Kool’s Decade Of Funk
By David Nathan
David Nathan talks to Kool and the Gang who are currently celebrating ten years as Ace Funksters with their “Ladies Night” album and single smash hits.
Celebrating their tenth anniversary as a unit, Kool & The Gang seem to be marking the event with their biggest hit in quite a few years in the form of “Ladies Night” from the album of the same name. For the first time, the team — who have become almost an institution as purveyors of rhythmic funk — have employed the services of an outside co-producer in none other than Eumir Deodato — of “2001 Space Odyssey” fame.
Fans will recall that the group — whose first record “Kool & The Gang” was released on July 3, 1969 for those who may want to know! — notched up an enviable string of hits in the early and mid-Seventies with songs like “Jungle Boogie”, “Hollywood Swinging” and “Funky Stuff” and albums like “Wild & Peaceful”, “Love & Understanding” and “Light Of The World” (which included their famous “Summer Madness” later used in the movie “Rocky”). In more recent times, the hits have been a little more sparse although “Open Sesame” certainly put the group back into the public limelight a couple of years back as well as being featured as part of the epic “Saturday Night Fever” movie and soundtrack.
Feeling the need for an objective outside influence — “we’ve produced everything by ourselves up until now” — the gang decided it was time to incorporate something new into their work — hence Deodato’s appearance! Kool (Ronald Bell), Dennis Thomas (D.T.) and George Brown explained how the match came about. We’d begun working in the studio in Jersey — the House of Music (responsible for its share of hits in the last few years too) — and Deodato was working there too, finishing up his own album. We’d never met before and after talking with our record company, we felt that maybe a new approach for this album might help. so we got with Deodato and discussed it all. Originally, it was going to be co-produced with Deodato and John Tropea but John got involved with his own album so the schedules didn’t permit.”
It seems that Kool and co. had actually begun working when Deodato got involved with the project: “We’d written the tunes so he basically came in and helped us finish it all off. We rehearsed on tunes before we actually laid them down and we ended up doing something like 30 tracks all told! We didn’t add vocals and so on to all of them but selected what fitted most into the concept we had in mind. Originally it was going to be like a street opera kind of thing but we changed it around into more of a concept centred around going out, going to discos, socializing, meeting people. Nowadays, people tend to want to go out more rather than just staying home — so that’s how we built the album. It was going to be called “Hanging Out” after one of the tunes but we switched it to “Ladies Night” because that just seemed more appropriate — plus knowing that women make up a large portion of the record-buying public — that helped!”
The group note that working with Deodato was a great experience — he fitted right in almost like he was part of the team — so it wasn’t any kind of strange experience working with someone else. We all felt very comfortable with him, so there were no real problems at all. He helped bring out certain things in our music and his technical ability was an asset. Plus instead of having maybe five different opinions we had just one focal point in him to help put it all together.”
In many ways, “Ladies Night” represents a first for the group for, aside from working with an outside producer, the team were also able to record the album with some continuity. They explain: “Usually, we had to fit recording in when we were on the road because up until maybe a year or so ago, we’d spend nearly ten months of every year out on the road. So this time, we had the time to just deal with it properly, really get into making sure this album would be real good.”
Certainly, the indications are that “Ladies Night” is shaping up to be the group’s most commercial proposition in years, and the team feel that it’s going to put them back on top. So, why the break in the chain of hits? “Well, it was a number of factors. Firstly, it was the musical direction of the group — we tended to be over-creative and we overproduced ourselves at a time when people seemed to want things to be so much more simple. Music’s become that way — people don’t want things too complex. Then, add to that, we had problems with distribution. The company — De-Lite (for whom Kool & The Gang have been the premier act since its inception) — moved to Phonogram and it’s taken a while for the folks at Phonogram to really get into what we’re about. We had two albums out before this one with the company but they weren’t quite ready for us. It had a lot to do with promotion and marketing but we feel that’s changed. Certainly with this new album we can see a whole new strategy developing which should push the album into the right markets and get us back on the radio.”
The outfit admit that the influence of disco when it really peaked in ’78 certainly didn’t help either. “Back then, people were buying every disco record that came out — or at least it seemed that way. Now, it’s easing off a little and people seem to be more discerning. We did well with “Open Sesame” and having the song on “Saturday Night Fever” was a big boost but as far as other things went, we just couldn’t seem to get the airplay that we needed, especially on the last album, “The Force”.
In many ways, ironicaly, Kool and co. were certainly there at the beginning of what later became a disco phenomena with hits like “Hollywood Swinging” and “Jungle Boogie” and they acknowledge themselves just how much they did contribute: “Basically, we’ve always geared our music to people dancing from the very beginning. So in that way, we were forefunners — it’s just that at a certain point, the word ‘disco’ became synonymous with ‘dance’. But we’ve been making records for people to boogie to all the time!”
They’ve also made records with a more mellow flavour — such as the classic “Summer Madness” — tracing back their roots in more jazz-oriented styles: “A lot of people have been waiting for us to do something totally in that vein — you know, a total jazz-fusion album and although we’ve done things fitting into that bag, we don’t feel that the public at large has really become totally aware of what we can do. We’ve been slotted into an r&b/funk bag when in honesty, we’re capable of doing music with jazz, Latin, pop and r&b overtones. Hopefully now that people are becoming more aware of our musical diversity, we’ll get a chance to show all our talents.”
With the addition of a new lead singer, “he’s a guy we met whilst working at The House of Music called James Taylor — his initials are J.T. but he’s not the same James Taylor on CBS! He’s a great guy and we’ve already done some gigs with him — he fitted right into what we’re all about without any problem.”
Kool and The Gang are about ready to hit the road again after a hiatus away from performing. “We stopped doing gigs about a year ago to concentrate our efforts into recording and producing. In all honesty, economically, it’s a whole lot tougher than it used to be and you have to really decide if it’s worthwhile to go out — it’s not like it used to be. So our future tours will be based more around album releases at which time we’ll do maybe a 60-90 day tour and come home, following it later in the year with another 30-60 day trip. We still have material left from the Deodato sessions that we’ll use as well as cutting a few new things that are bound to come up in terms of writing material in the next few months.” Noting that they’ll probably use the same studio facilities again (some of the “Ladies Night” album was cut at Media Sound in New York where all the group’s famous hits were done), the team anticipate that the next Kool project should be even hotter!
The group agree that their trips to Europe contributed to making the last ten years quite significant for them, recalling the live album they cut at The Rainbow in London. “That was really something because the audiences were kinda different from here. They tend to be more intense as far as listening goes. They’d listen throughout a whole song before responding whereas here, people tend to just respond differently — they react during a song — they don’t save it to the end! But we’ve always had a great time in Europe — especially in England and we should be back there in February of next year.” Kool fans, get ready because it seems that The Gang have lost none of their funkiness!
© David Nathan/SoulMusic.com, 2022, all rights reserved