Kool & the Gang, Top 40 Kings, Chuck Formula and Return to Funk Heat
Kool & the Gang have bopped through the 1980s as the decade’s most successful singles band, out-charting all other contenders with 16 Top 40 hits.
But the Gang that has made the Top 40 its steady turf is no longer all here. James (J.T.) Taylor, the lead singer whose arrival in 1979 sparked Kool & the Gang’s ascendancy, left the group early this year to begin a solo career. The revamped lineup--including three new singers who share lead vocals--makes its U.S. debut Friday and Saturday with shows at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim.
With or without Taylor, the time had come for Kool & the Gang to try a new approach, saxophonist Dennis (Dee Tee) Thomas said Tuesday from the group’s House of Music recording studio in West Orange, N.J.
“I think we were starting to get just a little too formulated,” said Thomas, one of five members--including bassist Robert (Kool) Bell--who have been in the Gang since its start in the middle 1960s as a teen-age jazz band called the Jazziacs.
“We had gotten a good formula, and we were working with it,” he said, “and it was easy to do. But a little of the feeling was gone. It was too merchandised, so to speak.”
The string of ‘80s hits has been founded on catchy melodies, applied either to smooth ballads like “Joanna” and “Cherish,” or polished, dance-party funk (a genre epitomized by the Gang’s No. 1 hit, “Celebration,” in 1981) that emphasized high-tech craftsmanship over the raw heat the band had created on ‘70s hits like “Funky Stuff.”
Lyrically, Kool & the Gang avoided anything too heavy or hard-hitting. They sang about fun and romance, or delivered vague, pop-philosophy pep talks about keeping a positive attitude toward life.
“We had gotten very focused on playing songs that would sell and (that) the public would appreciate, more than what we would feel like playing,” Thomas said. “We believe we’re established enough to start doing what we want to do. This will have more substance to it.”
The new approach, Thomas said, calls for a return to some of Kool & the Gang’s early funk heat, and for more heated, socially relevant expression.
Lyrically, he said, the aim is to “be more realistic about everything. Things have to be shown and expressed to people. Music has an impact. Therefore, we have to start singing things we feel are important for people to know.”
If the goal is to leave past hit-making formulas behind, it isn’t to forget about making hits.
“We have to make hits, yes, we do,” Thomas said, chuckling at the notion of a Kool & the Gang that didn’t aim for the Top 40. “We just want the music to have more character.”
Primary responsibility for the band’s sound remains in the hands of its non-touring musical director, Ronald Bell (Kool’s younger brother), who is known in the group by his Muslim name, Khalis Bayyan.
The new members in a 10-man lineup are: Odeen Mays, a singer and keyboard player who was formerly a jazz bandleader in Cincinnati; Gary Brown, a young singer from New York City, and Skip Martin, former singer of the Dazz Band. Founding trumpeter Robert (Spike) Mickens has also left the Gang, with Larry Gittens joining as his replacement.
The next Kool & the Gang album will highlight the band’s transition to what Thomas calls “a new cycle.” Tentatively titled “Everything’s Kool & the Gang, Then and Now,” Thomas said it will include a selection of greatest hits from the Taylor era, new dance remixes of the ‘70s hits “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging” and “Funky Stuff” (the latter featuring Kurtis Blow rapping over the original track), and three new songs--"Money and Power,” “Rags to Riches” and “Strong"--that feature the new singers.
In concert, the new lineup is geared to playing faithful renditions of hits associated with James Taylor, Thomas said. But there will be changes in performance in keeping with the overall change in the band.
“We’re going to cut back on the dancing a bit. We want to focus more on the artistry. We were focusing on so much show for a while. We want to present more musicality to the audience.”
Before the Anaheim shows, Thomas said, the new Gang lineup has had just one live test--a concert last month on St. Martin in the Caribbean’s Leeward Island chain. What kind of grade did he give that performance? “A real bad one,” Thomas said. “It was such a premature show. It was really more like a dress rehearsal. We came back and cleared up a lot of things.”
Playing for keeps now, Kool & the Gang will tour steadily through the fall, when the band plans to record its first album of new material since Taylor’s departure. The “new cycle” has begun, and the group with the impressive Top 40 laurels has something to prove.
Kool and the Gang will perform at the Celebrity Theatre, 201 E. Broadway, Anaheim, on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets: $18.50. Information: (714) 999-9536.
THE CALL/COACH HOUSE: Basing a concert on new material can be risky, but the Call pulled it off without difficulty Monday at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.
The series of new, unreleased songs that made up most of the show’s first hour offered stormily anthem-like rock and fervent themes of the sort already familiar to the band’s fans. There were scattered calls for old favorites, but the crowd immediately accepted the new songs.
One of them, “You Run,” was a fine, sweeping folk rocker that stood out immediately as one of the best songs the Call has done. Before the show was over, the Call had worked in a liberal selection of songs from its “Reconciled” and “Into the Woods” albums.
For a Call concert to have maximum effect, singer Michael Been needs to pump up his performance to a scale suited to the band’s big-scale sound and lyrical concerns. That wasn’t always the case Monday. But the Call’s unrelentingly intense playing, powered by Been’s unruly bass and Tom Ferrier’s muscular guitar, compensated fully for the occasional staginess and lack of immediacy in the vocals.
For their encore, the Call returned with a couple of pals. Singer-actor Harry Dean Stanton, greeted by shouts of “Repo Man!” played some inaudible harmonica, then turned in creditable lead vocals on Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and Chuck Berry’s “C’est la Vie.” Garth Hudson, the Band’s keyboardist who helped bring attention to the Call by playing on their early records, played accordion and lent some Cajun-style spunk to “C’est la Vie.”
NEW SERIES: The Bell Jar and Black Daphne will play Monday at Night Moves, starting a series of Monday night showcase concerts by county bands at the Huntington Beach club. Independent booking agent Jim Palmer, who is promoting the shows, said other upcoming Monday night pairings include Exobiota, plus Wood and Smoke, on May 23; Fear & Faith and Smiling Face Down on May 30. Shows start at 10 p.m., and admission costs $3. Palmer, who promoted shows at Big John’s in Anaheim before it was destroyed in a January fire, has also booked some weekend bills at Night Moves: Naked Prey, a Frontier Records band from Arizona, along with Hard as Nails, Cheap as Dirt and the Midnight Specials on May 21; Mind Over 4, the Nymphs, Burning Tree and Lost Dog on June 3; Thelonious Monster on June 4 and T.S.O.L. on June 10. Mind Over 4 also will headline May 25 at the Meadowlark Country Club in Huntington Beach, along with the Bell Jar and Don’t Mean Maybe.
WHAT’S YOUR NAME?: Nick Pyzow & the Fire has switched names--again--and changed drummers. The band’s new name is Blue Plate Special, and the new drummer is Gary Deutsch, taking over from Mando Gutierrez. The name switch, the second since the group started out as the Nick Pyzow Band, is geared toward emphasizing the group as a collective, front man Pyzow said. The Anaheim-based band’s first shows under the new name run tonight through Sunday at Perqs, 117 Main St., Huntington Beach.
Pyzow also continues to play solo acoustic shows. “That’ll be my means of expression if I need to see my name up on a marquee,” he said jokingly. Pyzow said the band decided to call itself Blue Plate Special because “our style of music is not very elitist. Everyone can get ahold of it.”
“But,” he added, “it’s not the everyday plate. It’s been highlighted.”
LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale Monday for two Pacific Amphitheatre shows: the Chieftains on June 18 and Belinda Carlisle on Aug. 13. . . . David Lee Roth will play Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on June 11. Tickets go on sale Saturday.