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Classic Tracks: Kool & The Gang’s “Celebration”

When's the last time you heard Kool & The Gang's triumphal, anthemic, R&B smash "Celebration"? At your cousin's wedding last summer?

When’s the last time you heard Kool & The Gang’s triumphal, anthemic, R&B smash “Celebration”? At your cousin’s wedding last summer? After that stirring fourth-quarter victory at the stadium last Sunday? On your local oldies station yesterday? On the soundtrack of your Toy Story 2 DVD? Decades after it hit the top of the pop and R&B charts, “Celebration” is still ubiquitous, a true modern “standard” that seems to appeal to nearly every demographic group. “Celebration” was the biggest of the dozens of hits churned out by the New Jersey-based Kool & The Gang between 1969 and today, but it only represents one of the many styles this group of musical chameleons has tried through the years.

Back at Lincoln High in Jersey City in 1964, Ronald and Robert Bell, the sax- and bass-playing sons of a one-time associate of Thelonious Monk, formed a jazz combo called The Jazziacs with some friends. The Jazziacs were good enough to earn gigs with the likes of Pharoah Sanders and Leon Thomas (both of whom also jammed with the group), but as the ’60s went on and the group assimilated influences ranging from Sly & The Family Stone to James Brown, their music took a more R&B and funk turn. This led to a series of name changes, from the Soul Town Review to the New Dimensions to, in 1968, Kool & The Gang. “Kool” was Robert Bell, though Ronald Bell was the musical leader of the group. In 1969, on the basis of their tight live act, they were signed by Gene Redd’s then-new De-Lite Records, and their first record, a funky instrumental called “Kool and The Gang,” became a substantial hit.

kool and the gang - celebration

Through the early ’70s, Kool & The Gang continued to pepper the charts with minor hits, such as “Funky Man,” “Let the Music Take Your Mind” and even a version of Sly’s “I Want to Take You Higher.” But their big breakthrough came at the end of 1973, when “Jungle Boogie” hit the Top 5 and went Gold. They still played some jazzy instrumentals, but the focus of their sound had changed. For the next two years, they had one hit after another on the upper reaches of the R&B charts, including the Number-One songs “Hollywood Swinging,” “Higher Plane” and “Spirit of the Boogie.” Their fortunes fell somewhat in the late ’70s, as disco overtook funk as the most popular form of R&B, though they did manage to land their song “Open Sesame” on the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever, which sold 25 million copies.

By 1979, the group was ready to try something a little different in an attempt to regain its commercial edge, so they made two important moves: They hired a smooth-voiced lead singer from Jersey named James “J.T.” Taylor, and they brought in the Brazilian keyboardist/producer/composer/arranger and one-time jazzer Eumir Deodato to produce the group. With credits that included arranging stints with Frank Sinatra, Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin, producing Con Funk Shun and cutting his own eclectic albums (his one megahit was his rhythmic reworking of “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the main theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey), Deodato had an attractive resume and an obvious ability to work well with demanding performers.

Deodato had been doing a fair amount of work at a popular West Orange, N.J., studio called House of Music, with the studio’s chief engineer, Jim Bonnefond, becoming Deodato’s main man behind the board. So, when Deodato got the gig with Kool & The Gang, Bonnefond came as part of the package, as did working at House of Music. It proved to be a winning combination: The Deodato-Bonnefond team made four albums with Kool & The Gang, and Bonnefond produced and engineered two others for the group after Deodato moved on.

“Deodato was definitely brought in to make Kool & The Gang sound a bit more pop,” says Bonnefond, who is still an engineer and producer, but is also now the head supervisor of SAE’s (School of Audio Engineering) audio recording program in Nashville. “If you listen to some of their earlier songs – ‘Jungle Boogie,’ ‘Hollywood Swinging,’ ‘Open Sesame’ – it’s quite different from ‘Ladies Night,’ which was the first hit we had with them, ‘Too Hot’ and ‘Celebration.’ On the stuff we did, there were less horns and a lot more dance kind of grooves. At the time, they were being influenced by a lot of different people, including Prince and Michael Jackson, as well as still having their earlier influences.”

Part of the Ladies Night album had been cut at MediaSound in New York City, but, by the end of that project, House of Music had become the group’s favored studio. For Kool & The Gang, it was an ideal place to work – close to their Northern New Jersey homes but in a relaxed and decidedly non-urban setting. “The studio’s calling card was that it was in the vicinity of New York, but on seven beautiful acres with a swimming pool and basketball court, and surrounded by trees,” Bonnefond says. “It was very cool.”

Celebrate, the 1980 album that contained “Celebration,” was recorded in the facility’s “B” studio, “which was actually pretty small,” Bonnefond remembers, “maybe 15 by 30. It was not a huge space, so we squashed in and baffled off drums and hung packing blankets, and basically did whatever we could to fit everybody and still get separation.”

It helped that the way the band recorded in this era was that they would cut a skeletal basic track consisting of just bass, drums, guitars, keys and a guide vocal, so the full band, with horn players, was rarely ever in the studio at the same time. “Also, we didn’t have any iso booths,” Bonnefond says. “It was one small studio and then we would use the hallway, which was really the sound lock between the studio and the control room, for vocals. Believe it or not, that worked pretty well.”

