In 1964, legendary R&B band Kool + the Gang brought the party and the funk to the nation from Jersey City. The band’s new album, People Just Wanna Have Fun, was released on July 14th, 2023, and features founding Jersey City members Robert “Kool” Bell and George “Funky” Brown! After six decades of turning out classic hits the world loves to celebrate, R&B, funk, and soul icons, Kool + the Gang, continue to bring the party to the people. Read on to learn about the Jersey City origins of this beloved band.
Lincoln High School Legacy
Robert “Kool” Bell credits the musical education he and his original bandmates were exposed to through the Jersey City Public Schools for his spectacular career. In fact, Ronald (on bass), his brother, Robert Bell (keyboards), Robert “Spike” Mickens (trumpet), Dennis “Dee Tee” Thomas (saxes), Ricky West (keyboard), George “Funky” Brown (drums), and Claydes “Charles” Smith (lead guitar) all attended Lincoln High School in the Bergen Hill neighborhood of Jersey City. In his high school music class, Robert tried out violin, cello, and even the mellophone, before finding his instrument — the bass guitar. Robert cites that experience as the motivating factor that inspired him to found the Kool Kids Foundation, connecting children to musical education opportunities.
In those early Jersey City days, the soon-to-be megastars were seven teenage jazz enthusiasts calling themselves “The Jazziacs.” The music they were making was so much more than jazz, however; and the evolution of the band’s name — from the New Dimensions to the Soul Town Band, to Kool + the Flames — reflected their genre-expanding repertoire. In 1968, the group officially became Kool + the Gang.
Jersey City Celebration
Brothers Ronald Bell and Robert “Kool” Bell lived at a few different Jersey City residences during their childhood years. In 2016, the city erected a Kool + the Gang Way street sign near where they once lived in an apartment above a dry cleaner on Maple Street between Pacific Avenue and Whiton Street. All of the original band members lived in that neighborhood. They’d practice in friend’s basements and play anywhere they could.
The musical ambition they brought to their enterprise was no real surprise for the people who knew them. The Bell brothers were introduced by their parents to Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis was Robert’s godfather. They’d been making music by pounding on paint cans and pots even before the world of musical composition opened up to them.
The band signed with De-Lite Records in 1969 and quickly had their first record release. Two singles on the eponymously named debut album — “Kool & the Gang” and “Let the Music Take Your Mind” — reached No.19 on the Billboard Best-Selling Soul Singles chart. Soon after, in 1971, their album “Live at the Sex Machine” reached No. 6 on the Billboard R&B Albums chart. In 1972, they released their highly instrumental self-produced album “Music is the Message” and the hits kept coming.
In 1973, the New York Times published an article about the band titled, “Jazz Is Kool in Jersey City” reporting that “The six members of Kool & the Gang are seeking these days to do for Jersey City what Frank Sinatra did for his hometown of Hoboken 30 years ago: to put it on the musical map.”
The band got big. Huge. It produced a universally appreciated sound that lifted audiences up and made people want to dance. Kool + the Gang wrote the party soundtrack of the 1970s and 80s: “Ladies Night,” “Get Down on It,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Joanna,” and “Cherish,” were played inevitably at sports events, in bars, at backyard barbecues, and up and down the radio dial.
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While Kool + the Gang went on making great party music, earning two Grammy Awards, seven American Music Awards, and 31 gold and platinum albums, they also became the most sampled band in hip-hop. It’s also notable that their songs are on soundtracks for movies, including Rocky, Saturday Night Fever, and Pulp Fiction (among many others), because the music is iconic, it defines an era.
The band has a new album out this year. The album, People Just Wanna Have Fun, features founding Jersey City members Robert “Kool” Bell and George “Funky” Brown (who sadly just passed at the age of 74). The album was released in July 2023, 60 years after Kool + the Gang began tearing up the streets of Jersey City with their irresistible funky sounds. While their Jersey City days are now behind them, Kool and his ever-changing — but always banging — musical gang continue to bring the party to the people.