Charles Smith

Guitarist with Kool & the Gang


Claydes Eugene Smith (Charles Smith), guitarist, songwriter and producer: born Jersey City, New Jersey 6 September 1948; married (six children); died Maplewood, New Jersey 20 June 2006.

One of the most popular funk groups of all time, Kool & the Gang scored an impressive run of 17 Top Forty singles in the UK between 1979 and 1986. Infectious tracks like "Ladies Night", "Celebration" and "Get Down on It" still fill dancefloors the world over while the band remain in demand as a concert attraction.

The lead guitarist Charles Smith was a founder member of the group and played with them until January this year. Equally adept at playing rhythm or lead, Smith co-wrote some of Kool & the Gang's biggest hits, like "Joanna" (a US and UK No 2 in 1983), and provided singles such as "Love & Understanding (Come Together)" (1976), "Take My Heart (You Can Have It If You Want It" (1981) and "Stone Love" (1987) with their instantly recognisable grooves.

He was born Claydes Smith in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1948. In 1961, his father bought him a Kay Electric guitar at a pawnshop for $32. Thomas Smith was so keen for his son to have a career in music that, in 1963, he financed the recording of the first single by Claydes & the Rhythms, the group the boy had formed with his schoolfriends George Brown (drums) and Richard Westfield (keyboards), although the end product - "I Can't Go On Without You" - only served as a calling card for the embryonic band.

Claydes Smith left Lincoln High School in New Jersey in 1965 and, with Brown and Westfield, eventually joined forces with the Jazziacs, a group comprising the brothers Robert "Kool" Bell (bass) and Ronald Bell (saxophones, flute, keyboards), Robert Mickens (trumpet) and Dennis Thomas (alto sax), to become the Soul Town Revue.

In 1968, the group, now called Kool & the Flames, backed Walter Foster, a bus driver for James Brown, at an audition for the writer and producer Gene Redd. He wasn't much taken with Foster but enjoyed the youngsters' blend of jazz, soul and rhythm'n'blues. They used the title of their 1969 début single, an instrumental entitled "Kool & the Gang", as their new moniker.

"Funky Stuff" (1973), "Jungle Boogie" (1974) and "Hollywood Swinging" (1974) crossed over from the R&B charts to the US Top Thirty but the group's career seemed to be tapering off. In 1978, the Gang decided to broaden their mainstream appeal and recruited as lead vocalist James "JT" Taylor and also added Clifford Adams (trombone) and Kevin Bell (keyboards).

With the help of the Brazilian jazz-fusion keyboardist turned producer Eumir Deodato, their reinvention as a soulful group, equally able to fill dancefloors and write catchy, classy, radio-friendly singles, was complete. In 1979, Smith changed his first name to Charles. The guitarist shone on the million-selling albums Ladies' Night and Celebrate! as well as on Something Special, As One and In the Heart which made the charts in the first half of the Eighties.

JT Taylor left in 1987 but returned in 1995 to help the Gang complete State of Affairs, their 22nd album. Following the departure of Mickens, Kool & the Gang were down to a nucleus of five original members when Smith was forced to take a sabbatical earlier this year.

Pierre Perrone

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