Thursday, June 22, 2006

KOOLOBIT: Charles Smith

The death has been announced of Charles Smith, guitarist with Kool and the Gang.

Born in 1948, Claydes Eugene Smith grew up in New Jersey. His father bought him his first electric guitar from a Newark pawn shop when he was a teenager, and the next year introduced him to jazz when he bought him a Kenny Burrel record; the two purchases would shape Smith's life. Clayde's dad then stumped up the $129 for him and his friends to record a single under the name Claydes and The Rhythms. They sold three copies, to themselves, which isn't quite a recoup.

The early formation of the Gang had an element of the Youth Training Scheme about it, as Claydes was working on a US government community programme when he made business and political contacts that led to the provision of some plum rehearsal space in Jersey City for his band; Success was still some way in the future, though, and Smith would drift through jobs driving oil trucks and working in a box factory. The band tried working under the name Kool & The Flames for a while, and scored a record contract when invited to play backing for Walter Foster's audition for Redd Coach.

Foster was not so lucky; he went back to the day job driving James Brown's bus, while Kool and the Flames changed their name to The Gang to avoid confusion with Brown's Fanous Flames.

1969 saw their debut album, which delivered up two Billboard R&B hits Kool and the Gang and Let The Music Take Your Mind. Keen to make a quick turnaround on their investment, Redd Coach sold the group on to DeLite. Their offices shared a block with George Clinton's apartments, and after a chance meeting saw the band dazzled by Clinton's style, the Gang took the decision to add a visual aspect to their act as well.

Things were going well for the band - even an attempt to stitch them up by local police led not to charges, but the writing of Who's Going To Take The Weight - the repeated question of the cops who planted drugs in their rehearsal space. But they were locked in to a terrible contract which saw their money being channelled through their management team; they would slowly work themselves free of it, but end up fighting amongst themselves over money, including one time which saw two of the Gang caught in the middle of someone else's wedding cake.

A series of solid R&B hit albums looked in danger as disco presented a challenge to not just their act, but their entire genre. Despearate to find a new focus, for 1979's Ladies Night the band pulled in a new singer, JT Taylor, and a new producer, Eumir Deodato. The results were astonishing, giving the Gang their first platinum selling album, and a slot in the Billboard Top Ten. It was this latter achievement which Claydes decided to celebrate by changing his name to Charles. (We'd have had a cake or something ourselves, but each to their own.)

The next year, Celebration, gave them their first US crossover number one, and provided a simple fallback choice for any advertiser or researcher looking for a tune to slap over footage of some sort of celebration.

A series of hit singles and albums were to follow and, by a quirk of touring fate, they were in the right place to be the only Americans to appear on Band Aid in 1984.

Things started to fall apart towards the middle of the decade - to the death of original member Ricky Westfield and ill-health of Spike Mickens was added the departure of Taylor; by 1988 the group were in a financial meltdown. Royalties started to dry up; loans taken out in the first half of the decade started to prove harder to service. They were in for a bumpy ride, until 1993. Ironically, their financial salvation was the invention of sampling - royalties for snatches of their earlier hits started to roll in, and the lean times were over. And, in 1996, Taylor rejoined the band.

Charles Smith had remained an active memeber of the Gang until this January when ill-health had forced him off the road; the cause of death has yet to be publicly announced. Manager Tia Sinclair issued a statement on behalf of the band:

We've lost a member of our family, as well as an infinitely creative and gifted artist who was with the band from the very beginning."