George Brown, the co-founder, drummer, and songwriter for Kool and the Gang, died Thursday, Nov. 16, after a battle with cancer. He was 74.
A rep for Kool and the Gang confirmed Brown’s death in a statement shared with Rolling Stone. Brown’s family asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be sent to the Lung Cancer Society of America in his honor.
Aptly nicknamed “Funky,” Brown not only provided the backbeat to Kool and the Gang’s many indelible funk and disco era hits but also helped write them. Brown’s co-writing credits include favorites like “Ladies Night,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Celebration,” “Summer Madness,” and “Too Hot.”
And as much as those songs remain party classics, Brown’s drumming has remained a frequent presence in music thanks to the myriad Kool and the Gang samples across pop and hip-hop. Artists who’ve plucked those grooves include Jay-Z, Madonna, Nas, N.W.A. the Killers, Janet Jackson, the Beastie Boys, De La Soul, and A Tribe Called Quest.
Brown grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, and as he said in a 2015 interview with the Red Bull Music Academy, his “internal rhythm” was apparent early in his childhood: “I used to take butter knives and play on things,” he recalled. “Then I went down to a music store on Newark Avenue in Jersey City and took a $3 lesson from a gentleman who used to play with the Shirelles. He said, ‘Hey man, you’re a natural!’”
Brown’s family couldn’t afford to keep paying for lessons, but he practiced relentlessly and studied the great jazz drummers, especially Buddy Rich. In 1964, when he was still a teenager, Brown linked up with Robert “Kool” Bell, Ronald Bell, Ricky Westfield, Dennis Thomas, Spike Pickens, and Charles Smith to form a new band called the Jazziacs. Over the next few years, the group gigged regularly, often playing Motown covers, and cycled through a few names before eventually settling on Kool and the Gang and setting out to write their own material.
Kool and the Gang enjoyed some modest success with their earliest releases, most notably the Top 20 soul single, “Let the Music Take Your Mind,” from their 1969 self-titled debut (an all-instrumental album). A couple of live records and studio albums followed, but it wasn’t until 1973 that Kool and the Gang scored their breakthrough. That year, they released their fourth LP, Wild and Peaceful, which featured the hit singles “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging,” and “Funky Stuff.”
While Kool and the Gang produced a few more hits during the mid-Seventies, the band’s commercial fortunes briefly dwindled as the decade wore on. Linking up with the Brazilian writer-producer-arranger Emir Deodato helped the group streamline their songs, and they were soon dominating the charts again with classics like “Ladies’ Night,” “Too Hot,” “Get Down On It,” “Joanna,” and their sole Number One smash, “Celebration.”
As Brown put it in an interview with NPR earlier this year, the Kool and the Gang sound was “The sound of happiness.” And Brown was able to maintain his grasp on that even as he contended with depression and addiction to prescription pills.
“You know, when it was time to go on stage, it’s, OK, let’s become Kool and the Gang,” he said. “You know, that’s what we do. So when it was time to do, we did it… Everything else goes to the side.”
After their Eighties peak, Kool and the Gang’s studio output slowed, but they continued to tour regularly, and their songs started popping up frequently in hip-hop. In that Red Bull Academy interview, Brown said his son tipped him off to the growing prevalence of Kool and the Gang samples.
“I’m just totally honored that… producers around the world said, ‘Hey, we like this.’ I’m honored and I’m taken aback by it,” he said. “But I don’t walk around with that type of head, like, ‘Let me do some research and see who’s sampling me.’ I never thought that type of stuff was necessary till this very day. We’re artists and just trying to bring happiness to people. It’s a blessing.”
Brown was one of the longest-serving members of Kool and the Gang, alongside Robert “Kool” Bell and saxophonist Dennis “Dee Tee” Thomas (who died in 2021). Just this past July, Kool and the Gang released a new album, People Just Want to Have Fun, which Brown produced. The same month, he published his memoir Too Hot: Kool & the Gang & Me. In August, however, he officially decided to retire from music.
“You want to see people happy, and you want to be successful with it,” Brown said in that NPR interview. “And you want to help create a culture, a world culture, where people come together with that music. That music is bringing people together and making this one-world culture greater than it was before. And when you do music that’s happy music, that’s what it does. It brings people to the clubs to have a good time. And that’s what we do. We say our prayer before we leave, and we say, let’s go make some people happy.”