Kool and the Gang Celebrates 50 Years Teaching America to Get Down
They’re still not tired of playing ‘Celebration.’
There is a non-zero chance you’ve never been to a wedding, high school dance, or New Years party without hearing the original party anthem, Kool and the Gang’s 1980 classic “Celebration.” And even if you were homeschooled by a lighthouse keeper, you can probably hum a few bars of “Get Down On It.” Kool and the Gang taught America to boogie and the lesson sunk in.
Later this week, Kool and the Gang will receive the Legend Award (which recognizes individuals for their outstanding achievements and contribution to soul music) at the 2014 Soul Train Awards in Las Vegas. The show will be broadcast later this month, all in a lead-up to 2015 when the group will be inducted in the the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Those are meaningful achievements but they’re considerably less impressive than the band’s ultimate accomplishment: keeping the Gang together for fifty years.
Kool had a few minutes to answer some questions about a half century of Gang history, getting started just across the river from New York, and what it’s like to have written the most iconic victory tune of all time.
You guys have been through a lot of musical phases over your half century together. What are a couple of the pivotal changes that stick out? What brought you from jazz to what we know today?
When we started playing in the sixties, jazz was our first love. We eventually got hired by a Motown type revue show in Jersey City called the Soul Town Revue. Basically they paid and we needed to make money. They were looking for a band to play behind singers who were doing covers of all the popular artists at the time. We had to learn all the Motown songs, Stax Records songs and of course all of James Brown’s songs. This is how we learned to play soul and R&B. We were the Soul Town Band for the Soul Town Revue.
When we got our first record deal, we merged some of that muscle we had gained by all those gigs with the Soul Town Revue with our jazz roots and come up with our own sound. Our first single hit the charts. It was a song called “Kool & the Gang”. The single was “Kool & The Gang” and the album was “Kool & The Gang” and that really defined us, taking our love for playing jazz, R&B and soul and making it the Kool & the Gang sound.
After ten years music was changing and to stay in the game we had to get a lead singer. JT joined the group as lead singer and we made the most of it.
What was it like coming up in Jersey City?
There was a slight afro-jazz movement back in Jersey City in early sixties. They had Jazzmobiles back then. Jazzmobiles were concerts on a mobile stage. They played in Arlington Park and Lafayette Park. Some of musicians that came thru on those mobile stages were McCoy Tyner, Gary Bartz and Freddie Waits.
We opened up for McCoy Tyner at St Peters College in Jersey City. We were about 15, 16, 17 years old at the time.
That’s amazing, but you had to be looking across the water toward New York City.
The big advantage to living in Jersey City was our close proximity to Manhattan. We played in front of the 9thStreet subway and then moved to the CaféWha?. They had hootenannies, kind of like an open mic and we played for sandwiches. We were so young at the time maybe 14, 15, 16 years old. After all the armatures played the big talent would come on like Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor and Richie Havens. The village was a learning ground for us professionally.
‘Celebration’ has been a cultural staple for more than 30 years. What was the
most exciting event you heard it played at?
There’s a lot. When the hostages were released from Iran, ‘Celebration’ was played.
That was probably one of the more memorable ones. We played ‘Celebration’ at the NBA All-Star game in Atlanta the year
retired. All of the players came out to ‘Celebration’ to honor Jordan and that was really exciting to see. My favorite
most recent appearance would be when they played it on the space shuttle for the astronauts to wake up to.
Does it ever get old hearing it again? It seems like your songs are in just about
every movie, which has to affect the viewing experience.
‘Celebration’ has been used a number of times in movies and television but I really
can’t tell you how many times. We have so many songs in movies and probably most often in movies are ‘Celebration,’ ‘Jungle Boogie,’ ‘Hollywood Swinging’ and ‘Ladies Night.’ In addition, many of our songs have been sampled and have taken on a second life
in new songs and those songs are in movies and television as well. I think a few of our favorites are ‘Jungle Boogie’ in ‘
,’ ‘Summer Madness’ in ‘
,’ and ‘Open Sesame’ in ‘
.’ But anytime anywhere that we hear our music
used in television, film, rap samples or even video games we feel the same way we did when the songs first hit. It’s really, really cool.
Do you ever not play ‘Celebration’ when you perform?
We play it at
show. You can’t get around playing Celebration. People have to have their ‘Celebration!’
Photos by GAB Archive / Redferns / Getty Images