Now celebrating their 50th year as a band, Kool & The Gang has produced a seemingly endless string of hits that are the DNA of American music: “Celebration,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Ladies Night,” “Get Down On It,” “Joanna,” “Hollywood Swinging,” just to name a few.
At the Marian Anderson Award concert on Tuesday night, DJ Jazzy Jeff attempted to remix all the iconic Kool & The Gang breakbeats into one mighty turntable session. He even included samples of other people’s music that sampled Kool & The Gang, like “Feel So Good” by Mase, who had lifted a beat from “Hollywood Swinging.”
Later in the concert, legendary producer Nile Rodgers, who founded the band CHIC, admitted that his monster hit “Good Times” was really “‘Hollywood Swinging’ in disguise.” To make his point, he and the backup band played both.
Rodgers then slid into “Rapper’s Delight,” the seminal Sugar Hill Gang song that famously lifted his “Good Times” baseline.
The evolution of American music was laid bare on the stage. It’s no wonder Kool & The Gang is part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture.
The Marian Anderson Award is given annually in memory of the Philadelphia-born opera singer who, in the early 20th century, broke racial barriers on the strength of her music.
“In the same all-loving way that Marian saw her audiences, she did not want people to see her face as black or white,” said the host of the event, broadcaster Tamron Hall. “She wanted people to see her soul, ‘and that is colorless,’ she once said. Let me repeat that. It’s a direct quote: her soul was colorless.”
Anderson was the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt famously invited Anderson to sing in front of the Lincoln Memorial when the Daughters of the American Revolution blocked her from Constitution Hall because of her color.
The performance lineup included opera singer Valerie Gay, trumpeter Matt Cappy, and trombonist Jeff Bradshaw showing off his funky brass flare by strutting through the aisles.
The four remaining founding members of Kool & The Gang took the stage to accept their award and give thanks to the city of Philadelphia. Drummer George Brown remembered coming into town back when they called themselves Kool and the Flames.
“In 1968, composer, songwriter, Gene Redd, Jr. — [we were] seven young men from Jersey City. He heard the potential in our music, and we found ourselves at the Uptown Theater,” said Brown.
Shortly thereafter, the band adopted the name Kool & The Gang, and it stuck.
After all of the tribute performances, the band’s namesake, Robert “Kool” Bell, was supposed to stand at the podium in Verizon Hall to accept the Marian Anderson Award, but instead was itching to perform, himself.
“Ain’t no party like a Philadelphia party because Philadelphia knows how to get down,” he said. “We are very proud to receive this Marian Anderson award, it’s such a great award, and we have a history with Philadelphia. The Uptown Theater!”
He then picked up a bass to play “Celebration,” joined by all the evening’s performers on a crowded stage, the audience on their feet. The award would have to wait a little longer.