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Six decades in, Kool & the Gang’s Brown relishes ‘wonderful journey’

Updated February 3, 2023 - 3:15 pm

Kool & the Gang’s first Las Vegas concert in the late 1960s? Co-founder George Brown remembers it well.

“Times were different,” the 74-year-old drummer and vocalist says, and the band wasn’t invited the play the Strip.

“We drove into Vegas, passed up the Strip, went downtown and kept going,” Brown recalls in a phone interview from his home. “We finally wound up in the African American neighborhood.

“Even now, I can remember that early Vegas crowd dancing, singing, cheering — I thought the roof would come off the place,” he says of the gig in “1968 or forever ago.” “They knew our first record from the R&B charts and the pop charts. By the ’80s, we’d play to big crowds at the Tropicana, but we never forgot that first night in Vegas.

“It doesn’t matter where you play as long as you’re still playing Vegas,” he adds.

Now Kool & the Gang is back in a big way, set to play the Westgate on Feb. 10 and 11 and May 5 and 6. The New Jersey band founded by brothers Robert “Kool” Bell and Ronald Bell along with Brown and several others has been at it since 1964.

Brown says nowadays the best parts of his life are those spent with his wife, five sons and bandmates. “You need to live the life you want to live,” he says. “People ask me if I can believe I’ve been in Kool & the Gang for six decades, and yes, I can believe it. At the same time, it feels like it went by in a blink — as every wonderful journey does feel.”

A few of his tips for the good life:

Capture your joy

Dancing for two hours a night on stage for years has kept Brown in amazing shape, but he knows there’s an even greater benefit. “It’s great exercise, but it also is something more to us,” he says. “Dancing and singing with an audience or in a large group brings powerful energy. You take all that energy from one of our shows and you can run electricity to 1,000 homes. … For me, I get off stage and it’s like you won the Super Bowl. It’s a wonderful thing to experience joy in life. That happens every night we work. It’s pure happiness — healthy for the body, mind and spirit.”

Find inspiration

Kool & the Gang met Sammy Davis Jr. when he hosted “The Tonight Show” and asked the band to play. “It was great and then we did a show with him in one of the New York ballrooms,” Brown recalls. “You’re lucky when you can be around those who you think are great because it’s such an inspiration. … He was a genius, a drummer, trumpet player, singer and hoofer. Just a great talent. He made you want to be a better everything, which is the point.”

Mind over matter

“I’m also a martial artist, which keeps me fit,” says Brown, who admits that sometimes he feels a few aches. He figures doing what he loves helps him feel better. “It can be mind over matter: When I get on stage, everything feels better. I can have a splitting migraine, and the minute I get on stage, believe it or not, it goes away. … Maybe there’s something to not focusing on what hurts and doing something else. I’m singing and dancing and not focusing on me in that way. Yes, the pain might come back when you get off the stage. But most times, I go back to the hotel, order some food and I’m feeling great.”

Eat healthy

“I was a vegan for many, many years,” Brown says. “Due to my body type, I cut the vegan eating out for now and started being a carnivore again. In a couple of months, however, I plan to revert to being a vegan some of the time. Life is about balance.” It was tough when his kids were younger, he says. “I’d get, ‘Dad, we want to go to McDonald’s and Wendy’s.’ I’d say, ‘No, we’re going to a different type of place.’ Now, they’re grown and I hear, ‘Dad, thanks for teaching us all those years ago how to eat healthy.’ ”

‘Do something’

Are there ever times when he really doesn’t want to dance? Brown laughs and explains how the lyrics to Kool & the Gang’s smash hit “Get Down on It” are inspirational. “You hear sexuality, but what we’re really saying is, ‘We are the captains of our own ships. We have to make our own lives. You better get down on it … and take control of your life or nothing will happen.’ … “The message of that song is to get out there and go get it — whatever that is for you. It doesn’t matter if you’re a neuroscientist or a banjo player. … Do something and things will happen.”

Appreciate your age

“No, I don’t wish I was 22 again,” Brown says. “I do wish my sons would have grandchildren. I say, ‘Hey, come on, guys.’ One of my sons actually said, ‘Dad, if you keep bothering us, then we won’t speak to you.’ He’s kidding. Kids are a blessing. I’m glad I am the age I am, so I can watch them come into their own.”

Celebrate good times

Brown says his ultimate celebration music includes John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and even big, bombastic Beethoven along with the song stylings of Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. However, during family parties or big events, he will never play his own classic “Celebration.” “I will leave that song to the people. If the public loves it, then that’s cool,” he says. “I do hope they listen to the message of that song, which is to celebrate your life and enjoy the good times with loved ones. Get down on it and make that happen.”

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