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KOOL & THE GANG STAYS HAPPY IN R&B; GROOVE

It’s amazing how many music fans--even Kool & the Gang fans, who should know better--are still making a rather silly mistake. They think Kool is the pop/R&B; band’s lead singer.

Kool--Robert Bell’s nickname--is a bassist, not a singer. In fact, one of the band’s problems was that it never had a lead singer until 1979, when it finally hired James (J.T.) Taylor.

“I’m not sure why they waited so long to get a lead singer,” observed Taylor, 31, a native of Hackensack, N.J. “They said they were thinking about it for years before they did it.”

When Taylor joined, Kool & the Gang needed something . The band was floundering. It had peaked with mid-'70s hits like “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” and was reeling from flop albums. The problem wasn’t the music--its groove-style R&B; was as funky as ever. But Kool and the Gang, like countless other acts, got blown away by the disco hurricane.

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“The band had almost ceased to exist,” recalled Taylor. His first album with the band, “Ladies Night,” released in 1979, was salvation.

“They needed a lead singer as a focal point,” Taylor said. “It made the sound a lot warmer. They could also play songs that weren’t so dominated by instrumentals. Before they had a lead singer, they used the horns to play the melody lines. They were even writing songs that they couldn’t perform because they had no lead singer. The music sounded impersonal; using a human voice, you get a warmer sound. Now, they use the horns for accents instead of using them to play the entire melody.”

Since Taylor joined, Kool & the Gang (at the Greek Theater on Thursday and Friday) has consistently cranked out best-selling records. All its albums since “Ladies Night” have sold at least 500,000 copies and three have been million sellers. Its Top 10 singles include “Too Hot,” “Ladies Night,” “Joanna” and “Celebration,” which was everybody’s anthem in 1980. The current album, “Emergency,” one of the best of last year, boasts two Top 10 singles, “Misled” and “Fresh.”

Taylor, with his soulful, romantic style, particularly shines on ballads. In the Kool & the Gang era known as BT (Before Taylor), ballads were largely avoided because there was no one to sing them. But the addition of this expert balladeer has allowed the band to occasionally record softer, romantic songs like “Too Hot” and “Joanna.”

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When Taylor joined, some of the members, quite predictably, were skeptical. He recalled the resistance: “They were saying, ‘Who is this kid coming in here taking over?’ They had some female vocalists singing with them when I came. I don’t think the girls were too enthused about me coming in and moving them out.”

But the resistance, he stressed, wasn’t drastic. “There was a period of transition but it wasn’t that bad; they basically accepted what was happening. If things were going to get better for the band, they needed a lead singer. And I was that lead singer.”

Taylor doesn’t deserve all the credit for the 1979 resurrection. That breakthrough album, “Ladies’ Night,” also marked the debut of producer Deodato, who streamlined and commercialized the band’s sound.

“Deo really toned down the overproduction,” Taylor acknowledged. “Before I was with the band, the guys did a lot of the arranging. There were all sorts of horn lines and rhythm lines running through the music; it was a little too much for the commercial market. What Deo did was tone a lot of that down.”

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Deodato was interested in Kool & the Gang because of its jazz leanings. When the band was formed in 1964 in Jersey City, N.J., it played jazz, reflecting the influence of master sax player John Coltrane. By the mid-'70s, its specialty had become dance music, with the jazz element retreating to the shadows of its style. Though Deodato was intrigued by the band’s jazz influences, he never really developed them, preferring to focus on pop.

Deodato was second choice for producer. Stevie Wonder, Taylor revealed, had been scheduled to produce “Ladies Night” but “he was too busy,” Taylor lamented. “He was working on ‘The Secret Life of Plants.’ When Stevie was in the picture, the album was to be called ‘Street Symphony.’ ”

With Deodato as the primary producer, three consecutive albums--"Ladies Night,” “Celebrate” and “Something Special"--sold more than a million each. The fourth, “As One” (1982), struggled to cross the 500,000 mark.

That was his last album with Kool & the Gang. “We had enough of that style,” Taylor said. “We needed to stretch out and go in some different directions, do whatever we felt like doing. With him, we couldn’t do certain things we wanted to do, like more rock ‘n’ roll.” (Attempts to reach Deodato for comment were unsuccessful.)

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Taylor acknowledged that the producer wasn’t the main problem with “As One.” They simply didn’t have enough time to work on it, forcing them to resort to so-so material that had been on the shelf for a year or two.

“We were having a problem with the record company (PolyGram) at the time,” he said. “We were scheduled to do a greatest-hits album, but then the company decided we should do a regular album. We had only a few weeks to work on it, and we weren’t happy about the situation at all. The album wasn’t as good as we wanted it to be.”

With Deodato gone, Kool & the Gang wasn’t in the market for a producer, preferring to handle the job itself. It produced the next album, “In the Heart,” and the current “Emergency,” with impressive results. “In the Heart” is gold (500,000 copies sold), and “Emergency” is closing in on the million mark. A shift into rock-style funk, something apparently not possible with Deodato, is evident on both.

Taylor never really rapped Deodato and didn’t comment on the reports of friction between the producer and Kool Bell. Though not a dominant figure on stage, Bell is a tough behind-the-scenes chieftain. It was inevitable that he and Deodato would clash.

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Though diplomatically sidestepping any comment on the conflict, Taylor did observe: “You can’t have too many chiefs; it just doesn’t work.”

His tactfulness is in keeping with the general attitude of this band. You never really hear anything controversial about Kool & the Gang. They never do anything naughty or say anything shocking. These are good guys--too good, some say. Requesting anonymity, an executive at PolyGram--the band’s label--observed:

“There’s such a thing as being too squeaky-clean: It’s boring. I don’t want them to go to jail or to get in fights or use drugs, but it would be nice if they did or said something exciting.”

But these guys are relentlessly, unalterably nice. “We’re spiritual, we’re religious,” Taylor said. “An atheist would stand out in this band. An egomaniac would stand out in this band. We’re good, nice people. I can’t see that changing for anything.”

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