Photo: Barry Feinstein Photography, Inc.
Living Legends: Roger McGuinn On The History Of The Byrds, His One-Man Show And Editing His Own Wikipedia Page
At 80, the former Byrds leader remains as curious as ever — puttering with gadgets, learning obscure folk songs, and playing songs and telling stories on the road. A new, photo-stuffed coffee-table book illuminates his early history like never before.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Roger McGuinn, a founding member of the Byrds and folk-rock pioneer who, at 80, remains active as a solo act. A new coffee-table book about the early history of the band, The Byrds: 1964-1967, is available now.
Roger McGuinn is still tinkering.
Decades ago, he helped codify the Rickenbacker 360/12 as a rock 'n' roll armament. He electrified his beloved folk music to make it jangle and chime. He wrote immortal odes to celestial voyages and alternate dimensions, and threw down incendiary "out" solos that would make John Coltrane proud. And that maximum-curious mind is still humming.
This is wholly apparent in his one-man show currently criss-crossing the East Coast. Therein, the 80-year-old former Byrd clarifies, contextualizes and canonizes his life story, perhaps working it out for himself just as much as he is for his audiences.
And as far as the folk canon that galvanized and mobilized him in the first place, he's far from finished with his decades-long analysis. On his website, he releases free-to-download interpretations of songs from the folk, gospel, sea-shanty, and calypso traditions, among others — under the umbrella of his "Folk Den Project."
On top of that, he remains a lifelong enthusiast for all things engineering, aviation, gadgets and science fiction. From the road, McGuinn explains that his engineer grandfather got him interested in all things that light up and whir.
"I take LEDs and put them in a little box with a switch on it and make them blink, just for fun," he tells GRAMMY.com. "I love taking things apart and trying to put them back together."
Fortunately for all of us, McGuinn isn't all that different from the man we learn about in The Byrds: 1964-1967, a lavish new coffee-table book that hit shelves on Sept. 20.
Featuring 400 pages of more than 500 illuminating photographs and an oral history courtesy of surviving Byrds McGuinn, Chris Hillman and David Crosby, the book is a definitive account of the band's genesis, commercial breakthroughs with "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and on-ramp to their eventual plunge into psychedelia.
In his post-Byrds life, McGuinn deepened in profound ways — not only in diving deeper into the folk tradition and honing his storytelling acumen, but focusing on his Christian ministry alongside his wife, Camilla. These days, he may have little interest in getting the old band back together, but he arguably remains their most active and public custodian — one one-man show at a time.
Read on for a history-spanning interview with the three-time GRAMMY nominee about the new book, his folkie origins, how he picked up the Rickenbacker, the importance of Gene Clark and Clarence White, and myriad other Byrdsy subjects.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Before we time-warp to 55 years ago, I think it's important to lead with a question about your life and work today. What's creatively percolating for you?
Well, I've been touring since [hesitates, chuckles] 1960! I'm still doing it at 80 years old. We're on a tour right now. We're going to play a theater in Brattleboro tomorrow night. I think it's a month-long tour; it's going to take us around to Easton. So, that's one thing.
When I'm home, I record; I've got a Folk Den Project that I do every month; I record a song and put it on the internet for a free download, in a section called The Folk Den on my website, McGuinn.com. It's a public service sponsored by UNC Chapel Hill.
I record other things. We've recorded CDs, but CDs are kind of a dying breed, so we've had to find some other way. The streaming thing is working out well.
For people who may know the Byrds, since they've been in the ether for so long, but haven't caught you live, what can they expect from you in performance?
I do a one-man show. I do, like, the life of Will Rogers, except it's not about Will Rogers; it's about me. [Chuckles.] I tell the story about how I was inspired early on in my teens to get a guitar; I played guitar in the Old Town School for Folk Music and got hired by the Limeliters and the Chad Mitchell Trio. [I played with] Bobby Darin and Judy Collins and became a studio musician and writer at the Brill Building in New York.
Tell me how The Byrds: 1964-1967 came to be. Why did it feel appropriate to tell the story of the band's early history mostly through photographs, with an oral history threaded through them?
I wasn't really on the inside of this, but Chris Hillman did an autobiography a couple of years ago for BMG Publishing. They acquired a number of photographs of the Byrds, and I guess they had so many, they couldn't use them all.
So, they said, "What are we going to do with these?" They decided to make a coffee-table book — 400 pages, 500 photos, printed with Italian paper. It's beautiful; it's a gorgeous edition.
Before we dig into this era of the band reflected in its pages, can you tell me about your early love of all things related to technology, outer space and sci-fi? To me, that's one of the most captivating facets of the band — that sense of far-out curiosity, that futuristic bent.
Well, I got into it when I was living in Chicago. My grandfather had been an engineer for the Deering Company or something — I'm not sure of the company — but he was instrumental in building bridges over the Chicago River.
He was always in engineering, and he used to take me to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago every Sunday. That's where I developed my love of technology. I'd push buttons, things would light up and whir, and I'd go, "Wow! That's cool!"
That's where it all came from. I've just got a little bit of engineering in my blood.
Are you still a tinkerer to this day?
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I love taking things apart and trying to put them back together. [Chuckles.] Building little things. It's a lifelong hobby.
The Byrds in Chicago, 1965. Photo: Jim Dickson Archive, courtesy of Henry Diltz Photography
This coffee-table book goes pretty deep into the band's synthesis of influences, from folk music to the Beatles. But I'm most interested in how the Byrds were almost predicated on a single instrument; that's a rare concept. What attracted you to the bell-like sound of the Rickenbacker so early on?
I was a 12-string player back in the folk days. I got my first 12-string guitar in Chicago in 1957; I believe it was a Regal 12-string. I was interested in the 12-string because of Lead Belly and Pete Seeger and Bob Gibson, who was kind of an acolyte of Pete Seeger.
When I was a studio musician in New York, I was the go-to guy for acoustic 12-string for a lot of folk acts. I was the musical director on Judy Collins' third album [1963's Judy Collins #3]; I played on the demo of "The Sound of Silence" for Paul Simon. The Irish Rovers, a lot of folk acts.
So, I was already a 12-string player, and when the Beatles came out, I was enthralled with [them] because they were using folk-music chords in their rock 'n' roll. I noticed that George Harrison had a Rickenbacker electric 12-string, and I'd never seen one of those before. It was a new instrument at the time; in fact, his was only the second one ever made. The first one went to somebody named Suzi [Arden], who was in a group in Las Vegas, doing lounge acts.
When I found out about the Rickenbacker electric 12-string, I went to a music store and traded in my acoustic 12-string that Bobby Darin had given me and a five-string, long-necked banjo — a Pete Seeger style — and I got the Rickenbacker electric 12.
It was just such a great-sounding instrument. I played it eight hours a day!
Roger McGuinn performing with the Byrds in 1965. Photo: Barry Feinstein Photography
I don't think most people grasp how much of a pressure cooker the mid-1960s pop market was like; we hear stories about the Beatles needing to rush out Rubber Soul by Christmas, and so forth. The Turn! Turn! Turn! album came out only six months after Mr. Tambourine Man. Did you guys feel that crunch, that market demand?
