Still Kool After All These Years
A memoir by band member George Brown and a new album, marking Kool & The Gang's 60th year, are reasons for … 'Celebration’
Whenever I hear the song "Celebration" at a wedding or bar mitzvah, I can't help but head straight to the dance floor. I am not the only person who feels this way. Released in 1980, the song is iconic and a guaranteed mood booster. It's no wonder it has continued to be live on through generations of music lovers and is just one of the many major hits by Kool & The Gang.
The band was formed in New Jersey in 1964. The initial members included Robert "Kool" Bell, his brother Ronald Bell, Dennis Thomas, Robert "Spike" Mickens, Charles Smith, Woody Sparrow, Ricky West and George Brown. In 1969 they were signed to De-Lite Records and renamed Kool & The Gang.
"I still have the same level of joy as I did when I first started performing professionally."
In addition to "Celebration," the band produced a host of other popular (and danceable) songs including "Get Down On It," "Joanna," "Ladies Night" and "Too Hot." Kool & The Gang has won two Grammys and seven American Music Awards. They have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and several of its members, including the Bells and Brown, have been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Over the years, Kool & The Gang has gone through many changes. Today, only two original members, "Kool" Bell and George Brown remain. Together with new "gang" bandmates they continue to tour and create new music. In celebration of their 60th anniversary next year, the group recently announced their new album "People Just Wanna Have Fun," which was released on July 14, 2023 and includes their new single "Let's Party." They are also playing some select dates this summer and fall.
Brown, now 74, has also recently written a book about his life titled Too Hot: Kool & The Gang & Me to share his story and hopefully inspire others to live out their dreams as he has done for the past six decades.
The Audience's Energy
"I still have the same level of joy as I did when I first started performing professionally," said Brown in an interview with Next Avenue. "It's the same feeling. Partly it comes from within me, I am so grateful that I get to still perform. Partly I get the excitement from the audience. I hear their energy before I come out on stage, all these people of different ages, races, religions and nationalities coming together to hear our music."
United Through Music
After traveling and performing all over the world for sixty years, Brown has developed a great appreciation for how music can unite people. As he writes in his book, "Here we are, a group of Black men who have worked hard to create a music power house that has lasted for decades. The power of music surprises me at every concert m the way it can bring people together and show them how much they have in common, instead of the differences that drive them apart."
Brown explained, "When you hear great music, it makes you feel good and that feeling can last for days. My hope is that even after people leave the show, that days later they apply that feeling of happiness and unity to their everyday lives."
Celebrate Good Times, Come On!
What does Brown have to say about their most famous hit?
"We thought the song 'Celebration' was groovy when we wrote and recorded it in 1980, " said Brown. "But we never expected it to resonate the way that it did with people."
In Brown's words, "the song took on a life of its own. It became a generational sensation — older adults to children, they all know the song. Marriage, divorce, birthdays, sports wins — people continue to play and make 'Celebration' a part of their lives."
In 2021, the song was added to the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."
Power of Prayer
Before every show, the band gets into a circle and prays together. "We aren't all the same religions but that doesn't matter," said Brown. "Saying a silent prayer together is how we tune in, how we feel the vibration — it's a conduit to our creator. Nowhere in any scripture does it say you need to be the same religion or believe the same things to pray together. For us, prayer is a motivator — it gives us the energy we need to perform."
Free to Be Creative
"Part of the reason I think I've stayed happy in this business for so long is that I have been able to write and create the type of music I want without being pigeonholed," said Brown. "We have always maintained creative autonomy. We weren't told this is what we need to write or perform, we never stayed in one niche. In doing so, we were able to bring in different types of music fans and grow our audience rather than stay within one genre."
Putting Health First
Although Brown still derives the same amount of enjoyment in performing as he did when he was younger, some things have changed as he's grown older. In the book he discusses that the band had its share of craziness in the 70s and early 80s. He writes, "Pass the bottle and give me the joint. Bring the women over here. Wine, women and cocaine."
Today Brown is sober, lives a vegan lifestyle and is happily married to his wife Hahn, a gerontologist.
"Performing and being on the road is hard work," said Brown. "You are staying up late for shows, getting up early to catch a flight to the next city. It's easy to get burned out if you don't take care of yourself. So as I've gotten older I've had to make healthier choices including becoming a vegan and working out on the road. And even with taking care of yourself, things can happen."
He recalls a performance in Germany where he was having trouble catching his breath.
Brown explained, "I do martial arts and I'm pretty fit so I knew something was wrong." Medical tests revealed that Brown had lung cancer; he is currently home recuperating and hoping to return to the tour when his treatments are finished.
Always Part of the Gang
George and Kool are the only two original members of the band still performing together. "It's bittersweet to still be performing without founding members Ron (Kool's brother), Dennis, Charles … all of whom have died," said Brown. "But we know that they would have wanted us to keep going, keep the music alive and keep creating new music. It's about making people happy and we know that our music does just that."
The band has continued throughout the years even when members decided to leave the band to go in other directions. "There is no hard feelings, people sometimes want to move on or have different ideas and that's okay," explained Brown. "Once a member of Kool & The Gang, always a member."
In an industry that can be very focused on individual success and ego, Brown credits his love of the music to keeping him with Kool all these years.
"We are about more than just each individual band member. Kool & The Gang is all about the music," he said. "It's music people can dance to, cry to, make love to — and I just want to continue to write and perform that kind of music that touches people's hearts."