Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

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Kool & The Gang

Reviewed on this page:
Live At P.J.'s - Music Is The Message - Good Times - Wild And Peaceful - Light Of Worlds - Spirit Of The Boogie - Open Sesame - Love & Understanding - Everybody's Dancin' - Ladies' Night - Celebrate! - Something Special - As One - In The Heart - Emergency - Forever - Sweat - Unite - Too Hot Live - State Of Affairs - Gangland - Still Kool

Kool & The Gang was originally the Jazziacs, a jazz band formed in New Jersey in 1964. In the late 60s they shifted to funk, and in the late 70s went pop, cranking out a ton of hit singles that managed pop crossover while still dominating the R&B charts. It's become a cliché to say that the early funk records are far better than the mainstream pop, but 1) they indulged in plenty of sappy "up with people" ballads even during their funk years, and 2) the band was intermittently great but frequently unexciting in both arenas. They never had an outstanding solo instrumentalist, and their horn charts weren't particularly innovative. Writing credit on every tune was given to one primary writer and the band as a whole, and most often the primary writer was keyboardist/wind player Ronald Bell (later Khalis Bayyan), who in later years became producer as well. After lead singer James "J.T." Taylor - added during the pop years - split for a solo career, the group disappeared from the charts,

The group never had the stylistic and emotional range of Earth, Wind & Fire, or the explosive funkiness of P-Funk. They fit somewhere into the second rank of 70s/80s R&B groups: I find the Isley Brothers more consistent, Ashford & Simpson more sophisticated, and the Ohio Players earthier, but K&TG is comparable, and by far the most commercially successful of the lot. They're more interesting and original than the O'Jays or the Gap Band, anyway. The fan site is gone, I'm sad to say. (DBW)

Ronald Bell (later Khalis Bayyan), flute, sax, keyboards, vocals; Robert "Kool" Bell, bass; George Brown, percussion; Robert "Spike" Mickens, trumpet; Dennis "Dee Tee" Thomas, flute, sax; Ricky West, keyboards; Claydes Smith (aka Charles Smith), guitar. Donal Boyce, vocals, joined 1973, left 1976. James "J.T." Taylor, lead vocals, joined 1979. Taylor left 1988, replaced by Odeen Mays, Jr. and Skip Martin. Taylor returned, 1996, and left again, 2001.

Kool and the Gang (1969)

Live at the Sex Machine (1971)

Live at P.J.'s (1971)
Recorded in a Hollywood night club on May 29, 1971, with string sweetening added later. At this point the band wasn't playing heavy funk - most of the tracks are mild-mannered fusion excursions, with long vamps and plenty of unfocused solos ("N.T."), and sometimes with vague Latin overtones ("Sombrero Sam," which sounds like very early Earth, Wind & Fire on an off day). "Ronnie's Groove" is an exception, a brisk economical shot of funk. Entirely instrumental. Most of the tunes were written by band members; the one exception is "Ike's Mood"/"You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," which carefully follows Isaac Hayes's medley arrangement but lacks the fire - it's a waste of ten minutes. My CD has a bonus track, "The Penguin," recorded for the album but held for single release; it's a serviceable but extremely repetitive groove. Produced and arranged by Gene Redd Jr. Also this year, the band contributed three backing tracks to a Lightnin' Rod album. (DBW)

Music Is The Message (1972)
With more vocals and some clavinet, this is a shift from jazz toward the funk mainstream. It's still rather polite, though: "Electric Frog" (split into two pieces) sounds like a 60s Stax instrumental, and "Soul Vibrations" is the kind of slinky groove that would make good background music in a blaxsploitation movie, wah-wah and all. The horn section is a bit more robust, playing more detailed charts and more vigorous solos ("Love The Life You Live"). Again, all original material except for one cover: a ho-hum version of Thom Bell and Linda Creed's "Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)" (also covered by Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye). The single "Funky Granny" and its titular character clearly inspired the Ohio Players's similar but much funnier "Funky Worm," released later the same year. Produced and arranged by the band, except for "Granny" and "Love The Life You Live," produced by Redd. (DBW)