We had a contract with Columbia where we had to do an album every six months, so it really did put the pressure on. We came out of the box with a No. 1 hit, and we had to live up to that. Fortunately, "Turn! Turn! Turn!" became a No. 1 as well.
It was a lot of pressure. We had Gene Clark as the main writer; he was doing great. Then, when he left, it was more difficult to come up with enough material for a good album. Every six months — that was part of the contract.
Gene is often framed as the tragic figure of the band, but The Byrds: 1964-1967 lays out what a force he was; he was the most prolific writer in the band. How would you describe his role in the creative machinery early on?
Well, he was obviously the main songwriter. He and I started the group; we started writing songs together, and he and I wrote some songs. Then, Crosby came along, and he wasn't really writing songs at that point.
We were doing some outside material, like Dylan and Seeger, and Gene kept writing every day. He must have written 30 songs a month; some of them were really good, so we ended up using those.
The Byrds in Beverly Hills, 1965. Photo: Jim Dickson Archive, courtesy of Henry Diltz Photography
The book closes right at that jumping-off point into 1968's The Notorious Byrd Brothers, which means we go deep on that delicious transitional period, with songs like "5D" and your cover of Dylan's "My Back Pages." Those are probably my two favorite Byrds tracks; can you share any memories regarding them?
"5D": I wrote that while I'd been reading a little book called 1, 2, 3, 4, More, More, More, More [by Don Landis]. It was about multiple dimensions — kind of like string theory, or something. I thought that'd be an interesting subject for a song.
"My Back Pages": Jim Dickson had been the Byrds' manager, and we'd fired him. One day, I was in L.A., driving up La Cienega, and came to a stoplight, and Dickson pulled up next to me and rolled down the window. He said, "Hey, Jim!" — that was me — "You guys ought to record Dylan's 'My Back Pages!'"
I said, "Thank you." It had been a while since the Byrds had a Top 20 hit. So, I went home, got the record out, and listened to the song. It was in 3/4 time, and I had to rearrange it for rock 'n' roll. So, I did, and it became — I think it was No. 22. I'm not sure. [Writer's note: The song peaked at No. 30 on the Billboard Hot 100.]
I feel like "5D" fell into that space where, for decades, people presumed it was about drugs. No such thing: it's the product of a curious mind, which you still possess.
Exactly. It was more of a spiritual thing than a drug thing.
A lot of people don't grasp how incredible, in my opinion, the band remained in the late '60s and early '70s after so many lineup changes; just recently, I was wigging out to the 16-minute live version of "Eight Miles High" on 1970's (Untitled). What do you remember of this time? Are these happy memories for you?
Well, [Byrds guitarist and mandolinist] Clarence White and I were good friends, and we loved playing together. He was probably the best guitar player we ever had. It was like having Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton in your band, or something.
I remember one time at the Whisky, Jimi Hendrix came backstage, and he went running right over to Clarence and shook his hand. The first time we played at Fillmore East with Clarence and the band, there was a big difference between the way it had been with the audience reaction [and the way it was then].
The audience was used to a certain level of Byrds musicianship, and when Clarence came out there, he just slayed them. He was just incredible.
We lost Clarence too young, just like Gene. What was it like to have those guys in the room?
Well, they didn't hang out in the same room. [Chuckles.]
I know — separately, I mean!
Clarence and I hung out more than Gene and I did. Gene was kind of off to himself; he had his life. But Clarence and I were on the road together, and we'd hang out more. Clarence was just a really nice guy and a brilliant guitar player.
What misconceptions still float around regarding the Byrds and your role therein that you'd like to correct, if any?
Oh, I don't really need to fix history. I tried that once on Wikipedia. Somebody put out some stuff on there that wasn't correct, so I went on Wikipedia and corrected it. And they banned me, because some 15-year-old kid in Canada had changed it!
Oh my gosh. Do you remember what the falsehood was?
I think it had something to do with the Subud religion. I'm not sure. [Writer's note: McGuinn changed his name from Jim to Roger in 1967 during a period of experimentation with Subud.]
[McGuinn's wife, Camilla, interjects in the background.] Oh! I forgot that. My wife says I had friends who went on and corrected it for me.
That's good to hear. The historical record can become distorted. A lie travels around the world before the truth is still putting on its shoes, as they say.
Right, we've heard that saying. I think Henry Ford said, "History is bunk."
Photo: Varela Media
Living Legends: Frankie Valli On The Four Seasons' Biggest Hits, Impressing Bob Dylan And Inspiring Billy Joel & Elton John
Between a new box set and a Las Vegas residency, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons aren’t slowing down in 2023. Hear from the falsetto king himself about how hits like “Sherry” and “December, 1963 (Oh What A Night!) came to be — and how they live on.
With one of the most recognizable voices in music, a generation-spanning array of hit songs and a life story that has become stuff of legend, Frankie Valli has staked a claim as one of the music industry's most indelible artists. One of the few acts that steadily navigated from the doo-wop age through the disco era, Valli's improbable trajectory with his group, the Four Seasons, was propeled by a golden ear for hits, aided by the songwriter/producer power duo Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe.
That's not to say the 89-year-old is resting on his laurels. His astounding career is on full, vibrant display in the immense new box set aptly dubbed Working Our Way Back to You — The Ultimate Collection. Consisting of 45 discs of every song Valli and the Four Seasons ever recorded — from beloved hits to deep-cuts, demos and other rarities — the set also includes a biographical book filled to the brim with rare images that track their rise from a fledgling New Jersey singing group to Broadway sensations in the form of Jersey Boys.
In addition, later this month Vailli is heading to Las Vegas for a residency at Westgate Resort and Casino where he and the Four Seasons will be appearing until well into 2024.
Valli spoke to GRAMMY.com about his astounding run of hits, the artists he's influenced, the modern covers of his tracks and how his big year started off with a bang during GRAMMY weekend.
You were a surprise performer at the Clive Davis GRAMMY Gala earlier this year and, in a very special moment, everyone in the audience, from Cardi B to Joni Mitchell, jumped up and sang along with you to "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You." What was that moment like for you?
Oh, it was incredible. I never expected it. When Clive first invited me, he said "I want to invite you to my GRAMMY party, but I want you to do a song." I said, "With the generation gap, should I really do a song?" But I was in shock when everybody stood up to sing along.
It was a really a moment I'll never forget. It's a good thing we have people like Clive who really has an insight on what's happening and where it's going.
That night, the Italian rock band Måneksin covered your song "Beggin'" which was their breakout hit. The band was just the latest in a long line of artists who have covered Four Seasons music, with "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" done by everyone from Lauryn Hill to Shawn Mendes, to name just two examples. What do you think of all of these artists wanting to cover your work?
It's quite complimentary. When you've been around a long time and people find value in what you've done, it just makes you feel good about what you've done.
