the most important albums in their musical evolution. Though not everyone realized that because they had no major single to anchor them in the public eye. By the end of the 70’s,Kool & The Gang actually had a commercially and creatively workable sound to deal with. But they needed a hit. And to do that,they’d need a lead singer. Enter North Carolina native James “JT” Taylor. He joined the band right around the time they began working with Brazilian jazz/funk producer Eumir Deodato to complete the alteration of their sound.
Deodato was deep in his disco period by 1979. Especially in his love of instrumental filters and singable melodies. The result of this new configuration for Kool & The Gang resulted in “Ladies Night”,their first R&B/crossover hit in several years. It had a strong funky strut to the groove. And also had a very melodic,singable chorus. The song was a smash,they had a follow up in the slower jam “Too Hot”,JT Taylor was a major success as a lead singer. And next up was their best known pop hit,1980’s “Celebration”.
Recently I learned the band didn’t particularly like that song. With one or two people I’ve talked to citing it as having more of a country pop influence than anything. On Kool & The Gang’s four albums produced by Deodato,hits such as “Get Down On It” and “Big Fun” were catchy,horn heavy pop funk pieces. Album tracks such as “Stand Up And Sing” and “Street Kids” (one of my personal favorites) dealt with lean,mean boogie funk with deep and dirty bass/guitar/keyboard riffing. After 1982,Deodato moved on. And so did Kool & The Gang.
The bands 1983 album In The Heart and its 1984 follow up Emergency showcased Kool & The Gang as mainly doing pop crossover material. Some with a pronounced new wave influence-even to the point of adding rock guitar solos. Still both of these albums contained funk oriented tunes such as “Rollin'”,”You Can Do It”,”Surrender” and even the hit “Fresh”. On their 1986 album Forever,some of the music leaned more towards danceable freestyle funk. But they were now using synthesized horns. And after this,their sound really wasn’t as strongly rooted anymore. Especially in terms of funk.
Many of the strongest and historic bands and soloists in black American music (Miles Davis for example) have a number of distinct creative periods. Some are motivated by desire to grow musically. Others are motivated by desire for commercial success. in Kool & The Gang’s case,it would seem both factors were in play. Their musical sound only ran out of steam when they’d been recording and touring non stop for over 20 years. And that’s perfectly understandable. Now personally,do I feel with all this being said that JT Taylor era Kool & The Gang was lacking in funk? Absolutely not.
To be frank,a degree of the criticism against 80’s Kool & The Gang has some of the ingredients that go into the making of jazz snobbery. The band brought a lot of collective improvisation into their sound. And along with it came a strong spiritual identity and a sexually implicit sense of humor. Often times when any group celebrated for their musically improvisational ability begin offering straighter melodies,such a group can find themselves looked down upon as no longer being artists. Of making music only for the purpose of financial gain. In short,becoming sellouts.
Because of their successful jazzy funk of the early/mid 70’s,Kool & The Gang have indeed seem to have met with a similar fate to other jazz improvisers,such as the aforementioned Miles Davis, who tweaked their sounds to get more people into their music. Kool & The Gang’s music was always about reaching people from the get go. But as it is in life,people’s musical tastes and interests changed. And so did the band. I applaud Kool & The Gang for so successfully reinventing their funk. Perhaps it will be the passage of time that will show more love for the reinvention of the original scientists of sound.