Good Times (1973)
The band stretches the formulas a bit here, resulting in hits and misses. "Country Junky" is a great funky tune, with powerful horn licks, non-stop clavinet, amusing spoken vocals, and a countrified refrain. The downtempo "North, East, South, West" is fine and atmospheric, showcasing Ricky West's electric piano. But "Wild Is Love" is an atrocious string-backed weepy ballad, and the gospelly "Father, Father" is a weak attempt to poach on Curtis Mayfield's preserves. Ronald's "I Remember John W. Coltrane" is a jazz tribute, with prominent flute and sax, but invoking Trane's name unwisely draws attention to the simplistic melody and easy-listening, Latin-affected arrangement. So while the album's not overwhelmingly successful, it's quite a bit more varied and ambitious than the previous disc. But if you're nostalgic for the lukewarm bass vamp/wah-wah guitar dance tunes, there's the title track and "Making Merry Music," and "Rated X" continues the band's Stax fascination - it's just a rewrite of the MGs' "Slum Baby," with silly synth added. Produced by the band, as were all subsequent releases through Everybody's Dancin'. (DBW)

Wild And Peaceful (1974)
A commercial breakthrough, with two terrific Top Ten singles - "Hollywood Swinging" and the amazing Arabic-influenced funk masterpiece "Jungle Boogie," with mumbled vocal asides from roadie Don Boyce. "This Is You, This Is Me" is a brassy anthem with unusually bluesy guitar that would have fit well on Eric Clapton's first solo album. The less exciting "Funky Stuff" was a Top Ten R&B hit as well, and if you like that you'll like the continuation, "More Funky Stuff." Worse, "Heaven At Once" is ruined by a lengthy, didactic spoken question-and-answer between Robert Bell and his youngest brother Rory. The nine-minute title instrumental has some fine flute and guitar soloing, but is burdened with heavy-handed stereo tricks. Despite the problems, though, this does contain the finest moments of the band's funk period, and is worth checking out. (DBW)

Light Of Worlds (1974)
The band was hip to the previous record's success: "Rhyme-Tyme People" is hard funk much like "Hollywood Swinging," while "Higher Plane" sounds like Earth, Wind & Fire" at their nastiest. But most of the album is turned over to mellower fare that just isn't much fun: the soothing "Whiting H. & G"; the would-be uplifting title track, with what sounds like adults imitating a children's chorus; the much-sampled, synth-led instrumental "Summer Madness." Worst is the painfully sensitive love song "You Don't Have To Change," crooned by Alton Taylor. Mediocre but often enjoyable, with some lingering traces of jazz: "Street Corner Symphony" (based, like "Jungle Boogie," on a deliberate descending riff) incorporates a lengthy sax quote of "My Favorite Things." (DBW)

Spirit of the Boogie (1975)
After less than stellar sales for Light Of Worlds, the Gang came back with almost an exact copy of Wild And Peaceful: the title track (an R&B #1) includes more mumbled frontground vocals from Don Boyce, and "Ancestral Ceremony" even borrows lyrics from prior band hits including "Message Is The Music." "Mother Earth" has more prominent guitar recalling "This Is You." Most heinous is another version of "Jungle Boogie," retitled "Jungle Jazz" and padded out to five minutes with flute and trumpet solos. The CD reissue restores the lightweight jam "Caribbean Festival" (#6 R&B) to its unedited nine-minute length, and I'm not convinced that was such a great idea. "Winter Sadness" is a lovely mood piece, though, arranged by Charles Smith and featuring his mellow, melodic guitar soloing (later heard on "Too Hot"). Otha Nash adds trombone to most tracks. (DBW)

Behind The Eyes (1976)

Open Sesame (1976)
The least funky, most boring record I've heard from the band's early period. I believe this album marked the first appearance of female backing vocal group Something Sweet - something saccharine is more like it ("L-O-V-E") - while the lead vocal on the weak funk ballad "Little Children" is turned over to Donna Johnson. The title track also turned up on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, but it's not one of their best efforts, just a basic groove plus chanting and some ludicrous mock-Arab stylings. The one surefire winner is "Super Band," uptempo funk with outstanding horns. (DBW)