In your career, you've also covered so many songs from Cole Porter's "I've Got You Under My Skin" to Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)." How did you go about choosing which songs to cover, and how would you put your own spin on these classics to make them your own?
It was really more or less music that we listened to and we loved. We tried to pick songs that were very meaningful for us, but the trick was to be able to do them a little differently than they had been done.
We were quite successful with it, we did it with songs like "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" We did a version of "Book of Love" and so many others.
Your version of "Don't Think Twice (It's Alright)" is probably one of the most unusual songs in your vast discography considering its subject matter, your exaggerated falsetto, and those background harmonies. How did that come about? I also understand you heard from Bob Dylan himself about it.
We did it in a very campy way, and it really was quite by accident. I was in a studio, and the guy at the soundboard asked me to sing a little bit to get a level on me. So I was clowning around singing in a falsetto like that.
The next thing I know, the button clicks and I hear [Crewe and Gaudio's] voices saying, "Do it like that." I said, "Do what like what?" They said, "Sing it just the way you're singing it." I said, "Come on, you're kidding!"
We did it and that version of it was a take-off on a singer named Rose Murphy, who had several hits. Many years later, I was shopping at Fred Segal in LA and Bob Dylan came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. We shook hands and he said, "I love the version of 'Don't Think Twice' that you guys did."
Speaking of your singular vocal stylings, I'm wondering how you and the group went about plotting how you'd all harmonize. For example, in a song like "Candy Girl," there's your iconic falsetto, and then suddenly we hear in a very low baritone voice the line "Our love is real!" Is something like that written out? How does it come together in the studio?
It just comes naturally. A lot of credit goes to the fact that we were never chased away from a song because we didn't know what to do with it. We toyed with it until we found what we thought was right for it. There were no direct plans; everything was done from within the group.
Nick Massi had his job doing a lot of the vocal arrangements, and Gaudio did most of them after Nick had left. We worked together until everybody was satisfied with it. Does it fit? Does it work? It's like a puzzle. You don't want to overdo anything, and you don't want to under-do.
So then let's say in a song like "Walk Like A Man" when the harmonies sing that iconic "Oo-Oooo-Oo-Oo-Oo-Oo-Oo-Ooooo." Where does that come from?
It comes from Bob Gaudio, who wrote the song to sound like that. The first three songs we did were more like a chant, and that's what we created to make what everybody knows as our sound.
We wanted to be very easily identifiable. If you heard something by us on the radio, you knew that it was us. We were constantly looking for new ways and new things while having fun doing it. We weren't following or listening to anybody else on the radio; we weren't a copycat group.
First of all, I'm a big Billy Joel fan. There isn't anything he's ever done that I haven't liked. My favorite of everything is "Just The Way You Are." It sounds so honest and lyrically it's so right, it had to be a hit.
I loved it. He's another guy who has done very little wrong musically. He's an amazing writer and performer.
You and the group have a lot of name songs: "Sherry," "Marlena," "Dawn." Was that conscious effort, or was it just natural?
It was natural. Bob wrote the songs… He and I have been partners now for over 50 years and he never ceases to amaze me. He's so tuned into everything that's going on, it's really amazing.
Is it true that "Sherry" was originally called "Jackie" in honor of Jackie Kennedy?
No, it was originally called "Perry." Before "Sherry," we weren't signed to a label, so this small independent company owned by a millionaire had a daughter named Perry. And that's what he wanted us to call it, but it was written to be "Sherry" and we just felt very strongly about that and kept it.
What did the owner think of that?
We ended up going with a different company. So we never heard much after that.
One of your biggest hits was "December 1963 (Oh What A Night!)." I always wondered if that was a random date, or if you chose it because that period was a unique moment in history: a month after the Kennedy assassination, but two months before the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan.
It was originally a song with lyrics about the '20s, '30s and '40s. The lyrics were "Flippers flopping on the floor." It was a totally different song. When Bob brought it into the studio, he was disappointed we weren't crazy about it and he wanted to junk the song. We said, "No, you can come up with something better than this," and he rewrote it to fit the time.
Is there one song that you thought should have been bigger than it was?
The funny thing about records during the days when we recorded, and the record business was as big as it was, to become a hit it was important that the record company do the legwork and get radio stations to play it, or try it for two weeks. I thought there was a lot of what we did that was overlooked because the record company wasn't that crazy about it.
For example, I put the single "We're All Alone" out, and the record company didn't want to work it. I did mine with the London Symphony Orchestra. Later, Rita Coolidge came out with the same song and it went to No. 1. Sometimes things like that happen.
A song like "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" was in the can for two or three years. We had to force the record company to release it and hire independent promotion people to work the record and get it on the radio.
"My Eyes Adored You" was recorded for Motown Records and that one was in the can for three years because they weren't too sure about it. Finally, when we left Motown, we asked if we can buy back the track, and they agreed for us to purchase it. We did and we brought it to every record company in the business and they all said no.
Eventually, we found Larry Uttal with a brand new record company, Private Stock Records, and he said, "That'll be my first No. 1 record for my new company." And it was!
From when you first started recording in the early '50s to when "Sherry" hit No. 1 was a period of nine years. That's a long time. Why did you stick with it?
It was always music first. If I had no success at all, I'd probably still be doing music somewhere in New Jersey or New York. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and wanted to be.
At first, I rejected the fact that I might have to do pop music, but as I started to do it and it became successful, I realized it was a music that people could understand. And what are you doing music for? You're doing it for people. Without an audience you wouldn't have anything.
My love of music started out for the very first time with me seeing Frank Sinatra as a boy when my mom took me to the Paramount Theater in New York City. I couldn't believe what I was seeing and I was so inspired; I made up my mind that that's what I wanted to do.
Photo: Al Pereira/WireImage
Living Legends: Burning Spear On New Album, 'No Destroyer' & Taking Control Of His Music
Burning Spear is one of reggae’s most distinctive and esteemed voices. Fifty years into his career, the roots reggae artist continues to share messages of Rastafarianism and resistance, all through impeccably crafted rhythms.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music who are still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with reggae icon Burning Spear. His latest album, No Destroyer, is his first release in 15 years.
Fifty years ago, venerable Jamaican artist Burning Spear released his debut album, Studio One Presents Burning Spear. While not as well-known as the Wailers’ Catch A Fire and Burnin’ (both of which were also released in 1973), Burning Spear is nonetheless a pillar in the construction of roots reggae’s foundation.
Produced by Clement "Sir Coxsone" Dodd and released on Dodd’s legendary Studio One label, the album’s solid rhythms are anchored in thunderous basslines (played by the Heptones’ Leroy Sibbles) and embellished with cascading horns that majestically frame Spear’s mesmerizingly intoned vocals.
Rife with mystical lyrics steeped in his Rastafarian way of life, uncompromising words of resistance, and supported by impeccably crafted bass-heavy reggae beats with flourishes of jazz and highlife accented horns, Burning Spear’s debut album established him as one of reggae’s most distinctive and esteemed voices. Fifty years on, those characteristics resonate just as strongly on Spear’s latest release No Destroyer.
