Kool & the Gang are an American band formed in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1964 by brothers Robert “Kool” Bell and Ronald Bell, with Dennis “D.T.” Thomas, Robert Mickens, Charles Smith, George Brown, and Ricky West. They have undergone numerous changes in personnel and have explored many musical styles throughout their history, including jazz, soul, funk, rock, and pop music. After settling on their name following several changes, the group signed to De-Lite Records.
Their most successful albums of this period include Ladies’ Night (1979), Celebrate! (1980), and Emergency (1984), their highest selling album with two million copies sold in the US, and the hit singles “Ladies’ Night”, the US number one “Celebration”, “Get Down on It”, “Joanna”, and “Cherish”. The band continue to perform worldwide, including as support for Van Halen in 2012 and their fiftieth anniversary tour in 2014.
Kool & the Gang have won numerous awards, including two Grammy Awards, seven American Music Awards, and, in 2006, a Music Business Association Chairman’s Award for artistic achievement. In 2018, the Bells, Brown, and Taylor were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Their discography includes 23 studio albums and almost 70 singles. They have sold 7.5 million and 4.5 million RIAA-certified albums and singles, respectively, in the US.
To help their situation, Kool & the Gang changed musical direction in the 80s in two distinct ways. After several years of consideration, they decided to bring in a dedicated lead vocalist to become more of a focal point to their music. By 1979, South Carolina-born singer James “J.T.” Taylor had joined the group who noted that vocals added more warmth to the songs, especially to ballads which the group had avoided as no one could sing them properly. Taylor also recalled some resistance from some members, and the group of female singers they had used on The Force and Everybody’s Dancin‘. The change in style developed further when the band entered a four-album association with Brazilian musician Eumir Deodato as their producer, who helped them move towards mainstream pop and dance-oriented music, with greater emphasis on catchy hooks and chorus lines. The first choice for a new, outside producer was Stevie Wonder but he was too busy. In 1979, the band recorded and released Ladies’ Night, which became their most successful album since their formation helped by the singles “Too Hot” and “Ladies’ Night” which went to No. 5 and No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, respectively. In January 1980, Ladies’ Night was certified platinum by the RIAA for selling one million copies in the US.
In September 1980, the band released their second collaborative album with Deodato, Celebrate!. It became a bigger commercial success than Ladies’ Night; the lead single “Celebration” remains the band’s only single to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The song originated from the lyric “Come on, let’s all celebrate” from “Ladies’ Night” which inspired Robert Bell to write a song that he described as “an international anthem”. The band developed the song on a tour bus after attending the American Music Awards. The song was used in national media coverage for the 1980 World Series, the 1981 Super Bowl, the 1981 NBA Championship, and the 1981 return of the Iran hostages.
After the release of Something Special (1981), that continued the level of success of the previous two albums, the band recorded their fourth and final album with Deodato, As One (1982). The latter struggled to reach gold certification in the US, which led to the band’s decision to end their time with Deodato as they had enough with the direction they had adopted. They then decided to produce their next album, In the Heart (1983), by themselves with Jim Bonnefond as co-producer. The album contained the US top five single “Joanna”. The song was declared the most played pop song in 1984 by Broadcast Music International. Bonnefond stayed with the group for Emergency (1984), which remains their highest selling album with over two million copies sold in the US. It spawned four US top 20 singles, including “Emergency”, “Cherish”, “Fresh”, and “Misled”. This feat made Kool & the Gang the only band to have four top 20 singles from a single album in 1985.
In June 1984, Kool & the Gang took time off from recording Emergency to perform at Wembley Stadium as part of a sold out summer concert organised by Elton John. That November, during a visit to Phonogram’s offices in London, Bob Geldof arrived to pitch his idea of the multi-artist charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to the label. He asked the group to participate, making them the only American artists performing on the song. In 1985, Bell said the band retained control of their own business affairs, avoiding to hire management on a full-time basis and preferring to hire consultants and agents for each project or a single term. By 1986, the band had scored 14 top 40 singles in the US since 1980, more than Michael Jackson.
In 1987, the band completed a 50-city tour of the US. The tour included the group establishing their own public service program, devised by Robert Bell and Taylor, which encouraged school children to pursue education, giving free tickets to those with perfect attendance. The group rehearsed their stage show with a choreographer at Prince’s studio at Paisley Park. At the time of the tour’s start, the band ceased producing adverts with Schlitz beer because of their new image towards children and that they felt it had run its course.
In February 1988, news of Taylor’s departure from the band to pursue a solo career were reported in the press. The group had discussed to pursue solo projects during the previous year, with Thomas suggesting the band had considered splitting into twos or threes. Taylor was replaced by three vocalists: Sennie “Skip” Martin, Odeen Mays, and Gary Brown.
80s Studio albums
- Ladies’ Night (1979)
- Celebrate! (1980)
- Something Special (1981)
- As One (1982)
- In the Heart (1983)
- Emergency (1984)
- Forever (1986)
- Sweat (1989)
- Robert “Kool” Bell – bass guitar (1964–present)
- Ronald Bell – tenor saxophone (1964–present)
- George Brown – drums, percussion, keyboards (1964–present)
- Dennis Thomas – alto saxophone (1964–present)
- Michael Ray – trumpet (1979–present)
- Curtis “Fitz” Williams – keyboards (1982–present)
- Shawn McQuiller – vocals, guitar (1991–present)
- Amir Bayyan – guitar (2006–present)
- Tim Horton – drums, percussion (2007?–present)
- Lavell Evans – vocals, percussion (2011–present)
- Jermaine Bryson – trombone (2015–present)
- Walt Anderson – vocals (2016–present)
- Ravi Best – trumpet (2016–present)
- Shelley Paul – tenor saxophone (2016?–present)