Kool & the Gang, a group that has been active since 1964, is an inspirational and highly influential group that has become the longest running and one of the most successful groups in the history of R&B and pop music. They have received national and international recognition for their contribution to music and their community, and through highs and lows of their career have become one of the most influential and recognizable music groups in the US.
Birth and Development of the Jazziacs
Beginning with Robert “Kool” Bell and Ronald Bell in Youngstown, Ohio, the pair began to create makeshift bongos out of paint cans. They would clean out the cans, paint the outsides to imitate the wooden texture of bongos and congas, and used them to create music together. When the Bell family moved to Jersey City a few years later, they were able to buy real bongos, continued to play, and started their group The Jazziacs. The group consisted of Robert Bell, Ronald Bell, Robert “Spike” Mickens, and Dennis “D.T.” Thomas; later included George “Funky” Brown, Ricky West, and Charles Smith also known as Claydes.
The Founding Seven Members
Early Development: Performances and Rebranding
The group was officially established in 1964, in Jersey City, New Jersey with the original seven members, who we now know as the founding members of Kool & the Gang. After forming the group, they began performing in local lounges and were weekly openers for jazz nights around New Jersey. With more performance experience, they were seeking to change their group name. The name was changed several times before arriving at Kool & the Flames, but this was too close to the group The Famous Flames which resulted in the next and final change, Kool & the Gang in 1969.
This young group of jazz musicians were inspired by artists like Thelonious Monk as well as the Cuban folk drums, bongos. They were also inspired by McCoy Tyner and Leon Thomas who they performed alongside very early on in Jersey. Other early influences during their early professional careers include Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, who they wanted to be produced by.
Introduction to the Professional Music Industry: Minimal Exposure
After finalizing the name with their producer Gene Redd, Kool & the Gang released a single with the label Red Coach, and later signed to De-Lite Records where the instrumental single “Kool and the Gang”/ “Raw Hamburger” was released again, leading them to become the labels most successful act.
They took the single, “Kool and the Gang” to the best place possible for young breakout stars, The Apollo Theatre. Unfortunately, they were outperformed by Willie Feaster and The Mighty Magnificents. After this performance, the group realized they needed to evolve past standard jazz musicians and become entertainers. Thus began the change from solely instrumental to incorporating vocals and performance aspects such as choreography. The next two albums with De-Lite Records, Live at the Sex Machine and Live at PJ’s, were released in 1971 before the group began to self-produce after separating from Gene Redd and De-Lite Records. Their next album released in 1972, Music Is the Message, was self-produced and reached No. 25 on the R&B chart. They released another album, Good Times, in the same year but despite both albums doing decently well they were not making enough radio contact to be popularized. Both the lack of radio exposure for this album and their diverse music style which incorporated several genres like jazz and rock, made it difficult to gain an audience or receive reviews. This resulted in yet another rebranding, as the group circled back again to develop new ideas and a new sound for the group.
Over their 50+ years of musical production, Kool & the Gang has several contemporaries. The decades included are their most active years.
- Willie Feaster and The Mighty Magnificents
- The Famous Flames
- KC and the Sunshine Band
- Gladys Knight & The Pips
- The Temptations
- Earth, Wind, & Fire
- The Isley Brothers
- The Gap Band
- New Edition
Influences: Impact on the Music Industry
The legacy of Kool & the Gang is an obvious one as they have influenced almost 30 years of musicians and become the most sampled band in hip-hop and the second most sampled in R&B. Notable artists who have sampled them include, Jay-Z, Cypress Hill, Diddy, Janet Jackson, Madonna, the Beastie Boys, Snoop Dogg, and more.
Achievements and Awards
Over approximately 50 years, Kool & the Gang has earned two Grammy Awards including one for Album of the Year and seven American Music Awards. Over the group’s 25 album career, they have had 25 Top 10 R&B Hits, 9 Top 10 Pop Hits, and 31 gold and platinum albums.
Kool & the Gang was awarded the American Music Award for Favorite Soul/R&B Band/Duo/Group in 1982, 1983, and 1986.
In 1982, they were awarded the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Duo or Group.
In 2003, they were given a MOBO Award for Outstanding Achievement.
In 2014, they were honored with a BET Soul Train Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2015, they received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and were inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame.
In 2016, a street in New Jersey was renamed “Kool and the Gang Way” in their honor.
In 2019 they were given the Marian Anderson Award.
Other recognitions include, the single “Celebration” being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and Robert “Kool” Bell’s bass being displayed in the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC.
Kool & the Gang has always been involved in international public service and often had a heavy focus on giving back to children. Examples of this were seen early with their involvement in Big Brother Big Sister, and them being the first to be involved with Color Sound. Color Sound was an organization that taught inner city kids to read, speak, spell, and write. In an interview it was said that they, “wanted to be role models for every individual in the world, especially the children”.
They have also worked with Boys and Girls Club of America, St. Jude Children’s Hospital, the United Negro College Fund, the Children’s Miracle Network, and also worked with Parx Casino and the Universal Family of schools to create a fundraiser for students in Philadelphia.
Musically, they participated in a British charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas” in 1984 which raised money for a famine relief project in Ethiopia. They were the only American band to participate.
- Kool and the Gang (1969)
- Music Is the Message (1972)
- Good Times (1972)
- Wild and Peaceful (1973)
- Light of Worlds (1974)
- Spirit of the Boogie (1975)
- Love & Understanding (1976)
- Open Sesame (1976)
- The Force (1977)
- Everybody’s Dancin’ (1978)
- Ladies’ Night (1979)
- Celebrate! (1980)
- Something Special (1981)
- As One (1982)
- In the Heart (1983)
- Emergency (1984)
- Forever (1986)
- Sweat (1989)
- Unite (1992)
- State of Affairs (1996)
- Gangland (2001)
- The Hits: Reloaded (2004)
- Still Kool (2007)
- Kool for the Holidays (2013)
- Perfect Union (2021)