Recorded in 2011 at the Magic Shop in New York City, Spear decided to release No Destroyer — his first album since 2009’s GRAMMY-winning Jah Is Real — in August because "the time was right."
"I think people will enjoy this album, I am saying things I never say before," Burning Spear told GRAMMY.com in a recent Zoom. "The people, the fans, will find something to hold on to, to take them places or to certain situations. The album shows you where you are coming from, your tribulations, the distance you are traveling. When I listen back to it, I didn’t quite know I was putting out all that energy, sending out lyrics not only connecting musically but connecting to all the people."
Burning Spear announced his retirement in 2016, though his time away was brief. He returned in 2021 with a new single "Mommy," which honors women who hold their families together, especially in challenging times; "Mommy" was No Destroyer’s first single. In 2022 Spear returned to the concert stage and has since performed at festivals across the globe and onboard Damian Marley’s Welcome to Jamrock reggae cruise.
"I wasn’t thinking about coming back but my wife, Sonia Rodney, thought I should do a few shows here and there, for the fans who have supported I man for so many years," Spear acknowledges."So I did some shows for the people who really wanted to see me again and it was great." Spear, however, has not performed in his native Jamaica in nearly 20 years. "I do go back to Jamaica to spend time and have a little fun but that is about it," he says.
Born Winston Rodney in Jamaica’s rural St. Ann’s Bay, Winston took his moniker from African freedom fighter Jomo Kenyatta, who was previously known as the Burning Spear and later became the president of Kenya. Kenyatta and Spear were deeply influenced by the teachings of Marcus Garvey, the St. Ann Jamaica born pan-Africanist and fiery orator who preached self-reliance and political unification for all African descendants. Garvey’s teachings have exerted a tremendous influence on the Rastafari way of life and the United States’ civil rights movement.
More so than any Rastafarian reggae artist, Spear has used his music to create an ongoing awareness of Garvey’s philosophies. Spear’s international breakthrough arrived with the release of his Marcus Garvey album in 1975; Spear has continued to invoke Garvey’s name on all of his subsequent albums. Prior to reggae becoming the island’s most recognized global export, Marcus Garvey "opened the door of Jamaica and spread Jamaica all over," sings Spear on the No Destroyer track "Jamaica."
"Marcus Garvey is our hero, he stood firm, he opened the gate for Jamaica, Rastafari spread the roots and the culture," offers Spear. "I would especially like Jamaican people to listen to the track 'Jamaica' and as Jamaicans of African descendents, question themselves. Of course, the whole world needs to listen to the album, too."
Burning Spear was referred to Studio One — largely considered Jamaica’s Motown due to the label’s consistent output of hit records and the many reggae luminaries who launched their careers there — by another St. Ann native: Bob Marley. Spear’s first single for Studio One, 1969’s "Door Peep Shall Not Enter," sounded unlike anything released by Dodd. Along with vocal trio the Abyssinians’ "Satta Massagana" issued the same year, Spear’s song was critical in shaping the Rastafarian roots reggae movement that came to prominence in the next decade.
Spear’s spoken intro on "Door Peep" — "I and I, son of the Most-High, Jah Rastafari"— resounds like a direct announcement from the Messiah. The song’s biblically laced lyrics caution informers who attempt to interfere with Rastafarians, considered societal outcasts at the time in Jamaica; Spear’s repeated call to "Chant down Babylon," supported by Rupert Willington’s evocative, deep vocal tone, creates a spellbinding effect.
"When Mr. Dodd first heard 'Door Peep' he was astonished; for a man who’d been in the music business for so long, he never heard anything like that," Spear. recalls. "I went there on a Sunday and the next day I recorded it, my first song, my first time recording. Mr. Dodd made a lot of income off of that song. A lot."
Spear released another solid roots reggae set with Dodd, the soulful Rocking Time, in 1974. His next album, 1975’s Marcus Garvey is considered a benchmark of Jamaica’s 1970s roots reggae golden era. Marcus Garvey features Willington and Delroy Hinds’ sublime supporting vocals and the extraordinary musical accompaniment of the Black Disciples band.
The magnificent title track was originally intended for exclusive play on producer Lawrence "Jack Ruby" Lindo’s Hi Power sound system. However, the song was so popular at Ruby’s dances, he released it as a single and it became an immediate hit. Spear followed that with another stirring reggae anthem, the haunting lament, "Slavery Days"; the Marcus Garvey album soared to the top of the Jamaican charts, which led to a deal for its wider release via Island Records.
Burning Spear would go on to release Man in the Hills, again featuring Willington and Hinds, for Island. Yet his subsequent albums on the label throughout the 1970s were released as a solo artist. Spear released albums for a variety of labels throughout the 1980s before signing to Island again, issuing just two albums with them in the early 1990s.
Spear contends he didn’t make money from any of these recordings, and only started to see returns when he and his wife took control of his catalog circa 2002 and began releasing Spear’s music through their Burning Music Productions.
"When I started out, a lot of us was getting nothing from what we been doing musically," Spear explained. "People listening to all those beautiful songs thinking that we, the artists and musicians, were well taken care of but we were not."
Spear rails against the shady deals and corruption within the music industry on several of No Destroyer’s tracks. "Independent" is Spear’s story of persevering despite experiencing many unethical business transactions; "No Fool" lashes out at record companies "committing fraud and they think they are so smart." "They Think" calls out individuals who doubted that Spear could succeed as an independent artist. "Talk" takes aim at the "musical sharks" who "eat up the small fish," whom he dismisses with the unyielding refrain: "No more slave trade, no more surrender."
"Sometimes we as artists can’t explain ourselves just by talking. Through the music we explain how much we hurt, the things that hurt us, what’s been done to us," Spear says. "As artists and players of instruments, we have to talk of these things, so the world will hear fully what we’ve been through in the music industry, things I have gone up against, things that shouldn’t have taken place, but they happened."
Like so many young Jamaican artists in the 1970s and 1980s, Spear perhaps did not have a full understanding of the international record deals he was signing. More than likely, it was never explained that the advances artists receive are intended to cover the cost of recording their albums and that money must be recouped by the label from album sales before an artist will receive any revenue. During that era, recording companies owned the master recordings and required artists to give them their publishing rights, too.
After decades of receiving little financial returns for his albums, Spear and Sonia sought to identify the specific barriers that prevented the money from coming in. Sonia taught herself the nuances of the music business by reading books, attending seminars and talking to seasoned professionals. One of the first things she did was launch a Burning Spear merchandise line, which immediately generated revenue. They also learned how to manufacture their own albums/CDs, and handled their own distribution.
"We started making connections with other people, give them our works on consignment and right away we see that independence is not so easy. There are a lot of sharks, unreasonable people with dirty business practices who come at you because you are independent, saying, ‘how dare you be independent,’" Spear says.
Spear now owns the copyrights to most of his songs. After some research and a subsequent lawsuit, he bought back some of the copyrights to his earlier music from the estate of a deceased former manager who had never purchased those rights. Spear is especially proud of his 2009 Best Reggae Album GRAMMY Award for Jah Is Real, a significant accomplishment for Burning Music Productions.