In 1980, the studio featured MCI 24 tracks and MCI 500 Series consoles, which Bonnefond still speaks highly of: “At the time, there were a lot of Neve snobs who were down on the MCI boards, but I really liked them, especially for mixing.” The studio also used Studer A80 2-tracks, dbx 210 modules and 316 racks for noise reduction, plus, Bonnefond says, “the normal assortment of 1176 compressors, LA-4s, some dbx 165s, an AMS delay and reverb, some Eventide stuff, and EMT plates and an EMT 250.”

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According to Bonnefond, “A lot of the songs we recorded with Kool & The Gang were written in the studio. Often, they’d come in with a groove or a few changes and we’d work on those, and then we’d take pieces of the 24-track, and, depending on what was needed, I’d edit them together and we’d come up with songs that way. There were different ways that the songs evolved, but I’d say less than 50 percent of the material on a given album was written and finished ahead of time. George Brown, who was the drummer for a long time, would write songs that were pretty much complete – like ‘Ladies Night’ and ‘Too Hot.'” In the case of “Celebration,” which was written by Ronald Bell and the group, Bonnefond believes there was a demo with the main hook and the structure of the song in place, “but I think a lot of the lyrics were written after the fact. But for that particular album, that was one of the more shaped-up songs.”

The way the group worked, “first we’d set up the room for the band to play, and we’d go into basic track mode for a few weeks,” Bonnefond says. “We used to like a pretty dead drum sound, so we’d pack the kick drum with blankets and a sandbag to keep the blanket in place, and most of the time the front head would be off and sort of tunneled with a blanket. At the time, the kick drum was everything – if you listen to some of those mixes, you’ll understand that. We really worked to get a good kick drum sound, and we worked hard to isolate it from the rest of the kit. The snare was also pretty dead; sometimes I’d use my wallet or a piece of felt to mute the top head so it didn’t ring too much.” It’s Bonnefond’s recollection that he used an AKG D-12 on the kick drum and a Sennheiser 421 on the snare. Strangely enough, George Brown rarely played toms in the studio – a concession to the importance of the kick, snare and cymbals/hat in the music the group was making then.

“Ultimately, after we got the basic tracks recorded, we’d spend one to two weeks just going through the tracks, fixing snares and kicks and hats and cymbals,” Bonnefond says. “And that was without the aid of a sampler, of course. We’d copy bits we needed onto a 1/4-inch tape and then fly them back in time. And that wasn’t just for drums; we’d do that for whatever needed it. So, for example, if I had a chorus of `celebrate good times, come on!’ I’d copy it off the 1/4-inch and we’d fly it into the choruses or whatever. We flew in a lot of things. In fact, the battle cry became, ‘Take it to the airport, Jim!'”

Following the replacement of assorted notes and even entire parts on the basics, other layers were added over a period of a few weeks, including various lead and rhythm guitar lines (usually recorded direct, as was the bass), horn parts (cut with a Neumann FET 47 on trombone, a U87 on trumpet, and RE-20 or Neumann 49 on sax) and lead and backup vocals (87s through 1176 compressors and the MCI console’s preamps). Bonnefond notes that singer James Taylor “was a real professional in the studio. He could drop in any time he felt like it and sound great – he didn’t have to only sing in the morning or late at night, or whatever. Sometimes he would try a vocal two or three different ways, and we’d work from that. He didn’t need any sweetening. Obviously, both the lead and background vocals were a very big part of those albums.

“In those days, there was a lot of trial and error in the studio, which was a fantastic way to go. I don’t think many people could afford to do that nowadays. Everybody got involved, and everybody had a chance to watch the song come to fruition from a thought or concept to a master that was ready to be played on the radio. And we would be working right up to the end; I think the octave Strat guitar part on ‘Celebration’ was something we put on the day of the mix. We felt the song needed something, so we added it then.” The mix was fairly straightforward: “It’s not too wet or effected,” Bonnefond says.

Because of the success of the Ladies Night album, radio was champing at the bit for new Kool & The Gang music when “Celebration” was released as a single in October 1980. It became a smash hit almost immediately, hitting Number One on both the pop and R&B charts and driving the Celebrate album well beyond Platinum. Bonnefond was thrilled, of course, but not completely surprised. “We knew it was a great song,” he says. “Kool & The Gang had some unwritten rules about their songs, which were to be positive, not negative, and be universal. ‘Ladies Night’ – you can’t argue with that. ‘Celebrate’ – you can’t argue with that. ‘Cherish’ – same thing. They’re all positive, uplifting, universal things that won’t date. ‘Celebration’ just had a really good vibe to it. It charged ahead; it was that kind of song.

“Then, not that long after it came out, it was the time when the American hostages [being held in Iran] were freed, and it sort of became the theme song. Then there was the Super Bowl…So, right off the bat it got tons of exposure, and it just kept going. Now you hear it everywhere – at weddings, at baseball games; I hear it all the time. And for someone who wasn’t producing at the time and who has no points on it, I hear it too much!” he adds with a laugh.

The Celebrate album also produced hits in “Take it to the Top” and “Jones vs. Jones,” and there would be more chart successes for the Kool & The Gang-Deodato-Bonnefond team, but “Celebration” was a high water mark for everyone involved – one of those magical moments when everything came together just right. And there will still be people screaming out that chorus and shakin’ their boo-tays to that song long after all of us have gone to the great beyond.