Despite their freshman status in '69, they were already R&B PhDs. But it wasn't until 1973's Wild and Peaceful that the wider world started to notice, with the unhinged groove of "Jungle Boogie" and "Hollywood Swinging" crashing into the Billboard Hot 100's top 10. Since then, it's been an unpredictable ride, with commercial and artistic peaks and valleys as the band dabbled in everything from soul-jazz to disco to hard funk to mainstream pop. Both before and after the addition of vocalist James "J.T." Taylor (who joined in 1979, left the band in 1988 and returned for one album), Kool & the Gang produced several classic albums and numerous cross-generational party jams ("Celebrate," "Ladies Night") that remain inescapable.
As radio mainstays and an incalculably influential group, the band's legacy is secure as they kick off a world tour in 2019. In celebration of 50 years of Kool & the Gang, Robert and Ronald Bell hopped on the phone with Billboard to talk about what's happened in the five decades since their debut dropped -- and their advice for young musicians hoping to enjoy a similarly fruitful career.
You started out playing jazz; when did you morph into the R&B sound you eventually specialized in?
Khalis: We started out playing jazz because we were introduced to jazz as young kids -- at five or six, something like that. My father had bought a Miles Davis album, 'Round About Midnight, and bought a stereophonic system and I'd sit there and listen to it all the time; that and Dave Brubeck's "Take Five and "Blue Rondo a la Turk" [from Time Out]. Later on, we moved to Jersey City and there was a lot of different bands around town, and a lot of jazz being played. We started playing jazz and then we started playing R&B when we became the Soul Town Band. We took all the Motown, James Brown, Otis Redding, Temptations, and infused it with the jazz we were playing, along with the funk – James Brown, Sly Stone – and that's how we morphed into the Kool and the Gang sound of the '70s. Then in the '80s we took another turn and got someone to sing and became a pop band -- pop/R&B, disco, whatever you want to call it.
Kool: Back around that time when we were the Soul Town Band, we'd have to back-up bands around Jersey City. There was an organization called the Soul Town Revenue -- they were trying to be the Motown Revue. They had about 10, 15 artists locally, and we'd have to learn those Motown songs they were singing by the Temptations, the Miracles, Diana Ross, etc. etc., and we had to learn those songs. And that's how we became the Soul Town Band. And that mixture, as we went on, formed Kool and the Gang…. At first, we were Kool and the Flames, but when we got our first manager, Gene Redd, we had to change the Flames to the Gang because of James Brown [and His Famous Flames]. We didn't want to have any problems with the Godfather.
So you get your first manager, and start recording for De-Lite, his label. You were pretty young – where you nervous at all when you hit the studio?
Khalis: Not really. We had been banging it out for six years before that even happened. We were comfortable in the studio.