No Destroyer also addresses the struggles endured by musicians that came up with Spear, while recognizing their efforts in establishing reggae as a globally embraced music. "Robert Nesta Marley built his foundation the hard way," sings Spear on "Open The Gate." The song also honors Culture, Alton Ellis, Gregory Isaacs, Sugar Minott, ska pioneers the Skatalites, Peter Tosh
and Delroy Wilson, among the many Jamaican music legends who "opened the gate for reggae music."
"The artists and musicians who were there before us and those who were there before them, opened the gate and the gate is still open, or else you wouldn’t have a new generation of reggae music," Spear remarks. "It was just the love of reggae music, coming from mento, ska, rocksteady, (that kept us going). We all went through the same thing before we stood strong and saw that we weren’t being taken care of properly."
Spear’s taking control of his music and becoming an independent artist is a present day fulfillment of the self-reliance Marcus Garvey advocated for over a century ago. In his concluding comments, Spear appealed to the authorities to clear Marcus Garvey’s name of all criminal charges. Garvey had been a target of the J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI for several years and aAs his following increased — on Aug. 1, 1920, an estimated 25,000 delegates gathered at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden for the first international convention of Garvey’s Negro Universal Improvement Association — the FBI intensified their efforts to subdue him.
In 1923, Garvey was convicted of mail fraud in the United States after his Black Star Line shipping company — founded with the aim of providing passage for Africans in the diaspora who wanted to return to the continent — sent out advertisements showing a steamship that the company was in the process of purchasing (but didn’t yet own.) Garvey was fined $1,000 and received a five-year prison sentence that was later commuted; he was then deported to Jamaica. Garvey’s descendants, political leaders and others have petitioned President Biden for a posthumous presidential pardon, following an unsuccessful petitioning of President Obama.
"Marcus Garvey’s record should be set free," declares Spear. He also implored Jamaica’s government to institute a public holiday honoring Garvey and include him in the curriculum for all Jamaican students.
"I am a musician; I don’t want to sound like a politician, but the time is right for a Garvey subject in school. We want the upcoming generation to have a full understanding of who Marcus Garvey was and what he stood up for," he says. "Jamaica must come together and make sure that it is done. The time is right to let the people’s voices be heard."
So, too, the time is right for Burning Spear’s voice to be heard, again.
Photo: Timothy White
Living Legends: Michael Bolton On How Comedy Changed His Career & Why He's "The Forrest Gump Of The Music Business"
Amid one of the busiest years of his career since his '80s and '90s heyday, Michael Bolton has traded his signature long locks for a new signature trait: gratitude.
Presented by GRAMMY.com, Living Legends is an editorial series that honors icons in music and celebrates their inimitable legacies and ongoing impact on culture. Ahead of his Sept. 3 show at the iconic Hollywood Bowl, Michael Bolton looks back on the trying times of his early career and how it led to blending his love of music and comedy.
Nearly 50 years into his career, Michael Bolton isn't worried about staying relevant — he's simply trying to have fun.
This year alone has seen Bolton perform incognito on "The Masked Singer," co-star alongside Awkwafina in "Nora From Queens," and cameo on the HBO Max sitcom "Clone High." And amid all of his screen time, Bolton reignited his love of songwriting with Spark of Light, his first album of original music in 14 years.
Whatever he's doing, Bolton's goal remains the same: never take a moment for granted. Perhaps that's because his legacy took 18 years to begin, or due to his humble Connecticut roots.
Despite being a two-time GRAMMY winner with more than 75 million albums sold worldwide, Bolton has never thought of himself as one of the greats — but he's always been happy to be considered as such. That humility has given him longevity, along with a comedic sensibility that proves he's never taken himself too seriously.
Bolton's humorous side was most famously displayed in 2011, when Bolton teamed up with comedy troupe the Lonely Island for "Jack Sparrow," a hilarious short that ironically saw him dress as Gump himself (and, of course, Jack Sparrow). Since then, Bolton's career has opened up to generations who he never imagined would know the likes of "How Am I Supposed To Live Without You" or "When A Man Loves A Woman."
Combining his loyal longtime fan base with the new, Bolton is still getting to play venues like the famed Hollywood Bowl at age 70 — and, of course, taking in every minute of it.
Just after getting back from a stretch of shows in Asia, Bolton caught up with GRAMMY.com about his resurgence as a comedic actor, his advice for struggling artists, and why he considers himself the industry's Forrest Gump.
You, sir, have had quite the ongoing impact on culture, I must say.
Are you talking about my long hair or my records? [Laughs.]
Well, both, but also you're still doing all of these different things, between "The Masked Singer" and "The Dating Game" and such. It's really cool to see the ways that you're staying active in today's pop culture, not just leaning on your legacy.
I guess that's what they mean when they say "staying relevant."
Yeah, I suppose. [Laughs.] But it always feels genuine for you. I think there's a difference between trying to stay relevant and doing a genuine thing.
Creative work is the thing that leads to legacy and allows you to continue momentum moving forward. And it gets you together with really great creative people like the Lonely Island guys.
I was starting to have a great career of hits, and I realized I love comedy. And I had this opportunity, working with the Lonely Island guys from "Saturday Night Live," that I could have fun, take shots at myself — and others — and keep it musical as well. I think we're over 250 million views on the "Jack Sparrow" video.
And I agree with you — you can't get there by chipping away and refining and digging into details. You have to do it naturally, because people can feel it when it's contrived. But they also can feel it when it's real.
That's why we're working with a lot of creative people who are making films as well as streaming TV. I've worked with a lot of young songwriters and producers on this newest record, Spark of Light, to get their input and get a fresh take on music today. At the same time, the young writers and producers are looking to me to get a classic take on music. Because they want their music to be part of a catalog that [lives on] 30, 40 years later. People know your music for all different reasons than just putting it on a record and promoting it.
There is a stage where you're thinking, Is this too much? But I learned that comedy and music create the gift that keeps on giving.
And that's exactly why people love the Lonely Island, right?
Yeah, yeah. And I never planned on that. I was a big fan of theirs, and I was a big fan of "Saturday Night Live," but I never thought I would carve out something like the "Jack Sparrow" video, which opened up a generation, or two generations, behind me who have become fans since then.
Did you feel like you saw a shift in your audience after that? You said that it opened up your music to new generations, but was that a tangible thing?
Yeah, I witnessed it. I felt it.
[The night it aired], I found a place to hide in the ["SNL"] building while everyone was watching it, because if they [didn't] like it, I [didn't] really want to go through that. And they loved it.
John Mayer was there that night — he's a friend of mine from Connecticut. And he said to me, "Tomorrow, you're gonna see something you've never seen before." And I said, "Well, tell me it's gonna be good." And he said, "No, no, they're gonna love this."
The next day, I came downstairs, and my daughter was at the kitchen table, reading the quotes that were coming in from people, their responses to the video. She looked at me and said, "Dad, you're not going to believe what's going on."
