Before Bluetooth (Episode 1): Kool and The Gang

In light of the recent passing of Kool and The Gang co-founder, Ronald “Khalis” Bell, it only feels right that I start this series by finding out what it truly means to be Kool, and in a gang, but mostly the first part. Prayers, Peace and Power to you and yours King.

Ronald “Khalis” Bell. November 1st 1951 – September 9th 2020

It’s a little early in this post to confess to things I don’t know but seeing as that’s what this series is probably going to be about, I thought I’d get the first confession of out the way early. For some reason I used to think that Lionel Richie was the lead singer for Kool and The Gang before going solo, just so that all of our cards are on the table, I don’t know shiiiiittt. He was actually the lead singer for a group called The Commodores, who’ve I’ve also been told are quite good, but I digress, back to the matter at hand!

A Brief History

Kool and The Gang began life in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1964 as an instrumental band called “The Jazziacs” and were made up of seven founding members, who were all school kids in their teens at the time; Dennis “D.T.” Thomas on saxophone, Robert “Spike” Mickens on trumpet, Charles Smith on guitar, George Brown on drums, Ricky West on keyboards and brothers, Ronald Bell on keyboards and Robert “Kool” Bell on bass. The group would later go on to change their original lineup several times, with new members joining and leaving as they sought to adapt their sound to the times. There career spanned has spanned over five decades and seen them sell 70 million albums worldwide and been inducted into the Songwriter Hall Of Fame.

‘Kool and The Gang’ was the group’s debut album and was released in 1969, reaching a peak of #43 on the US RnB Charts

I thought I’d start with their first album, the eponymous “Kool and The Gang”, and after two songs I realised that I’d been hoodwinked, bamboozled and misled all at the same time (that last one was a Kool and The Gang reference by the way #Research). I know that I said in the “brief history” that they were originally an “instrumental band” but I wrote that section AFTER actually listening to the music, meaning that I went into the album blind with no reference outside of the few songs that I’d already heard. I had no idea that I had signed up to half an hour of instrumentals with no vocals (not kool guys). It wasn’t that it was bad, the rhythm was infectious, and I tapped my feet until they were all tapped out, it felt like black superhero music, something that B.A Baracus would hop out of the A- Team van to, but as with all things infectious it isn’t long before you get sick. I think these would’ve resonated with me more as live renditions rather than the studio recorded versions I heard and after doing some research I found out that it wasn’t considered a commercial success on release and only sold moderate amount of units. The most frustrating thing about the first album is that on the last song, ‘Let The Music Take Your Mind’, they started to sing and my immediate reaction was why couldn’t you guys do this throughout the whole album??

I think that’s why embarking on this journey was so necessary, because my ears have become so accustomed to instrumentals being laid down by producers/beat makers that it’s like I forget that there was a time when people actually plucked every string, open palmed every drum and blew every horn on songs, and that in itself is a beautiful art.

Their sound didn’t change much on their second album ‘Message Is The Music’ but it is on this album where we start to hear the emergence of their personalities and undeniable charisma, the boys were becoming men. Before you die I recommend that everyone listens to the song ‘Funky Granny’, I can’t believe that I could’ve gone my whole life without having listened to it. I’m sure that songs like this were the inspiration for the hilarious skits heard on the Hip Hop songs that normally make up the majority of my music playlists.

“Granny’s not old, Granny’s got soul!”

It’s Not You It’s Me. I’ll be honest, I was a little bit disappointed with the listening experience that I had with the early Kool and The Gang albums – notice how I used the words ‘listening experience’ and not ‘music’. I don’t think that the music was lacking anything (apart from lyrics!), I think my ear just wasn’t able to appreciate it fully. There’s something to be said about “feeling”, feeling is everything and I just couldn’t feel it for one reason or another… I did stumble across some outstanding songs like ‘Wild Is Love’ and ‘Love The Life You Life’ which thematically reminded a lot of J Cole’s song ‘Love Yourz’, or the other way around depending on which on you heard first, but all in all kind of… meh-ish, in my humble opinion. During this time they released ‘Summer Madness’ and ‘Hollywood Swinging’, which would later be sampled by Will Smith on his 1991 hit ‘Summertime’ and Mase’s 1997’s anthem ‘Feel So Good’ – two of my favourite songs of all time.

Fun Fact: According to ‘WhoSampled’, Kool and The Gang are the 6th most sampled musical act in history.

Coming across these songs gave me strength I needed to keep going. I persevered and stuck with it. I knew that I hadn’t experienced the ‘real’ Kool and The Gang yet, and when I was eventually rewarded, the payoff was definitely worth it! The Kool and The Gang of the late 70s and 80s hit different maaan.

James “JT” Taylor performing “Cherish” live with the band.

It turns out that I wasn’t the only one who felt underwhelmed by The Gang’s output before this time… critics had written them off as “uninspired” and “lacking edge” and their fanbase were losing interest, they needed something different. In 1979, over a decade after the group formed, they decided that their music would benefit from a lead vocalist and James “JT” Taylor took on the mantle. I mean I could’ve told them that but it is what it is…

All pettiness aside, I find it remarkable that a group could make such a drastic change to their sound and vibe so deep into their career and it actually work. This is the type of risk-taking that I came looking for when I started this series and I’m glad that I haven’t been disappointed. The quality of music improved so much with the addition of JT, everything just sounds that much more ALIVE. It’s like someone flicked a switch and the group went from a good band to a conveyor belt of era defining hits: “Ladies Night”, “Celebration”, “Get Down On It”, “Fresh”, “Take My Heart”. The most enjoyable moment of this journey happened when I was listening to ‘As One’ (the group’s fourteenth studio album), I hit play and fell straight through a time warp. Just like that reverted back to being a toddler of my mum’s back whilst she got here two step on. “Let’s Go Dancin’ (Ooh La La La)” used to play at every single house party we hosted and I always assumed that it was an African song, it wasn’t until today that I found out it was by Kool and The Gang. If I had to describe this song in one word, it would be “home”. It’s the embodiment of the time period I imagine aunties and uncles are talking about when they come up to me as a fully grown adult and say “I bet you don’t remember me, do you?”. Remember them I certainly don’t, but I do remember the music they were turning up to.

This marked the most successful period of the group’s history and for me, the time when they made their best music after that the group underwent changes in personnel and pretty much became a legacy act. They struggled to adapt with the change in sound as the ‘Hip Hop era’ began to take hold, but their place in the culture was cemented by this time and the living members are still very active on the touring circuit.

This has honestly been some of the most fun that I’ve had writing in a while and I already can’t wait to turn the clock back and go again with another group/artist from back in the day.

Hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing!

As Usual Comments Are Encouraged!

The Best Songs That I Discovered:

Wild Is Love

Blowin With The Wind

Let’s Go Dancing (Ooh, La, La, La)

Pretty Baby

In The Heart