Great bands have often had an extended incubation period before they made their full national and international breakthrough. Kool & the Gang were a major name on the R&B circuit and regulars in the American soul charts for fully a decade before they won the hearts of millions more fans. Their earliest incarnation went back even five years further than that.
Our Kool & the Gang In 20 Songs playlist commemorates a catalog that, for two complete decades from the end of the 1960s onwards, played a major part in shaping the sound of crossover soul in those tumultuous years. It covers the evolution of the group from New Jersey City, including countless major pop crossovers and a proud total of nine No.1 R&B singles.
The group has continued to tour with no fewer than four members who were there in those nascent days of 1964, including Robert “Kool” Bell. Indeed, in 2016, they enjoyed their first airplay chart action in a decade, as their single “Sexy (Where’d You Get Yours)” entered Billboard’s Adult R&B Songs. You can hear that song, and read more about it, here, and check out the first in an animated series of the group’s history at their website.
Back in 1969, Kool and co were making their first chart inroads with a modest R&B chart placing for their self-titled debut album on the De-Lite label, and a Top 20 ranking for its lead single, also called “Kool and the Gang.” We then pick up the story in 1973, when the fearlessly funk-filled “Funky Stuff” became their first Top 10 soul single, and a Top 30 pop entry.
That started a run of huge 45s including their first major US pop crossover “Jungle Boogie.” Then came consecutive R&B No.1s with “Hollywood Swinging” and “Higher Plane” in 1974, and another the following year with “Spirit Of The Boogie.” After “Open Sesame” confirmed their emerging profile when it was included on the multi-million-selling Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the group’s oft-changing line-up welcomed new frontman James “JT” Taylor in 1977. Soon, their new era of international acclaim was upon them.
1979’s Ladies’ Night album, produced by Eumir Deodato, saw Kool & the Gang embody the mainstream disco sound, as on the anthemic title track, while developing a smooth soul persona with “Too Hot.” International audiences now loved them, especially in the UK, where they became fixtures on Top Of The Pops and were rarely out of the charts in the first half of the 80s.
That ability to take the tempo up (“Celebration,” “Get Down On It,” “Let’s Go Dancin’ (Ooh La La La),” and then effortlessly down again (“Jones Vs. Jones,” “Joanna,” “Cherish”) made the group one of the absolute mainstays of both pop clubs and radio playlists for many years to come.
In 1984, on one of their frequent trips to London, Kool and co became the only American act to appear on Band Aid’s historic “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” 1986 brought their R&B No.2 “Victory” and their final soul top tenner of the following year, “Holiday.” In 2020, massive worldwide coverage of the death of co-founder Ronald Bell only underlined the place that the group maintain in pop culture. In 2021, fellow original Dennis “D.T.” Thomas also passed, in the year that the current group released the 25th studio album under the band name, Perfect Union.