From that time on, younger people in the streets would recognize me — it would be about "Jack Sparrow" and about the comedy, when for many, many years before, it was always about long hair, the hits, my rock days. The people who love this video were eager to hear what I was doing next musically.
Was comedy something that you were passionate about before then? Or something that you wanted to bring into your career?
I've always loved it from a certain distance, because my primary focus was music since I can remember. I was probably around 11 or 12 years old when I picked up my first guitar. I was listening to a lot of blues, like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. I fell in love with the blues and started playing electric guitar, and put together a band. I knew what I wanted to do, and it was make music.
But comedy was something I loved. I was constantly in trouble with the principal at my school, because I couldn't take the work seriously. When they found out that I was being signed to Columbia Records, to Epic Records, they stopped putting pressure on me to cut my hair. And the next thing we all knew, I was having a career in the business. But it took me 18 years to have my first hit.
So many people would have given up after waiting that long. What kept you going?
What kept me going was that love for it. I'm grateful that I was surrounded by women most of my younger life. And my mother was so supportive of me pursuing music [growing up], and [now] I have three daughters.
But if I knew how hard it was going to be, I'm not sure I would've made the trek. Because there was so much time when there were no paychecks coming. And you're in the music business in Connecticut, if it snows, your concert is closed. So the promoters will call and apologize, but when you hang up the phone, you realize you have to figure out how you're going to feed your kids at night. That's the most intense pressure and excruciating experience for the "starving artist" syndrome — the reality that you may not be able to provide for your family.
We were getting eviction notices and our landlord would beg me to make sure the next check didn't bounce. So I started writing songs for other artists, and I was able to put full focus on my next record, and the one after that, and the one after that in '83. It all came together.
I tell young people that, whenever somebody says, "I've been at this for 10 years already," I say, "It took me 18 for my first hit, so don't give up. But know that it can take that long. And when it does finally happens, it's an even greater success story."
What do you tell people when they ask you about how to have longevity as an artist, especially since you did have such a long road to success?
My first instinct is compassion for anybody who's been at it this long… Having success once is not enough. I've seen people win GRAMMYs, and the next year, they disappeared from the map.
It took me longer to appreciate the success that I was having, because there was a part of me that was so protective of my own heart. I didn't want to get too excited. I find that it's not as big of a success as everyone was claiming it was. I didn't know how to celebrate success until I was sure [it was a success].
When you finally start to have success, and you've been hungry for so many years, you move into a different gear, to a different mode, wanting to ensure the continuation of success for your catalog. You realize that you can't take anything for granted, so you learn how to promote your records better. You learn how to partner, be a better teammate for the record label.
If you do your job right in the studio, making your record, it's going to do most of the heavy lifting for you. It's going to create word of mouth, you're gonna have core fans coming out and supporting you. But you can never take it for granted.
You started out as a songwriter and had a lot of success doing that. Is there a song that you gave away that you wish you would have recorded?
I don't think so. I've passed on some songs that were played for me, that were ballads that felt a lot like what I've done in my career already. And it felt like they're not a career changer. I think I could've had fun singing it, but it's not a real test record — like a real, career-establishing record.
I have the good fortune of the bar being kind of high — like, the vocal performances require the kind of intensity that is not common for a male voice. So my job basically was to hit it out of the park.
When I was a kid, I grew up [being] into the Yankees. I found out later in my career that [some] power hitters became fans of mine because they related to the intensity, and the power of [my] music.
I hope Aaron Judge is blasting some Michael Bolton to get inspired in the locker room.
[Laughs.] Everybody could use a lot more Aaron Judge.
When you look back at your catalog, which song — or songs — feel the most like the artist that you set out to be?
Probably a combination of a few. The biggest hit that I've had is "How Am I Supposed To Live Without You?" It went to everyone twice because I released it again. It was [originally] released by Laura Branigan, and it did really well with her.
About eight, nine years later, I released it myself as an artist compared to just being a songwriter. And something else happened — that version is much bigger than the first time around.
At the same time, "Said I Loved You, But I Lied" is one of my favorite records that I've ever made.
Why is that?
Mutt Lange was my producer, and he's always done something very different that makes the record itself stand out in the middle of these hit songs — and none of them specifically sound like a Mutt Lange record.
It's pretty amazing, the good fortune of finally doing what I love to do on my own terms. And that's what happens when you have enough success.
What's a standout memory for you from everything that you've done?
I had a chance to sing with Luciano Pavarotti. And I am a tenor — we don't use the term tenor or baritone or anything like that in pop music. But when a tenor hears another tenor on the radio, you stop what you're doing and you listen to how these high notes get sung and held for a long time. The control and the power that the great tenors had is something that really excited me, and I had the opportunity to work with all three tenors and do something that I had never, ever dreamed.
It took me about two months to learn Italian and to learn opera. I was up until 5, 6 o'clock in the morning, almost every night trying to absorb it all before this performance in Italy in Pavorotti's home city.
I can only imagine trying to actually sing something like that, let alone on stage, with one of the most iconic stars from that country.
It was very daunting. Exciting, like, otherworldly. But it was very, very daunting.
Pavarotti walked in after we were warming up the orchestra. It was an outside venue, an amphitheater, and Princess Di was in the front row. Bono was on stage during a song or two.
We began getting ready, and Pavarotti heard me singing with the opera, and he walked over to me. I was nervous. And he said, "I see you have been studying the tenor."
I said, "Actually, I've been studying you. And I don't know what I've been doing with my voice all these years." He smiled ear to ear and said, "You do not sell as many records as you have if you're not doing the right thing. Let's rehearse."
That was the beginning of our friendship.
How does the career that you've built compare to what you envisioned for yourself when you were first starting out in the business?
Sometimes I feel like I'm the Forrest Gump of the music business. Because each scene, I'm standing next to Stevie Wonder, or Ray Charles, or Pavarotti, or Paul McCartney, or somebody who's a part of my love of music and were a powerful influence on me. I never thought, One day I'd love to meet this person or with this person. It just happened. When it finally started happening, it just became surreal. Dream-like.
What's left on the Michael Bolton bucket bucket list?
I think there's definitely some more recording to do. There is also definitely more streaming television, film, comedy. And maybe it's a musical, maybe it's a film, I'm not sure, but there are a couple of projects looming.
At the same time, when we got offered to do the Lonely Island "Jack Sparrow" video, it was a surprise. So I'm kind of thinking that what's gonna happen it's gonna reveal itself, and surprise me again.
Do you think you'd ever do another Lonely Island thing, was that such a moment that you can't really repeat it?
I would do it in a heartbeat if the script had "funny" written all over it. That's the only sin you can have with comedy, is for it not to be funny. Then you can't get away with anything.
Living Legends: Kool & The Gang Are Still Celebrating On New Album, 'People Just Want To Have Fun'
The last original members of three-time GRAMMY-winning group Kool & The Gang discuss stories behind their classic hits, hip-hop samples, and how they kept the creativity going on their new album.
Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music who are still going strong today. This week, GRAMMY.com spoke with Robert Bell and George Brown, respectively the bassist and drummer of legendary funk/disco group Kool & The Gang. Their latest album, People Just Want To Have Fun, is out now and the group are touring throughout the summer and fall.
Fifty-nine years into their career, Kool & The Gang's music endures and still gets the party going. You can't go to a wedding or other big celebration without hearing one of the GRAMMY winners' many undeniably groovy, joyful classics — "Jungle Boogie" (1973), "Celebration" (1980), "Get Down On It" (1981), "Ladies Night" (1979), to name a few. And they're still making new music!
The group's iconic horns and drums are the DNA of so much other music — over 1900 tracks — including many classic hip-hop tracks, making them one of the most-sampled bands ever. Their chilled 1974 instrumental "Summer Madness" is featured on DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's "Summertime," Ice Cube's "You Know How We Do It," and more recently, as the main instrumental in Jhené Aiko's "Summer 2020." Elements of "Jungle Boogie" can be heard on Luniz and Mike Marshall's "I Got 5 on It," TLC's "Ain't 2 Proud 2 Beg," Madonna's "Erotica" and Public Enemy's "Welcome to the Terrordome." Last year, 23-year-old Brazilian house sensation Mochakk paid tribute to one of their deep cuts, "Sombrero Sam," with a dance floor reimagining of the jazz track.
Kool & The Gang often get tagged as a disco band, but real heads know they got their start in jazz. Their 1970 self-titled debut album is fully instrumental and opens with a funky, swinging, jubilant mission statement that just makes you feel good. The group's fourth studio album, 1973's Wild And Peaceful saw them channel their funk and disco power and breakthrough into the charts and the wider public consciousness, with "Funky Stuff," "Jungle Boogie" and "Hollywood Swinging."
Their funky tunes have also soundtracked a wide range of memorable moments in film. 1976's "Open Sesame" was featured in the wildly popular film (and soundtrack) Saturday Night Fever, cementing their status as household names in disco. "Summer Madness" was featured in another huge blockbuster, 1976's Rocky, and in 1994, Quentin Tarantino featured "Jungle Boogie" in Pulp Fiction (and on the soundtrack), bringing their music to another generation.
In 1979, the band brought in Brazilian producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist Eumir Deodato and their first lead vocalist James "J.T." Taylor. This led to a string of hit singles and albums: Ladies' Night in 1979, Celebrate! in 1980 and Something Special in 1981. The band continued with a prolific release schedule through the '90s, followed by two studio albums each in the '90s and '00s. In 2021, they released Perfect Union, their first original music in over a decade and final project with Ronald Bell.
The band began in 1964 with brothers Robert "Kool" Bell and Ronald "Khalis" Bell, along with high school friends Dennis "D.T." Thomas, George Brown, Robert "Spike" Mickens, Ricky West and Charles Smith in their hometown of Jersey City, New Jersey. The surviving original members – bassist Robert "Kool" Bell and drummer George Brown – are keen to continue their mission of bringing joyful music to the world with live shows and new music as long as they can.
They recently released a new LP — their 34th studio album! — People Just Want To Have Fun and are touring North America this summer, along with a Las Vegas residency in October. The album features some of the last studio work from the band’s late legendary horn players Thomas and Ronald Bell. Brown also has a brand-new memoir, Too Hot: Kool & The Gang & Me, detailing the legendary self-taught drummer and songwriter's musical and life journey.
GRAMMY.com sat down with the living funk legends Robert Bell and Brown to discuss the stories behind some of their classics, the hit-making partnership with Deodato and Taylor, and their new album.
Kool & the Gang has performed continuously longer than any other R&B group and y'all have been together for 59 years. What's your secret?
George Brown: A love for the art of music and for the arts as a whole, and a love for performing for people to give them two hours of happiness and relief from the everyday humdrum and all that's going on in this world. We love to perform and it gives us a release as well. It brings people together big time. And that changes the quality of society and culture because you're bringing people together, and all those cultures mix and we believe makes us all better for it.
Robert "Kool" Bell: Well, sticking together. When we first started, our parents always told us, "Be sure that you guys stick together." That was many years ago. Before Kool & the Gang, we called ourselves the Jazziacs, which we started in 1964. Then we were the Soul Town Band, then Kool & the Flames, then Kool & the Gang in 1969 when we put out our very first record. We have been together for all those years; next year will be 60 years.
Kool & the Gang is one of the most-sampled bands. What does it mean to you that your music has played such an important part in hip-hop, throughout its continued evolution over the past 50 years?
Brown: It's a great honor for the younger artists to see and hear what we were doing and to apply it into their music. [It's like] people saying, "We love what they've done. Let's try it in our music and make another entity out of it." You can't get more honored than that.
Bell: It's a blessing. We are the most sampled band in hip-hop, but we are also [one of] the most sampled bands in the world.
What do you feel when you hear Kool & the Gang's horns and drums on another track, in a whole new context?
Brown: Once again, I feel honored. It shows the awareness people have of Kool & The Gang, and that's a wonderful thing that adds to the longevity and to the mystique. And I think it also adds to the genius of the band, in what we created — I don't mean it in an egotistical way — where it can be co-opted into somebody else's music and it works for them too.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine to be honored this way. When we started [making music] there was no such thing as sampling and even in the early '80s when things started coming up, we didn't think we were going to be such a darling of the hip-hop world. Now, we're [one of] the most sampled bands and I'm the most sampled drummer. An interviewer said I'm like the grandfather of this music and I said "Really?" My bandmates and I don't let it go to our heads. At the end of the day, like everybody else, we're guys who write songs to make people happy.
Bell: It tells me that people are listening and respect what we do. There have been some very creative songs [sampling our music]—"Summer Madness" on Will Smith's "Summertime" Diddy and Mase [did "Feel So Good"] with "Hollywood Swinging," A Tribe Called Quest [on "Oh My God" and "Mr. Muhammad."] There's many, many more.
"Jungle Boogie" is one of those iconic, oft-sampled tracks. How did that one come together?
Bell: My brother Ronald was the key writer for "Jungle Boogie." We were dealing with some issues with our record company at the time. They came to us and said, "Listen, you guys have some regional hits but we have a guy that we want to work with you.” He had some big records, [including] "Soul Makossa" by Manu Dibango. We met with the guy one time and we weren't really feeling it. So we went to the studio — Baggy's in Downtown New York — one morning and we created "Funky Stuff," "Hollywood Swinging" and "Jungle Boogie" — Top 5 records. Well, Top 40 for "Funky Stuff," but No. 1 on the R&B chart for six or seven weeks and the other two [were] Top 5 on the pop charts.
Brown: Long story short, we started working on some tracks as we got to rehearsal studio and Ronald had the horn line and I came in over that groove, which is kind of derivative of "Funky Stuff." We were going to call the song "Jungle Gym" but Dennis Thomas came in and said "Let's call it “People Boogie" or "Jungle Boogie." So we started putting horns that kind of sounded like elephants.
Quentin Tarantino did us one of the biggest favors of all when he put it in Pulp Fiction. It was crazy. Who would have thought?
