In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Certain people get a whole lot of credit for being pop chameleons: David Bowie, Madonna, Drake. Certain people don’t. The New Jersey group Kool & The Gang are seldom mentioned on that list, but they belong. Kool & The Gang started out as teenage jazz instrumentalists in the mid-’60s. They went on to become nasty funkateers and smooth disco groove-salesmen. They had their greatest success in the post-disco dance-pop ’80s. Between 1973 and 1987, Kool & The Gang landed 12 different singles in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100. And their one #1 hit stands as an eternal gift to the wedding bands of the world — a bone-simple and immediately recognizable dancefloor clarion call that doesn’t even require anyone to memorize a second verse.
Bassist Robert “Kool” Bell was 14 years old when he and his keyboardist brother Ronald formed the Jazziacs, an instrumental jazz group in Jersey City in 1964. The members of the Jazziacs — some of whom are still in Kool & The Gang to this day — were all high school friends of the Bells. They were young, but their roots in jazz were deep. Thelonious Monk was Robert’s godfather, and they’ve said that people like Pharoah Sanders and Leon Thomas would come to jam with them at their weekly local gig. Eventually, the group put a harder R&B edge into what they were doing, and they changed their name to Kool & The Gang in 1969.
That same year, the record producer Gene Redd became the group’s manager, and he signed them to De-Lite Records, the indie label where he was working at the time. Redd produced and arranged the group’s records, starting with their 1969 debut single, a raw and horn-heavy piece of instrumental funk that was also called “Kool & The Gang.” That single peaked at #59 on the Hot 100, and Kool & The Gang had a few more minor hits in the early ’70s before the 1973 album Wild And Peaceful exploded. Two of the songs from Wild And Peaceful made it into the top 10: “Jungle Boogie” (peaked at #4, a 9) and “Hollywood Swinging” (peaked at #6, an 8).
By this point, Kool & The Gang were consistent hitmakers on R&B radio, but they went a few years before they scored another crossover. This was a group with no real lead singer; most of the vocals were just the musicians in the band chanting. They weren’t exactly suited for the disco era. The group tried to smooth their sound out in mid-’70s, but they struggled with the transition, losing much of their audience along the way. (They did have a song on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, which must’ve been a windfall.)
The group’s fortunes changed in 1979. That’s when they decided to bring in a full-time lead singer, figuring that none of them had the vocal range to sing ballads. They brought in James “JT” Taylor, a South Carolina native with a rich and smooth voice. That same year, the band also met the Brazilian musician Eumir Deodato, who’d had a freak smash with the 1973 single “Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001),” a nine-minute instrumental prog-funk cover of the Richard Strauss classical piece Stanley Kubrick had used so memorably in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (“Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001)” somehow peaked at #2. It’s a 6.)
The band brought Deodato in as co-producer and arranger on the 1979 album Ladies’ Night, and Deodato stuck around for the next three LPs after that. (Some Deodato trivia: He went on to arrange strings for Björk’s albums Post and Homogenic. Also, his daughter Kennya married Stephen Baldwin. This means he’s the step-grandfather of Justin Bieber, another artist who will appear in this column.) On Ladies’ Night, Kool & The Gang found the smoothly funky synth-funk sound that would take them into the ’80s. The album gave the group two more top-10 hits: The title track (peaked at #8, an 8) and “Too Hot” (peaked at #5, a 6).
On “Ladies’ Night,” there’s a line about “come on, let’s all celebrate.” This was the entire message of the single that would finally put Kool & The Gang at #1. Ronald Bell once told Billboard that he got the idea for “Celebration” when he was reading the Quran: “I was reading the passage where God was creating Adam, and the angels were celebrating and singing praises. That inspired me to write the basic chords and the line ‘Everyone around the world, come on, let’s celebrate.'” There is absolutely nothing about “Celebration” that would indicate that it’s inspired by Islamic scripture, but there you go.
