Charles Smith, 57, Guitarist for Kool and the Gang
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Charles Smith, who died Tuesday at 57 in Maplewood, N.J., was the guitarist for Kool and the Gang for more than 35 years, from its beginning as a high school band called the Jazziacs to the 1980s when it released chart-topping hits like “Celebration.”
As recently as last January, Smith toured with the band, which is one of the longest-running acts in popular music.
In addition to “Celebration” (1980) Kool and the Gang scored hits with “Jungle Boogie” (1974), “Ladies Night” (1979),”Take My Heart” (1981), and “Joanna” (1983), the latter two written by Smith.
Smith, and the six other original members of the band,grew up in Jersey City. Jazz was the music they grew up with, and when Smith joined Robert “Kool” Bell and his brother Ronald, who played bass and saxophone, in 1966, they formed a jazz ensemble. As they began to get work backing up singers sporting the Motown sound, the band changed its name to the Soul Town Band and the Soul Train Review. Their penultimate moniker was Kool and the Flames, which a record executive apparently modified when the band was first signed, in 1968, to prevent confusion with James Brown’s Famous Flames.
Kool and the Gang was an instrumental funk band that sported a fat bass groove under jazzy guitar playing, as typified by “Jungle Boogie,” its first big hit. It was raw funk, a much wilder sound than the polished disco- and R&B-influenced pop that would become the stuff of their 1980s hits.
The Bell brothers joined the Nation of Islam in the early 1970s, changing their names to Ronald Five X and Robert Nine X, known on record sleeves as Khalis and Muhammed Bayyan; Smith modified his name as well, changing his given name Claydes to Charles, apparently to avoid drawing attention to himself on lists of credits.
In 1979, Kool and the Gang retooled, hiring a proper lead vocalist and big-name producers. The result was a string of hits, including “Ladies Night” and “Celebration,” a song that achieved a worldwide popularity far out of proportion to anything else the band recorded.
Aside from minor personnel changes, Kool and the Gang’s lineup remained fairly constant over the decades. While hits became scarce after the mid-1980s, the band continued to tour and experienced something of a revival when hip-hop artists began to sample its grooves extensively. In recent years, still touring, the band found its most enthusiastic customers to be corporate functions and casinos.
Claydes Charles Smith
Born September 6, 1948, in Jersey City, N.J.; died June 20 after a long illness in Maplewood, N.J.; survived by six children, Claydes Smith, Justin Smith, Aaron Corbin, August Williams, Uranus Guray, Tyteen Humes, and nine grandchildren.