Catching Up With…
George “Funky” Brown
Five decades on, the legendary dance band Kool & the Gang was recently honored with a Soul Train Legend Award and given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. One drummer has been there from the start.
by Bob Girouard
Kool & the Gang has sold 70 million records, including thirty-four top tens, and won seven American Music Awards and two Grammys. And the group is regularly cited among the most sampled acts in history. But despite all the accolades and milestones, George “Funky” Brown insists that his priorities are family and community. The drummer is particularly proud of his work with underprivileged kids at the Boyle Heights Technology Youth Center in east L.A., where he assisted with a musical project—though not the kind you might expect. “I helped them put together a heavy metal album,” Brown says with a chuckle. “It was seven or eight different bands. We pumped it up real good!
“All of us [in Kool & the Gang] come from humble beginnings,” the Jersey City native shares. “Early on we discovered each other’s personal and professional limitations. So to keep our brotherhood intact we developed a gentleman’s code, maintaining a high degree of respect for each other.”
The approach certainly seems to have worked for the group, whose cavalcade of hits includes “Ladies Night,” “Joanna,” “Get Down on It,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging,” and a song that for multiple generations is synonymous with the word party, the chart-topping 1980 disco-pop smash “Celebration.” “Our sound evolved,” Brown says. “If you look at the earlier stuff from the ’70s, it was more jazz influenced and swung a bit more. You can hear it in my playing, as I was influenced by guys like Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and Jack DeJohnette. I was pretty much free to play what I felt, letting my foot and the backbeat go where they wanted to.”
A longtime martial arts enthusiast, Brown began to suffer from a degeneration of the discs in his lower back, which made drumming excruciating. In 2012, following a newly developed stem-cell procedure, he was back out on stage within a month, and these days he shows no signs of slowing down. “All musicians, no matter what form of entertainer they are, are there to make people happy,” Brown says. “To see the smiles on faces says it all.”