It was the same with "Hollywood Swinging." Ricky said, "I have an idea for a song called 'Hollywood.'" Frankie Crocker was a big [radio] DJ in New York and he had a thing where he'd go "Hollywooood." It's a life story about him, going out to California to become successful, sort of like a reverse of "Midnight Train to Georgia." We don't say “These are hits!” we just say, "Okay, sounds good." And people get it and take it to another level. It's amazing.
Do you think that the specific combination of the bandmates being friends and having known each other for a long time helps creatively?
Brown: Absolutely. Because if you take any band and the way they play guitar or bass or horns or piano, the pressure that they play with, the way they strum their guitar, the way they move the air, it's personal to them. When the chemistry works between the drummer and the bass player, because of the sensitivities and the way they play, it just works. And next thing you know, you have a whole band and the chemistry is there, no matter how long you've been apart. As soon as you sit down together, that same sound comes out.
In the late '70s, the band started working with Brazilian producer Eumir Deodato. How did that partnership come together and how did he help shape the band's sound?
Brown: That's my dude. He's a wonderful musician. You know, when he was in Brazil at 17, so many people asked him to produce and write strings and arrangements. He's got a bunch of his own gold and platinum albums, [in addition to] other artists'.
Deodato acknowledged my writing and took it to another level.
I was always writing poems and lyrics and playing piano and I'd get a solo on the album. But it wouldn't be taken as seriously until he came along. Everything we worked on with him went platinum. It was like he had a magic wand. I presume it was from learning from him when we were working together, just bringing up our acumen as producers and musicians.
Bell: Deodato was doing his album at the House of Music and that's how we met him, because we also chose that studio to record the Ladies Night project. Of course, we knew Deodato because he was a jazz guy, and my brother was a jazz lover as well. We thought that would be a perfect match.
We figured that working with Deodato we'd do a jazzier album. [Laughs.] But it was less jazz and more pop. For the session when we did "Celebration" and Deodato brought in a 40-piece orchestra. When they started mixing the record, my brother went into the studio and said, "What happened to the strings?" Deodato said, "Well, that's not the record. This is the record. This is a hit. Here's a tape of the orchestra so you can listen to it whenever you want."
["Celebration" became the] most played record in the world, a No. 1 record; they even played on the space station. Deodato knew it. He knew where we wanted to go and where he wanted to take us. That was a successful match for three albums.
What do you think Deodato helped bring out of you, George?
Brown: He was the guy that said, "That sounds great. Those chord changes and that melody, that works." He'd come in when I was playing piano in the studio before work, I'd be playing flowery stuff, just making up stuff. But he would say, "Señor, you've done it again! That's quite cute." He knows. And that's the genius. I think [he has] that type of personality that can really see through a maze and say there's something there and point it out.
Did y'all have any idea "Ladies Night" would be as big as it was?
Bell: Well, we felt good about it. This was our very first record with a lead singer. I was hanging out in New York with my wife and we were going to Studio 54 and Regine's and some of the other hotspots in New York at the time. And we realized that every weekend there was a ladies' night. I went to the guys and said, "Hey, I have a great idea for a song with our new lead singer. Ladies night." My brother said, "Wow. There's one of those everywhere around the world." Frankie Crocker broke that record in New York.
Brown: It was also a big surprise. I was coming from my manager's office, walking down Seventh Avenue, and I came up with a baseline and when I got back to my apartment, I started harmonizing the piano chords.
When all of us started working on it, we put some horns in there that were expressing the same lyrics the girls were singing, and some disco sounds. It was the right tempo and everybody sounded great. Then it's platinum, platinum, platinum, overnight. It just kept going. Holy smokes, it was crazy. When I showed [Deodato] the track he said, "Ah, señor, this is what we're looking for!" Getting with the right people and taking their counsel always works.
The band started out jazzier, then went funk and disco, into R&B and '80s flavor and beyond. How have you been able to adapt to a changing music landscape while staying fresh and true to yourselves?
Bell: Well, when you hear one of our records, you can tell that it's Kool & The Gang. On the vocal side, there's been some changes. We've had different lead singers since J.T. left, but we always put our little sound in there; in the horns, in the baseline, guitar parts.
Brown: We write we want and what we feel, not because everybody's writing this now. And we're pretty eclectic. We were interviewed in England and the gentleman said, "You guys are very eclectic, you got some big cojones. Most artists find their niche and stay there." We never have.
It's something very specific about the band because we've always been open. We were teenage jazz musicians turned pop stars. Jazz is very eclectic… it's not just a common cadence. That's what we love, so that's how we've always been.
You have a new album, People Just Want To Have Fun. Tell me about the inspiration for it.
Brown: It is like everything we've done from the beginning to now, but all the new harmonics and cadence. The vocals and lyrics are different, but we're still talking about having fun. And we're still bringing some wonderful love songs and some songs of unrequited love and temptation and party songs.
The lyrics and the vocal quality are different. Sha Sha Jones, who's a great [song]writer who has been writing on our team for years, she's doing some of the leads, which is unusual for Kool & The Gang. [She has a] gorgeous voice. It's harmonically, lyrically and vocally new. We have different mixes coming out. The "Let's Party" pop mix is out and a rap with Afrobeat mix is coming.
Has it been challenging to continue the legacy of the band after the loss of Ronald and Dennis?
Brown: Well, that's why we did the album. We lost our manager some months ago as well. We're moving right along and the band is doing well. And the legacy of the band — God willing, 100 years from now they'll still be playing our songs. I do believe that.
It goes on — it's sad, but there's nothing you can do but press on regardless, because that's what life is all about. You can't say, "Oh, that's it." You have to pick yourself up each time and strengthen yourself and move forward. That is the spirit of humanity.
Bell: Yes, it has always been a little difficult when you lose original members. That was with Ricky Wes, Spike Mickens, Charles Smith, now my brother and D.T. There's no one left but George and I. The blessing is that we're still here, people are loving the music, and we're still touring and having fun. [Chuckles]
When you were a kid in Jersey City, did you ever imagine you'd still be making music now, and that your music would be so loved and celebrated?
Brown: Believe it or not, yes. Ronald knew it. I knew that what we were doing was going to blossom. To what extent, I didn't know. As kids in Jersey City, working in the clubs when we were teenagers to two o'clock in the morning, that gave us a taste. And it just blossomed.
When we did amateur hour at the Apollo Theater, the musicians who were in the orchestra said, "You guys are going to make it. You guys got this new thing." Honi Coles was emceeing and he said, "You see these kids, ladies and gentlemen, they come out and they play jazz, they're not playing the songs of today. You're going to hear from them. Watch."
Bell: It definitely has been a blessing, in a business that can sometimes be very difficult to survive in, with so much competition and making the right decisions, etcetera, etcetera. I have a saying, you live and learn, and then you learn to live. People sometimes ask me, "Would you do it the same way again?" Yeah, because that's how I learned what it's all about. That's why we're still around today. And that, indeed, is a blessing.