George Brown, Drummer With Kool & the Gang, Dies at 74

George Brown, who as the drummer of the group Kool & the Gang played on funk, disco and pop hits that featured prominently in movies and have been sampled numerous times, died on Thursday in Long Beach, Calif. He was 74.

His death, at a hospital, was confirmed in a statement by the band’s publicist, who said the cause was cancer. Mr. Brown had said publicly that he had lung cancer.

Mr. Brown, known as Funky, was a founding member of Kool & the Gang and a key contributor to several of the band’s biggest hits, including “Ladies Night,” “Jungle Boogie” and the party anthem “Celebration.”

In a July interview with NPR, he described Kool & the Gang as “the sound of happiness.”

In 1964, Mr. Brown linked up with Ricky Westfield and the brothers Ronald Khalis Bell and Robert “Kool” Bell, as well as other friends — Spike Mickens, Dennis “Dee Tee” Thomas and Charles Smith — to form what was originally a jazz band but would go on to combine jazz, funk, disco and R&B, and to create some of the most memorable pop songs of its era.

The band, formed in Jersey City, N.J., while its members were attending Lincoln High School, performed under several names, including the Jazziacs, before settling on Kool & the Gang in the late 1960s. (One of those early names was Kool and the Flames, but the group changed “Flames” to “Gang” to avoid confusion with James Brown’s group, the Famous Flames.)

Kool & the Gang in performance in the 1970s. Credit…Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

George Melvin Brown was born on Jan. 15, 1949, in Jersey City. His father, George Sr., worked in the coal industry; his mother, Eleanor White Brown, was a maid in Fort Lee, N.J., and also worked as a key puncher.

Both made music a constant part of Mr. Brown’s upbringing, he recalled in a memoir published this year, “Too Hot: Kool & the Gang & Me.”

Mr. Brown, who took to drumming at a young age, wrote that he saved up from a newspaper delivery route to buy his first drum set.

In a 2015 interview with Red Bull Music Academy, Mr. Brown recalled using butter knives as drum sticks when he first started playing.

“Then I went down to a music store on Newark Avenue in Jersey City and took a $3 lesson from a gentleman who used to play with the Shirelles. He said, ‘Hey man, you’re a natural!’” Mr. Brown said. “So he gave me ‘Buddy Rich’s 16 Essential Snare Drum Rudiments’ book. I took one more lesson and never went back.”

The band was signed by the producer Gene Redd to De-Lite Records in 1969.

At an early recording session in New York for their instrumental debut album, called simply “Kool and the Gang,” Mr. Redd encouraged Mr. Brown and Ronald Bell: “Say something! Sing something!” That led to a freewheeling session that produced memorable songs like “Raw Hamburger.”

“It just flowed,” Mr. Brown told The New York Times in an interview last year. “And we’re just grooving.”

Mr. Brown in 1974. He took to drumming at a young age, saving up from a newspaper delivery route to buy his first drum set.Credit…Getty Images

The sound carried over into the 1970s as the band found fame. Its fame grew after the vocalist, J.T. Taylor joined in 1979.

Songs like “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging” and “Funky Stuff” became Billboard chart staples. In 1981, “Celebration” — with its cheery chorus “Celebrate good times, come on!” — made it all the way to the top.

The group would go on to release dozens of albums, tour worldwide and appear on the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack, which won the Grammy Award for album of the year in 1979.

The group’s songs have frequently appeared on the soundtracks of films and television shows, including “Pulp Fiction” in 1994.

In 2015, the band was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Mr. Brown was a producer of the most recent Kool & the Band album, “People Just Wanna Have Fun,” released this year in anticipation of the group’s 60th anniversary.

Kool & the Gang had a broad influence, particularly in hip-hop.

According to the website WhoSampled, the band has been sampled in almost 2,000 songs, among the highest totals of all time. The band’s song “Summer Madness” accounts for 249 samples, by artists including Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg and Mary J. Blige.

Ronald Khalis Bell, a singer, songwriter and saxophonist for the band, died in 2020. Mr. Thomas, who also played saxophone, died in 2021.

Mr. Brown is survived by his wife, Hanh Brown, and five children: Dorian Melvin Brown, Jorge Lewis Brown, Gregory Brown, Jordan Xuan Clarence Brown and Aaron Tien Joseph Brown.

Three years ago, Mr. Brown was diagnosed with lung cancer, according to an interview with the Los Angeles television station KCAL. After surgery and chemotherapy, he recovered and returned to touring in 2022. But this year, the cancer returned.

“I didn’t plan on being in a band known around the world, but I welcomed it when it came,” Mr. Brown wrote in his memoir. “I didn’t know where the music would lead me, but I knew that if I remained focused and persevered, it would happen as God had intended. And it did.”

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