Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Khalis Bayyan of Kool & the Gang by diving into his group’s only Hot 100 No. 1, the eternal party anthem “Celebration.”
Think of the definitive hitmaking bands of the ’80s, and your mind likely goes either to new wave-era pop groups like Duran Duran, Culture Club and The Cars or hair metal-era arena-rockers like Bon Jovi, Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses. But a group of funk veterans had more top 40 hits in the period than all of ‘em: Kool & the Gang, the New Jersey fusionists who’d first broke out in the early ’70s, notched a stunning 16 top 40 entries on the Billboard Hot 100 over the course of the ’80s, tied with AOR mavens Journey for the most of any band that decade. (Duo Hall & Oates had the most of any artist with their 22.)
Still, of those 16 top 40 hits blanketing the Greed Decade, only one topped the Hot 100: “Celebration,” penned primarily by group co-founder Ronald Bell (who later adopted the name Khalis Bayyan), who died on Wednesday (Sept. 9) at age 68. “Celebration” reached No. 1 the week of February 7, 1981, taking over from Blondie’s calypso cover “The Tide Is High,” and lasted for two weeks at the chart’s apex.
Though the song has come to be synonymous with nearly every type of private and public celebration in the four decades since its release, the idea for the enduring and immediately recognizable party perennial first came to Bayyan when he was reading the Qu’ran. “I was reading the passage, where God was creating Adam, and the angels were celebrating and singing praises,” he told Al Jazeera in 2014. “That inspired me to write the basic chords, the line, ‘Everyone around the world, come on, celebration.’”
It also helped the song’s overall spirit that it was the first time in a while that Kool & the Gang had much to celebrate. Started by Bayyan and brother Robert “Kool” Bell as teens in 1964, the group first hit the Hot 100 in 1969 with their self-titled debut single, reaching No. 59. They grew that success in the mid ’70s, with the consecutive smashes “Funky Stuff” (No. 29, 1973), “Jungle Boogie” (No. 4, 1974) and “Hollywood Swinging” (No. 6, 1974). But as their brand of fire-starting funk fell out of favor in the latter half of the ’70s as disco rose to ubiquity, the hits dried up, and neither 1977’s The Force or 1978’s Everybody Dancin’ LPs spawned a single that even managed to crack the Hot 100.
However, the group’s comeback began in earnest with 1979’s Ladies Night, produced by Brazilian studio whiz Eumir Deodato (who’d scored a surprise No. 2 hit earlier in the decade with a jazz-funked rendition of the classical piece “Also Sprach Zarathustra”) and fronted by James “J.T.” Taylor, hired to be the group’s lead vocalist. Together with their new singer and producer, the band more fully embraced disco’s pulse, and Ladies’ Night spawned a pair of top 10 hits in 1980 with “Too Hot” (No. 5) and the title track (No. 8). The latter in particular helped set the table for “Celebration,” not just with its handclap-assisted energy and generally convivial spirit, but with its outro, in which the backing vocalists proclaim, “Come on dance and celebrate.” (“That was the key to finishing ‘Celebration,’” Bayyan told Adam White and Fred Bronson for The Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits.)
By the time of “Celebration,” the group had been re-established as pop stars — Kool even told the Los Angeles Herald Examiner that the idea for the song “came from our celebration of our return to the music business” — and indeed, the single sounds like a victory lap from its opening drum fill. Subsequent instruments (guitar, horns, bass) each take turns strutting in from there, as background voices subtly chatter and whoop in the background, before affirming their presence with one gigantic “WA-HOO!” And then, the immortal chant-along chorus — “Celebrate good times, come on!” — which serves as both an invitation and demand, unequivocal enough to be unignorable, but also open-ended enough in its phrasing to be universally applicable.
While the majority of the group’s early singles were largely free-form, often with just a gang-vocal hook or two and few other lyrics to speak of, by the time of “Celebration” most of Kool & the Gang’s hits followed a more traditional verse-chorus structure. But the band still carried over the frenzied party energy of their earlier work, with brain-sticking musical licks and audience-participation refrains at every turn, to the point where the revelry is already in its highest gear by the time it gets to the first verse. “Ladies’ Night” was the song’s most immediate precedent, but it also carries the DNA of another turn-of-the-decade disco smash in Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” which is also bursting with life-affirming hooks, and which repeats its merrymaking chorus until it practically becomes an incantation.
“Celebration” keeps its mission simple: It really, really wants you to just celebrate already, dammit. The word “celebrate” not only anchors the song’s unforgettable five-word chorus, but forms of of it also pop up throughout the verses and the pre-chorus, never letting you get too far without a reminder about the reason for the season. But as forceful as the band are on “Celebration” in ensuring you’re getting the party going, they’re equally insistent on leaving the terms of said party up to you: On the pre-chorus, Taylor even explicitly asks, “It’s up to you — what’s your pleasure?” Kool & the Gang don’t demand to be the center of attention at the festivities, they’re merely here to help: “We’re gonna celebrate and party with you,” Taylor offers in the verses.
It’s that sort of equal-opportunity approach to party-starting that’s allowed “Celebration” to soundtrack pretty much any joyous festivity imaginable in the 40 years following its release. In 1981 alone, it was used both as the theme song to Super Bowl XV between the Oakland Raiders and the Philadelphia Eagles, and the song that heralded the return of the 52 American citizens to U.S. soil at the end of the Iran hostage crisis. Over the decades, it not only endured as an anthem for such moments of victory, but also became a go-to DJ jam at nearly every wedding, bar mitzvah, confirmation and other large-scale gathering in which there was, indeed, cause for celebration.
Coincidentally for such a definitive pop song about partying, after two weeks on top of the Hot 100 “Celebration” gave way to Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” possibly the definitive pop song about working. Together, the two songs represented more than opposing parts of the week’s schedule — they also represented two of the dominant forms of early ’80s pop music. Kool & the Gang’s breezy post-disco R&B could also be found around the top of the charts courtesy of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, both alums of ’70s hitmaking outfits themselves in the Jackson 5 and the Commodores, respectively. Meanwhile, Dolly’s brand of pop-accessible country would also be taken to No. 1 in the early decade by fellow crossover stars Eddie Rabbit and Kenny Rogers. But by 1982, musical tides were turning, and the top of the charts would soon start to greater reflect the synth-driven new wave and mega-pop favored by the MTV generation, with disco’s influence fizzling out and country largely receding to Nashville.
But even through this, Kool & The Gang continued to prosper deep into the decade, with a combination of funk floor-fillers and crossover-friendly love songs. The group topped Billboard’s R&B Songs chart four more times over the course of the ’80s, and not only did they score 13 more top 40 Hot 100 hits, they hit the top 10 with seven of them, including two pop ballads that peaked at No. 2: “Joanna,” which was blocked by Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” in early 1984, and “Cherish,” which got stuck behind Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” for three weeks in late 1985. “We all feel so positive about our direction and success,” Kool told Fred Bronson in the mid-’80s for The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits. “It’s been a long time coming.”