The Musical Journey of Kool & the Gang Alumnus Odeen Mays Continues Right Here in Louisville and Beyond
Writer / Carrie Vittitoe
It begins with the drums, quickly followed by the funk of the guitar. Moments later, the horns chime in. Your body is moving side to side, your feet tapping, but you’re waiting for the “YAHOO!” so you can bounce. The lyrics begin in full.
“Celebrate good times. Come on!”
Whether you’re 4, 14, 40 or 84, you’ve heard this song. It’s played at community parties and weddings, anniversaries and reunions. Everyone knows (and let’s be honest, loves) “Celebration” by Kool & the Gang. While it may be the most widely known of the band’s songs, it is only one of the many in the band’s history, which dates to 1964.
If you haven’t followed Kool & the Gang closely, you may not realize that the lineup of the band has changed over the years – adding and shedding band members isn’t out of the norm in the music industry. You may also not realize that a former member of Kool & the Gang, Odeen Mays, lives right here in Louisville and is sharing his love of music with local residents.
To look at a list of his musical credits is to see a man who has had a storied career, and has played with, or written and arranged for, some of the greats – Natalie Cole, LeVert, Regina Belle, and Teena Marie. You really can’t help but be in awe when you see an extensive list of the folks Mays has collaborated with over the years.
Mays was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, and lived there until he was 15 years old. He always had an interest in music, due in part to his family’s musicality. His father, paternal aunt, and mother all played piano at one time or another. When Mays was 4 years old he began tinkering around with the piano at his grandparents’ home after preschool.
By the time Mays was in eighth grade, he was playing the saxophone in band class at school, and it seemed he had left the piano behind. That wasn’t actually the case, though. He still noodled around on the ivories, picking up bits and pieces like a sponge. He played piano well enough in his early teen years to perform in his church’s national youth choir. By the time he was 20, he had said goodbye to the sax. “I didn’t have to do any prep work to play keys,” he says.
He moved around a bit in his teenage years, from Ohio to California to Georgia, then back to Ohio. When he returned to Cincinnati, he and some friends formed a band and began playing in local clubs. By the time Mays was 22 years old, he was playing five nights a week in Cincinnati clubs and restaurants, making a local name for himself.
At age 27 when Mays began playing at a supper club in Dayton, Ohio, he received a phone call that changed his life. According to Mays, he said the following to his girlfriend at the time when he answered the call: “Somebody is playing on the phone. This guy says he’s with Kool & the Gang.” Mays thought it was a big joke.
“I’m talking to this guy like, ‘Yeah, right. You called me out of the blue,’” he says.
But it wasn’t a game. The following week, Mays received another phone call and traveled to New York, where he auditioned at Studio Instrument Rentals. He didn’t finish the first verse of Donny Hathaway’s “For All We Know” before band reps stopped him and said, “You got the job.”
Kool & the Gang sent him two cassette tapes and a plane ticket, which eventually got him to West Africa, where he went on stage with the band. “We never did a rehearsal,” he says. At the time, Kool & the Gang were such famous hitmakers that Mays didn’t have to spend too much time practicing before hitting the arena. “They played Kool & the Gang on the radio so much,” he says. “I knew how to play some of that stuff already.”
He admits that at first he felt a little intimidated, but ultimately determined that he needed to just trust his musical talents. “I finally said to myself, ‘You got chops. Just play. If you can’t play “Joanna,” “Get Down on It” and “Cherish the Love,” you need to stay home,’” Mays says.
His belief in his talents served him later in his career when he played with The Temptations. “They sent me two CDs and a plane ticket,” he says. “I didn’t rehearse with them. Eventually it dawned on me that these people figured, ‘We got Odeen. We don’t need to rehearse. It’s going to be fine.’” It took him until he was in his 50s to come to this epiphany. He credits his parents for raising him to be responsible and professional so people trust him.
In addition to his work with Kool & the Gang and The Temptations, Mays also performed with the Ohio Players, a band formed in the 1970s in Dayton that opened for Kool & the Gang during one of their tours. After one of their shows, Mays said to them, “I’m from Cincinnati. I’m an Ohio player. Can I play with you guys when I’m not playing with Kool & the Gang?” They agreed, and another musical relationship was born.
His years in the music business gave him the opportunity to meet some notable people, including George Benson and Dizzy Gillespie. His extensive traveling all over the world allowed him to see things he never would have dreamed of. “My favorite place was Réunion Island,” he says. “There was no McDonald’s there. There were streams and lakes you could drink from. There was a dormant volcano.”
Traveling can be hard but it is a lifestyle that musicians like Mays eventually get used to, and there are definitely some positive factors involved. “You’re on the road for six weeks and you can’t wait to get home,” Mays says. “You’re home for six days and you can’t wait to get back on the road.”
He realized that he loves hotel rooms. “There is nothing in that room yet that is going to give you any stress,” he says. He realized that he liked being on tour because it meant being treated like someone special, and being recognized at airports and performance venues. Being at home didn’t provide the attention he enjoyed.
Now in his early 60s, Mays feels a little differently about having a home base here in town. He had been performing at Jeff Ruby’s in Cincinnati when the owner invited him to perform in Louisville, and Mays liked what he saw. He is teaching students several days a week at School of Rock, playing music for his church and traveling for performances at nearby cities.
He has three dogs now, so that makes his travels not quite as far flung as Norway and Australia. He’s eager to look for more opportunities to share his love of music, whether at local clubs, restaurants or upscale parties.