New Castle News

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March 29, 2012

City man gets funky with Kool & The Gang

NEW CASTLE — To say Joe DiThomas was hooked when he heard Kool & the Gang perform 32 years ago is putting it mildly.

The sights and sounds from that 1980 concert at the Scottish Rite Cathedral lit a fire in the New Castle native that still burns.

And even though he’s attended more than 1,400 additional shows by the still-popular band, DiThomas looks forward to the next one — tomorrow night at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.

From 1981 through 1984, DiThomas spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours attending virtually every K&G performance on the planet, often taking flights from one coast to the other and staying in hotels. He paid for it in other ways, too, losing jobs because of his passion. He tried to explain to supervisors that he had a higher and funkier calling, but they didn’t get it.

DiThomas, a 1979 graduate of what was then called the Lawrence County Vocational Technical School, moved to California in October 1984 and took his obsession for K&G with him. “I went to a number of their shows there,” he said.

At concert sites, DiThomas explained to security that he was a friend of the band. “I’d talk my way backstage,” he said. “Back then, security wasn’t like it is today.”

DiThomas may have been stretching the truth then, but not now.

Once in, the nephew of noted local jazz musician Dante DiThomas would strike up conversations with band members. “They knew I was from New Castle and that got me noticed,” he said.

DiThomas, 50, is no longer on the outside looking in. His steadfast devotion to the group founded by Youngstown’s Robert “Kool” Bell has been rewarded. When Bell and other members began to recognize DiThomas at different venues, they realized the depth of his commitment. They gave him a pass. “You don’t have to sneak backstage any more,” Bell said.

In 1985, K&G brought DiThomas into their inner circle as a personal assistant following a show in Reno, Nev.

These days, DiThomas understands band members as well as they understand themselves. It’s his job to make the necessary arrangements during tours. There are 11 band members, and DiThomas knows their tastes in food and other things. He arrives at hotels first to make sure everything is in place. “When you do 80 to 100 shows, a year, that’s a lot of responsibility,” he said.

In 2006, DiThomas received a plaque from the band in honor of attending his 1,000th performance. The count is now up to 1,472. Tomorrow’s show will be the 15th on K&G’s tour with Van Halen.

K&G was one of the most successful R&B and pop acts of the 1980s, placing more singles in the top 10 during the first half of that decade than any other group. They are known for their 1980 hit “Celebration,” but they have charted a dozen other times with songs like “Get Down On It,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Ladies’ Night,” “Fresh,” “Joanna” and “Cherish.” Their unique sound — part jazz, part funk — has been created by the same core of players for more than three decades.

DiThomas is a son of Joseph and Marlene DiThomas, who operate All-American Rental in New Castle. His brother, Anthony, and sister, Jennifer, also live in town.

“I’m very blessed to be a part of this,” he said.

Bell said the band feels blessed by DiThomas.

For DiThomas, tomorrow night will be just another reason to celebrate good times with Kool & The Gang.

(Email: d_burcham@ncnewsonline.com)

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