Love & Understanding (1976)
One live side ("Hollywood Swinging"), one studio side, and both are filled with exciting funk, with the arrangements hitting much harder than the early 70s LPs. Even when the material's slightly derivative - the title track's guitar hook recalls Earth, Wind & Fire's "Shining Star" - the pyrotechnic horn arrangements lift it into the first rank. Even the light pop/soul "Do It Right Now" has a stomping sax solo. Not that the record is uniformly great, or even good: "Summer Madness" is an endless synth solo that makes you realize how much better than everybody else Bernie Worrell was at the "space synth" thing. Nash is still on trombone, while Larry Gittens adds trumpet. (DBW)

The Force (1977)

Everybody's Dancin' (1978)
No one ever talks about this record, but it's a comfortable compromise between hard funk and late 70s pop: the title track is an eight-minute extravaganza, adding strings and smooth production to a great hook. "Big Chief Funkum" does for Native Americans what "Open Sesame" had done for Arabs: put comical stereotypes to a huge beat. (For those who don't remember, the 70s were the only period when Native Americans were widely celebrated in US culture.) "You Deserve A Break Today" and "Dancin' Shoes" (which seems like a nod to KC) are crisp shots of funk. Again the ballads aren't much, but at least there are fewer of them ("Stay Awhile"). Then there's "I Like Music"... hey, that's a lucky break: a recording career would be a real drag if you hated music. Produced by Robert Bell and Thomas; Royal Jackson (later Royal Bayyan) and Charles Jay are on guitar, with Smith shifted to percussion. (DBW)

Ladies' Night (1979)
The big shift to pop, produced by Eumir Deodato, with J.T. Taylor on board as lead singer. The two hit singles are very solid: "Too Hot" is a slow love song with a lush sound and a jazzy guitar solo; "Ladies' Night" is an irresistable (if slightly corny) dance tune with a ton of canny riffs stuffed on top of the basic keyboard-led groove. But beyond that, there's very little going on. This record and its immediate successors sound like an experiment to see how much mileage the band could get from an extremely limited set of melodies, words and arranging devices, to such an extent that it's difficult to discuss them separately. "Hangin' Out" uses the same i-VII chord progression as "Ladies' Night," and its syncopated guitar scratch would soon reappear on "Celebration." Overnight, the horns became a background instrument, and over the next few years synths took their place. Again, prominent backing vocals added by Something Sweet. (DBW)

Celebrate! (1980)
The source of their only Pop #1, "Celebration," which is still a wedding/sporting event standard, and it's a perfect dance record: steady beat, fast pacing, sing-along chorus, throwaway snatches of melody, infectious good humor. The rest of the record is well done if faceless pop, recycling the previous record's formulas: "Love Festival" is based on the bridge of "Ladies' Night," "Night People" has the same feel as "Celebration" without the horn riffs, and marks their third song in two years with "Night" in the title. Still, it's the most consistent effort of this period. The divorce lament "Jones Vs. Jones" was also a single, but barely scratched the Top Forty. (DBW)

Something Special (1981)
The terrific "Get Down On It" was a hit, relaxed funk with crosstalking guitars over a pulsing bass synth, and "Take My Heart (You Can Have It If You Want It)" went to #1 R&B. There's also more catchy if overfamiliar uptempo material ("Be My Lady"), and the midtempo lovefeast "Pass It On" - corny, but in the Stevie Wonder can't-hold-it-against-them way. However, there's a surfeit of boring ballads ("No Show"), and the reused production gimmicks are wearing very thin (that staccato rhythm scratch returns on the pleasant but instantly forgettable "Stand Up And Sing"). About the biggest stretch is "Steppin' Out" (a catchphrase previously heard in "Ladies' Night"), where Taylor sings falsetto, vocal and melody recalling Marvin Gaye's "Got To Give It Up." The album captures the band's strengths and weaknesses just about equally. (DBW)

As One (1982)
The sly, reggae-influenced "Let's Go Dancing (Ooh, La, La, La)" was a hit single, deservedly so. But nothing else on the record is really worth hearing. The band finally dropped the rhythm guitar figure and lyrical conventions of the past three records, but didn't replace them with anything, so you get lots of undistinguished AM mush. Synths are more noticeable not because they're particularly prominent, but because there's nothing else to hold your attention. The songwriting's also taken a step or two back, so the fast numbers ("Street Kids," where Taylor's main insight into 80s youth is that they played a lot of video games; "Big Fun," a single) and ballads (title track) are probably the least rewarding of their career thus far. However, the otherwise negligible "Hi De Ho" has a fine funk bass line - generally Kool's playing is shockingly low-key considering the band is named for him. Produced by Deodato in his last tour of duty with the group. (DBW)

