Something Else! Featured Artist: Kool and the Gang

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We were reminded of Kool and the Gang’s rump-shaking joys all over again when they were invited to serve as opening act on Van Halen’s ongoing reunion tour.

Of course, Those Of A Certain Age are no doubt clueless about this good-time, cross-charting group, being as they shot across the party-music landscape beginning in the early 1970s like a tongue-wagging, horn-blasting comet.

We’re here to help, with a quick spin through a series of favorites — though we left off 1981’s charttopping “Celebration.” After all, who needs that wedding-party warhorse if “we’re gone celebrate and have a good time”? There’s so much more to the underrated Kool and the Gang …

“LET THE MUSIC TAKE YOUR MIND,” (single, 1969): Released on the De-Lite De label, this track may have not set the charts ablaze as it surely deserved to do so, but it did warrant enough attention to make people sit up and take notice of this New Jersey-based group — who eventually gleaned worldwide stardom with superb hit records like “Funky Stuff,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging,” “Too Hot,” “Celebration” and “Joanna.” A stirring synthesis of jazz, soul, funk, pop and rhythm and blues directed Kool and the Gang’s course of action. For about a decade there, from the early 1970s to the early 1980s, the group birthed one top-selling disc after another.

Basically an instrumental piece, “Let The Music Take Your Mind” yields a real party flavor. The title of the tune is chanted over and over to a busy beat, complemented by some kind of racket going on in the background. Generated by a super catchy groove that certainly does perform a fine job of gripping the listener’s mind, the danceable ditty further accents Kool and the Gang’s airtight chops. To be played at full volume! — Beverly Paterson

“BIG FUN,” (AS ONE, 1982): Bringing in both fusion keyboardist/arranger Eumir Deodato to produce and James “JT” Taylor to sing lead noticeably smoothed out their sound beginning in 1979, but Kool and the Gang didn’t abandon much of their core elements, even as they were piling up hit hits songs with ease during the first half of the 80s.

The ’82 single “Big Fun” showed that despite a musical act named for the bass player and fronted with a perfect quiet-storm crooner in Taylor, this remained very much a band in the real sense of the word. The groove is steady and jazzy, and like “Celebration,” the whole unit makes it carefree fun (underscored by the ha-ha-ha-ha in the chant). The horns get in on the action too, smartly charted all around the group vocals. Their old jazz chops come in handy here.

Everything about this song and other dancefloor anthems by K&TG ended up with a singular purpose in mind: to cajole listeners to “have some fun.” And it still is. — S. Victor Aaron

“OPEN SESAME,” (OPEN SESAME, 1976): Kool and the Gang had, by 1976, established themselves as a top-shelf funk band who combined James Brown-derived rhythms and horns with smooth production to entice people onto the dance floor. This initial phase of their career produced mainly instrumental hits such as “Jungle Boogie” and “Summer Madness,” in addition to some vocal tracks such as “Hollywood Swinging” and “Funky Stuff.” “Open Sesame” represents the last of this period; its appearance on the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack in 1977 proved ironic, as disco’s rise and fall contributed to the end of their earlier era. Yet the track perfectly summarizes Kool and the Gang’s commitment to danceable funk.

What are the key ingredients of “Open Sesame”? First, take some Latin-influenced percussion to set the beat. Next, add some tight horns that emphasize the rhythm. Similar to “Jungle Boogie,” “Open Sesame” mixes in minimal vocals and a rap, then introduces a pinch of wah-wah pedal-enhanced guitar. When all of Kool & the Gang’s instruments combine together, the result is a serious groove featuring chord changes that reflect the group’s jazzy beginnings. For the full rap referring to the “genie” taking listeners on a “magic carpet ride,” be sure to track down the extended version of the song.

While the exposure on the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack garnered them two Grammys, it also led to a decline in the band’s popularity. As group founder/bassist Robert “Kool” Bell explained in a recent Blues and Soul interview, the song’s inclusion “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.” This would eventually lead to the hiring of lead singer James “J.T.” Taylor, and the beginning of their more commercial sound. But for one last shining moment in 1976’s “Open Sesame,” Kool and the Gang’s funk flag still flew high. — Kit O’Toole

TOO HOT, (LADIES NIGHT, 1979): A song that directly links this band to its humble beginnings in 1964 as a band called the Jazziacs. Of course, by the late 1960s, Kool and the Gang had shifted to harder-edged R&B — and by this point over into soulful pop — but none of their major hits so perfectly recalled where it all began.

It’s also a song, unfortunately, that builds a slickery bridge straight to their demise as sugary R&B crooners, a particularly ignoble end for a party band that never rose to the emotional complexities of Earth Wind and Fire, but who certainly knew how to get a dance floor shaking and shivering. “Too Hot,” which went to No. 5 in 1979, helped propel this album to platinum status, then a first for Kool and the Gang. They were just getting started on that assault on the pop charts, of course, courtesy in large part of the chocolatey goodness of just-added vocalist James “J.T.” Taylor — heard here stirring up the quietest of quiet storms.

Still, we couldn’t have known all that in ’79. Forget, for a moment, the straight line that can be drawn from the carmelized, sax-driven “Too Hot” toward the flaccid balladry of “Joanna” and “Cherish,” singles that somehow sold well all the while ultimately sinking the band a few years later. Ladies Night, starting with its Top 10 title track, smoothed out the rough-hewn fonky edges of this band, positioning the band perfectly for that crossover into white radio. “Too Hot,” jazzy and cosmopolitan, was the concept’s initial zenith — a song that sounded like slipping between the velvety coolness of silk sheets.

This love was so brand new. — Nick DeRiso

“GET DOWN ON IT,” (SOMETHING SPECIAL, 1981): After the “disco sucks” movement forced Kool and the Gang to alter their sound, 1979 saw a different band emerge — one which prominently featured lead vocals, and which favored slicker production over raw funk. The group hired Brazilian producer Eumir Deodato as well as vocalist James “J.T.” Taylor to modernize their sound. As Robert “Kool” Bell told Blues and Soul, Ladies’ Night represented “a more mainstream, poppier take on the funk-disco thing.” That phenomenally successful album began a string of hits with the followup, 1980’s Celebrate, and 1981’s Something Special, which spawned the classic “Get Down on It.”

“Get Down on It” melds the best of the old and new Kool & the Gang — the popping bass and blaring horns recall their 1970s funk days. Yet the slick production and Taylor’s smooth vocals add an air of sophistication to the track. Despite Kool and the Gang’s new sound and image, one thing clearly remains: this band wants everyone on the dance floor, now.

Taylor calls out to all would-be wallflowers: “How you gonna do it if you really don’t want to dance/ By standing on the wall?” he asks. The band underscores his point: “Get your back up off the wall!,” they cry. His inflections on certain lines demonstrate his vocal prowess; when he modulates his voice on the lines “I say people/ What you gonna do?/ You’ve gotta get on the groove/ If you want your body to move,” Taylor turns what could have been cliched lyrics into clever turns of phrase.

“Get Down on It” has so many varied movements, from the chorus to the bridge, that it transcends the typical dance track. Because of Kool and the Gang’s and Deodato’s sparse production style, the single still sounds current. The song also represents the final vestiges of the band’s funk origins, as 1983’s In the Heart would delve fully into adult contemporary territory with hits such as “Joanna.” The “funk-disco thing,” as Bell termed it, may not have lasted long, but with this hit Kool and the Gang proved themselves masters of the genre. — Kit O’Toole

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