All eight members of Kool & The Gang have songwriting credits, and Deodato has one, as well. But “Celebration” does not sound like the kind of song that it took nine people to write. Lyrically, it’s one of the simplest songs ever to hit #1. It’s just a song about partying. There’s no subtext. There’s not even an allusion to the idea that this celebration could be a respite from the trials of day-to-day life. Instead, it’s just a let’s have fun song, pure and simple: “Bring your good times and your laughter, too/ We gonna celebrate and party with you.” The second verse is the same as the first. Compared to this, Chic’s “Good Times” is Tolstoy.
But the simplicity of “Celebration” is its charm. The song only really has a few parts: The itchy-scratchy funk guitar that the band had been using for more than a decade, the euphoric horn stabs, the three-note bass-and-keyboard riff. Taylor’s vocals are calmly ecstatic, and they tell you that this is the dependably pleasant guy that you want at your party. The band joins in on the refrain: “Celebrate good times, come on.” They also bleat out the wee-hoo! that might be the single most crucial part of the song. These things don’t add up to much, but they’re fun in a simple and undemanding sort of way. It’s an airy and frictionless and calculatedly inoffensive sort of fun, but it’s fun nonetheless.
“Celebration” is chipper enough that, if you’re not in the mood, it can get annoying. I don’t necessarily want these guys to be telling me to celebrate good times when I don’t feel like celebrating good times. But if you’re drunk enough in the right communal setting, “Celebration” becomes inevitable. It’s a part of our shared heritage. It might as well be “Happy Birthday.”
For my entire conscious life, “Celebration” has been a staple of weddings and graduations and office parties, to the point where it’s weird for me to think that there was ever a moment when the song was new. The lyrics are vague and generic enough that they could plausibly used for anything that might ever require celebrating. I have to imagine that every wedding band in America learned “Celebration” the same day they first heard the song. When the song was only a few months old, TV broadcasters were already using it to carpet-bomb sporting events: The 1980 World Series, the 1981 Super Bowl, the 1981 NBA Finals. Later on, Walter Mondale used “Celebration” as the theme song of his 1984 presidential campaign, though he ultimately didn’t have much to celebrate.
The event that directly led “Celebration” to #1 wasn’t sports. It was geo-politics: In January of 1981, minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president, Iran released 52 Americans who’d been hostages in the country for more than a year. News broadcasts used “Celebration” to mark the hostages’ return. As in: “Celebrate the safe return of political prisoners and the end of a humiliating diplomatic debacle, come on.” A couple of weeks later, the song was #1. The pop charts don’t often reflect the national mood, but in the winter of 1981, we Americans were apparently feeling ourselves. “Celebration” was in the right place at the right time.
Kool & The Gang never returned to #1 after “Celebration,” but they stuck around. They made it up to #2 a couple of times, and they were landing top-10 hits well into the ’80s. (Their final top-10 single, 1987’s “Stone Love,” peaked at #10. It’s a 5.) Kool & The Gang stayed active. They took part on 1984’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” the 1984 British all-star charity single. James “JT” Taylor left the band, returned, and then left again. The Gang opened the Van Halen/David Lee Roth reunion tour in 2012. They’ve been sampled dozens of times, including on some huge hits. And they’re still out there, touring hard on the nostalgia circuit. Robert “Kool” Bell is only 69 years old, and he and his Gang have been making music for 55 of those years. They’ll presumably continue celebrating good times as long as there are good times to be celebrated.
BONUS BEATS: Kylie Minogue had a minor UK hit with a 1992 cover of “Celebration.” Here’s her video for it:
(In the US, Minogue’s highest-charting single is her 1988 version of “The Loco-Motion,” a song that had already been a #1 hit for both Little Eva and Grand Funk. Minogue’s version of “The Loco-Motion” peaked at #3; it’s a 6.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Al Gore enjoying “Celebration” on a 1994 episode of The Simpsons:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Boards Of Canada sampling “Celebration” on their 1996 track “The Way You Show”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from a 2001 episode of Friends where Ross attempts to play “Celebration” on bagpipes:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Fix-It Felix dancing to “Celebration” in a scene from the 2012 film Wreck-It Ralph: