Next Saturday, Akron’s stately John S. Knight Center will become the center of a formal jam as R&B/funk/pop legends Kool & the Gang perform as the headliners of the Summa Foundation’s 12th annual fundraising event known as the Sapphire Ball.
Proceeds from the black-tie event will go to the Summa Center for Health Equity, which “empowers people to make lasting improvements to their health through chronic disease management, nutrition, exercise and healthy lifestyle education services.”
Though some attendees may be leery of getting their tuxedos and gowns sweaty from dancing — not to mention what trying to do the bump in heels will do to their feet — once Kool & the Gang take the stage and begin digging into four-plus decades of hits, the “formal” part of the evening will likely be over and it will be time to get on down.
The current lineup of Kool & the Gang features the core quartet of founding members Robert “Kool” Bell, his brother Ronald Khalis Bell, Dennis “Dee Tee” Thomas and George Brown along with additional musicians and singers. The group first formed in 1964 as an instrumental band, the Jazziacs.
The group changed its name a few times before settling on Kool & the Gang and officially hit the national R&B scene in 1969 with a self-titled debut album featuring the R&B hits Kool & the Gang and Let the Music Take Your Mind.
The band’s early instrumental sound was defined by big, punchy, horn charts and deep-funk grooves with jazz-inflected flourishes. The second album, Live at the Sex Machine, hit No. 6 on the Billboard R&B charts off singles such as Who’s Gonna Take the Weight. But it was Kool & the Gang’s sixth album, the gold-selling Wild and Peaceful released in 1973 with vocals, that turned the group into budding crossover stars with the hits Funky Stuff, Jungle Boogie and Hollywood Swinging.
The band floundered commercially for a few years, but in 1979, it added two vocalists, Earl Toon and the soon-to-be face and voice of the band, James “J.T.” Taylor.
With the smooth, honeyed tenor of Taylor on board and a new, slick, vocal-oriented sound, courtesy of well-known jazz/pop producer and musician Eumir Deodato, the group became bona fide pop stars. Kool & the Gang had a string of hits throughout the late 1970s through the mid-’80s including the simmering Too Hot and the up-tempo Ladies’ Night, from the platinum-selling album of the same name.
At the dawn of the ’80s, Kool & the Gang caught a lightning bolt with the album Celebrate featuring the band’s most enduring and popular single Celebration. Over the years, the dance tune has become a ubiquitous part of just about any gathering of people who are celebrating ... pretty much anything.
It was played when the American hostages returned from Iran. It was part of presidential candidate Walter Mondale’s campaign. It’s been the theme song of many sports teams and a stadium playlist, movie and wedding reception staple.
Even today, Celebration is covered by hip and happening bands including popular alt-rockers My Morning Jacket, which performed a fairly faithful rendition of the song during its New Year’s Eve concert celebrating (of course) the new year.
Kool & the Gang’s platinum-selling, chart-topping streak continued into the mid-’80s with more R&B and pop hits, including Take My Heart (You Can Have It If You Want It), Get Down on It, Big Fun, Joanna and the ballad Cherish before Taylor amicably left the band.
Since the commercial heyday, Kool & the Gang have been in victory-lap mode while the band’s music endures on radio, television and films such as Pulp Fiction and in the samples of scores of music producers. The band’s classic, familiar grooves have been incorporated into songs by hip-hop acts including A Tribe Called Quest, Nas and N.W.A. Its song Summer Madness was the basis for Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s massive 1991 hit Summertime.
The band continues to tour internationally and took recent jaunts to Cuba, Israel, Kenya and, of course, Europe.
In 2012, Van Halen enlisted Kool & the Gang as an opening act for a tour after lead singer David Lee Roth saw the band’s 2011 performance at the Glastonbury festival and lobbied for Kool and company to join.
Although the tour certainly seemed odd on paper, the bands weren’t unfamiliar with each other’s music. Van Halen used to cover Jungle Boogie and Hollywood Swinging in its early 1970s bar-band days. The pairing worked on the stage.
Kool & the Gang are just two years from their 50th anniversary. The group still has four original members (several other members have died over the years) and is still inspiring people of all ages, creeds and colors to celebrate and have a good time.