George Brown, original 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. Brown had said publicly that he had lung cancer. George Brown, known to his friends 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.”
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.” Songs like “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging” and “Funky Stuff” became Billboard chart staples.
In 1964, 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.
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.
George 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.