In The Heart (1983)
Deodato was replaced by Jim Bonnefond (producing with Ronald Bell and the band), and the hits returned: The sappy love song "Joanna" soared to #2 (#1 R&B), and the guitar-heavy followup "Tonight" (their third song in five years with "Tonight" in the title) went Top Ten R&B, Top Twenty Pop. With the rapid fade of Earth, Wind & Fire, K&TG had become the nation's top-selling black group. The rest of the album is thin but a bit better than As One: "Straight Ahead" is another uptempo dance track rather like "Tonight," "Rollin'" is pure horn-driven funk, and "September Love" is one of their better ballads. On the other hand, the sentimentality is overwhelming, from the bright "You Can Do It" to the slower "Home Is Where The Heart Is" and the title track. (DBW)

Emergency (1984)
With the horns a distant memory, most of the cuts are underdone Cameo-like synth-funk ("Surrender," the seven-minute bore "You Are The One") or synth-ballads ("Bad Woman"). Rock guitars (played by Rick Iantosca) resurfaced on the title track and - more prominently - on the Top Ten hit "Misled," a syncopated hook-fest that's one of the very best K&TG songs from this period. The feel-good anthem "Cherish" is in the band's standard 80s style, while "Fresh" is barely a song at all - just an endlessly repeated falsetto catchphrase, with echoey synth backing - both were #1 R&B and Top Ten Pop. Far from great, but different enough from the surrounding records to be worth picking up cheap. (DBW)

Forever (1986)
Ronald Bell started using the name Khalis Bayyan (apparently he'd changed his name years before, but was still using his birth name professionally), and became the sole producer. Synth-heavy and bland like Emergency, only more so: you'll have to strain to hear any brass at all. The synth ballads are incredibly hackneyed (title track), and the lyrics reach a new low on the sappy love song "Special Way." The only bright spot is "Holiday," a fair approximation of the Minneapolis Sound, and even that is no great shakes. Both the cheesy uptempo "Victory" and the ballad "Stone Love" (indebted to Ashford & Simpson's "Solid") hit the Top Ten. Not as annoying as 1993's Unite, but much duller. J.T. Taylor went solo after this release. (DBW)

Sweat (1989)
Without Taylor or Khalis Bayyan, on a new label (Mercury), the band suddenly couldn't give its records away. Partly that's because they now had no distinctive sound: in shifting to synths instead of rhythm guitar scratching and horns, they sounded like every other pop/funk band, and new singers Odeen Mays and Skip Martin have a double dose of Taylor's slickness with none of his charisma. (Incidentally, Martin keeps up the Stevie Wonder impression he was doing with the Dazz Band.) But that's only part of the problem: the song material is uniformly terrible, either clattering synthesized noisefests ("I Swet" by Royal Bayyan; "All She Wants To Do Is Dance" - not the Robert Palmer tune) or soulless programmed weepfests ("This Is What A Love Can Do"; "Raindrops"). Royal Bayyan produced a couple of tunes, and the bathetic "You Are The Meaning Of Friend" was produced by Smith and the band; the rest of the tracks were overseen by either Curtis B. Boy Williams, Nick Martinelli or Chuckii Booker. (DBW)

Master Of The Game (James "J.T." Taylor: 1989)

Feel The Need (James "J.T." Taylor: 1991)

Unite (1993)
Khalis Bayyan returned, and apparently decided he could do the programmed drum/synth thing as well as the younger generation, but he was wrong. His hypermodern production is overeager and in-your-face, with crashing snares and ill-advised raps ("Brown"), and so the songs with good hooks are just bearable ("Dance," the laid-back near-instrumental "Summer") and the filler tracks are really annoying ("Pretty Little Sexy Miss"). Bayyan pushes his luck with seven dull link tracks ("WKOOL"). No hits again, and since there are none of the band's distinguishing mannerisms, it's no fun for fans either. There are a couple of decent ballads: the simple love song "Better Late Than Never," with an over-the-top, Stevie-influenced vocal from Martin (he and Mays again split the leads), and "My Search Is Over," with a well-used string section. (DBW)

