In 1964, thirteen-year-old Robert Bell, his brother Ronald, and five high-school friends in Jersey City, New Jersey, formed an instrumental band called the Jazziacs. They changed their name to Kool & the Flames in 1967, then Kool & the Gang in 1969 (to avoid confusion with James Brown’s Famous Flames) and were signed by Gene Redd to his new record label De-Lite Records in 1969.
The Bell brothers’ father Bobby and uncle Tommy were boxers. They moved to New York to train and lived in the same apartment building as Thelonious Monk, who became Robert’s godfather when he was born. Miles Daviswould drop by because he wanted to be a boxer. They played occasionally with McCoy Tyner, Pharoah Sanders, and Leon Thomas.
Success in the 1970s and 1980s
The band’s debut album, Kool and the Gang (1969), produced three hit singles on the pop and R&B charts of Billboard magazine. Wild and Peaceful (1973) gave the band three more hits: “Funky Stuff” in the Top 40 pop chart and “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” in the Top 10. The latter two songs sold over one million copies and were certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The band remained productive, with albums coming out in 1974 (Light of Worlds) and 1975 (Spirit of the Boogie).
In 1979, James “J.T.” Taylor joined as lead singer. Kool and the Gang started working with Brazilian fusion musician Eumir Deodato as producer, and they moved away from funk and closer to rhythm & blues and pop music. The songs “Ladies’ Night” and “Too Hot” were hits and the album was certified platinum by the RIAA. Even more successful was the album Celebrate! (1980), also produced by Deodato, also certified platinum, giving Kool and the Gang its first number one hit (“Celebration“), which Robert Bell called “an international anthem”.
Rick West, the group’s original keyboardist, who left in 1976 to form his own band, died in 1985. Guitarist Charles Smith died after a long illness in 2006 and was replaced by the Bells’ youngest brother, Amir Bayyan, former leader of the Kay Gees. Original trumpet player Robert “Spike” Mickens, who retired in 1986 due to poor health, died at the age of 59 on November 2, 2010, at a nursing home in Far Rockaway, New York. Kool and the Gang added Larry Gittens in 1975 from the Stylistics. Earl Toon Jr. was briefly with the group too (1979 & ’80).