“Do something,” producer Gene Redd asked drummer George Brown and bassist Robert “Kool” Bell during an early recording session in New York. “Say something! Sing something.
This late-’60s prompt was what Kool & the Gang — a jazz band with a crack horn section that evolved into funk, then moved on to disco — needed to rock. “Right from the start,” Brown, 73, said of the band’s early years, when they were making instrumental tracks influenced by both James Moody and James Brown. “We had just started, and bingo, here we go: ‘Raw Hamburger’ and ‘Chocolate Buttermilk’,” he added, referring to two memorable tracks. “It was just flowing. And we’re just grooving.
For nearly six decades, Kool & the Gang have released 25 albums and toured the world, playing Live Aid in 1985 and Glastonbury in 2011. Their top 12 singles are funk, disco and pop classics, underpinning films such as “Pulp Fiction” and “Legally”. Blonde”: “Jungle Boogie”, “Ladies Night”, “Hollywood Swinging”, the indisputable holiday anthem of 1980 “Celebration”. They’re fundamental to hip-hop and have been sampled more than 1,800 times, according to the WhoSampled website, including memorable spins on Eric B. & Rakim’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique” and “NY State of Mind” by Nas. (Questlove played a set of songs over three hours long showcasing the band’s samples during a 2020 livestream.)
Yet Kool & the Gang did not receive the same accolades as many of their contemporaries. They didn’t even make it to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ballot. Why?
“We ask the same question,” Bell, 71, said in a separate interview. The bassist and vocalist left the Imperial Lords street gang and joined the band’s first iteration in Jersey City, NJ, in 1964.
A new box set released this week, “The Albums Vol. 1: 1970-1978,” makes a case for the band’s influence – 199 tracks across 13 CDs, celebrating a time of transition, a time that would push the band to the brink of megastardom. (Part 2, covering the 80s, is slated for fall.)
Bell was video chatting from Orlando, Florida, wearing a leopard-print dress shirt, with a bass, a Kool & the Gang branded guitar and framed gold and platinum records behind him. He’s a lively storyteller, delighted to recall the band’s early days in Youngstown, Ohio, when he and his brother Ronald Khalis Bell, often credited under his Muslim name, Khalis Bayyan, pounded empty paint cans to create beats.
Their father, Bobby, was a boxer who dated jazzmen Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk; Monk later became Robert’s godfather. Robert tried boxing, but only lasted a year. When the family moved to Jersey City, he encountered local gangs.
The music finally brought it out: The band broke up when Ronald visited the home of a high school classmate, Robert “Spike” Mickens, who could perfectly play the jazz classic “Desafinado.” Soon, the Bell brothers were hanging out at Mickens’ house, and Kool picked up a guitar, learning the one-note bass part in Herbie Mann’s “Comin’ Home Baby.” His instinctive style, with the help of his more accomplished brother, became the rhythmic foundation of the band.
“I didn’t take any lessons. Nothing like it,” Bell said. “Just listen.”
They formed the Jazz Birds, then the Jazziacs, then Kool and the Flames, after Bell’s street nickname, modified from a friend called Cool. In 1969, wanting to avoid the trouble of James Brown and His Famous Flames, they renamed themselves Kool & the Gang.
The band found a manager and began playing gigs, learning Brown and Motown hits, backing minor R&B stars on their swings around town. “So now jazz and funk come together,” Bell said. The band’s mostly instrumental 1970 live debut, “Kool and the Gang”, reflected this combination.
Kool & the Gang have been prolific and their sound has evolved over a long period of time. Michael Neidus – global business manager for British label Demon Music Group, which licensed Kool & the Gang’s catalog from their long-running label, Universal Music, for box sets – decided to separate the band’s groovier 70s phase, when the band frequently worked with producer Redd, from the hit era that began with 1979’s “Ladies Night” and 1980’s “Celebration.”
“It’s too much once,” he said. “There are two distinct periods in the band’s success.”
Even in the band’s first decade, it was clear that other musicians were paying close attention to their sound. In Indianapolis in the early 70’s, Funk Inc. was studying early Kool & the Gang albums. Funk Inc. interpolated “Kools Back Again” into their own “Kool Is Back”, which was memorably sampled multiple times.
“They threw a good pocket,” Funk Inc. guitarist Steve Weakley said in an interview. “They had single-note lines in the melodies.”
For most of the band’s early period, Kool & the Gang didn’t have a bona fide vocalist, and for a time that didn’t matter. When asked by a record executive to create their own version of Manu Dibango’s hit “Soul Makossa”, Kool & the Gang came up with “Jungle Boogie”, “Funky Stuff” and “Hollywood Swinging” during a session of one-day marathon rehearsal in New York. York for their album “Wild and Peaceful”.
“These guys could make hit records without singers,” said Pete Rock, the DJ and producer whose Jamaican family in the Bronx owned all of Kool & the Gang’s singles and albums. “Funky as hell – that’s the only way to describe this rhythm section.”
Rock said that once pioneering hip-hop DJ Kool Herc from the Bronx popularized the isolation of breakbeats salvaged from other artists’ records, Kool & the Gang became a staple: “Everyone was on a James Brown’s coup in hip-hop, but some producers listened to other music from other groups.
By the late ’70s, Kool & the Gang had survived long enough to realize they could be even bigger if they found their leader elusive. Dick Griffey, a concert promoter, was the first to suggest the idea, and the band hired James “JT” Taylor.
A small detail at the end of “Ladies Night” turned out to be crucial – Meekaeel Muhammad, a member of the band’s songwriting team, fleshed out the chorus with a “Come on, let’s celebrate” countermelody. It indicated the group’s next hit: “Celebration”, based on an idea by Ronald Khalis Bell. “The track had this kind of homey feel, almost like you’re somewhere in Alabama, with Grandma sitting on the porch with lemonade. A rocking chair vibe,” Bell said. one of the guys came up with this ‘yahoo!'”
“Celebration” is one of pop’s most recognizable songs, on top playlists for weddings and sporting events – it was even performed on the International Space Station. The track launched a commercially rich period in the 80s (“Get Down On It”, “Cherish”, “Fresh”), but after so many years of funky polyrhythms, disco and pop became “a bit boring , if you know what I mean,” Brown said. “We eventually got into it, but it wasn’t like playing jazz or funk. Those two genres, you can expand.
The hits mostly dried up by 1989, and the group continued to make albums and tour internationally throughout the 90s and 2000s, replacing the original members with younger artists. In 2011 David Lee Roth saw Kool & the Gang perform at Glastonbury and invited the band to open for Van Halen when they toured the following year. The band’s tracks have been streamed 2.8 billion times worldwide to date, according to tracking service Luminate.
But the past few years have been difficult. Ronald Khalis Bell and saxophonist Dennis “Dee Tee” Thomas, have passed away; Robert Bell lost his wife and another brother. When the pandemic hit, the remaining band members had to put their touring schedule on hold. Discussing this period, Bell’s smile sagged and he became contemplative. “Lots of memories,” he says. “But we keep moving forward.”
Brown said a new album is slated for October and the band is back on the road.
Maybe he will also eventually reach the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Bell smiled wryly. “Yeah, well,” he said. “Maybe next year.”