Baby I'm Back (James "J.T." Taylor: 1993)

Too Hot Live (rec. 1994, rel 2002)
This isn't the only example of a latter-day band lineup catastrophically ruining a set of classic tunes, but it's the worst one I've heard yet. The group seems bent on getting the show over with as quickly and cheaply as possible, as everything's played too fast and the critical horn parts are replaced by bland synth. Guitarist Charles Smith is the only player who doesn't seem to be going through the motions, but you can hardly hear him, as only drums and lead vocals are clear in the sound mix. They rush through the great boogie tunes - "Hollywood Swinging," "Get Down On It," "Ooh La La La" - while the ballads are simultaneously overblown and drained of all life: a tacky, seven-minute "Too Hot" is the worst offender. The cut-rate live release doesn't list recording date, location or players, but based on internal references I'm guessing 1994 - the grandstanding vocalists do sound like Martin and Mays - somewhere in Australia. (DBW)

State Of Affairs (1996)
Taylor rejoined the group for this record, writing and producing with Bayyan, and though it didn't make a difference commercially, artistically it's a substantial rebound. Some of the songs fall into the same hi-tech trap as Unite, including the single "Salute To The Ladies," but electronic percussion is more subtly integrated into pleasant tunes like the ballad "Second Thoughts" and the bouncy dance number "Life In The 90s." The lyrics are more political than usual, with concerns ranging from racism ("Color Line") to urban life ("In The Hood") to backstabbing in the black community ("Crabs In A Barrel"). There are too many toothless tracks like "Game Of Love" and "My Body," but with Taylor's voice front and center on tuneful songs like "Woman, Lover, Friend," this is worth a listen for fans of the early 80s pop period. After this release, Taylor left the group again. (DBW)

A Brand New Me (James "J.T." Taylor: 2000)

Gangland (2001)
More a remix project than a new release, and by those low standards it's not bad. Mostly unknown rappers and singers, backed by the Gang, remaking K&TG classics: Chad Live and Devon's "All My Time" is really "Too Hot," "Jungle Boogie" is reworked three times ("Where Da Boogie At?," "Concrete Jungle," "Jungle In My House"), etc. Things really gets weird when female vocal quartet SX4 remake the Gap Band's "Early In The Morning," and when Kool & The Gang perform a straight jazz improvisation, "Jazziacs At The Kool Jazz Cafe." There's only a tiny bit of original material, and it's terrible: Reign's "Goody Goody," cheesy pop-soul much like the Lisette Melendez song of the same name; Too Hot All-Stars' obvious "Money Makes The World Go Round." SX4's New Jill Swing version of "Cherish" is nothing to brag about either. So you're much better off with the original recordings, but I have to admit that the album is quite listenable, because the band's hits are so durable ("Bigg Thangs") - I'd feel comfortable spinning about half these tracks at a dance party. Three of the singers are second-generation Gangsters - NOVA ("Blow Up") is Charles Smith's son, Da Prince Hakim is Kool Bell's, and Rachid is Khalis Bayyan's - while Funk-Kin ("Funk Done Gone Hip Hop") features two children of P-Funker Gary Shider. (DBW)

Still Kool (2007)
I wonder if it's freeing to make an album when you know almost no one is listening? The chances that this would generate significant sales were nil, but it's a carefully conceived and solidly performed effort. It's generally in the band's 80s Adult Contemporary Soul mold, heavy on love songs ("Made For Love") and uplift ("Everything's Gonna Change"). But the funkier tunes sound authentic as well (the clavinet-powered "Bang Bang With The Gang"), and there are small surprises throughout: the guitar soloing throughout the opener "Dave"; a Latin vibe on "Give It Up." A couple of covers: the yacht rock-goes-Smooth Jazz "Sailing" is a waste of time, but "What's Happening Brother" captures the album's mood of forward-looking nostalgia, besides pointing up the timeless of Gaye's tune. (DBW)

Kool For The Holidays (2013)
Yep, a Christmas album. (DBW)

Let's go dancin'.

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