Kool and the Gang's Robert 'Kool' Bell: The Cream Interview


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The pairing of Kool and the Gang and Van Halen on the heavy-metal band's current tour makes perfect sense — both long-running groups have successfully combined stupid noises with musical substance while recasting cultural revolution in the disguise of simple-minded party tunes. A couple of Ohio-to-New Jersey transplants, Robert Bell and his brother Ronald grew up in a jazz-loving household in Jersey City and, aptly enough, began playing as The Jazziacs. Several name changes later, they were Kool and the Gang — jazz-funk pioneers.

The influence of Kool and the Gang upon the '70s generation — kids who lived out their formative teenage years in the early part of that decade — is incalculable, and that impact has something to do with the down-home but futuristic quality of the group's music and the super-populist temper of the era. The premise of the band's 1973 track "Hollywood Swinging" is that a guy goes to see Kool and the Gang and becomes a "bad piano-playing man" with the very jazz-funk ensemble he has idolized. Newly successful, the band goes to Hollywood, where they take a realistic view of the possibilities of the big city and foresee nothing but a party ahead: "So here I am in this Hollywood city / The city of the stars, movies, women and cars," they sing.

Radically optimistic and democratic, and futuristic in its blending of the old funk with something new, "Hollywood Swinging" marks a period in Kool and the Gang's career during which they created their most enduring examples of Saturday-morning-cartoon funk. Voices clamor for attention, whistles blow, saxophone and harmonica lines intertwine, and chaos reigns throughout 1973's Wild and Peaceful and Spirit of the Boogie, from 1975. If Kool and the Gang's contemporaries Funkadelic revealed their roots as a traditional R&B vocal group, Kool and the Gang used funny horn licks and unholy babble to compensate for their lack of a lead singer. The guitar parts are minimalist, while the lyrics describe a world of perfect peace — funk being the necessary ingredient.

Kool and the Gang's commercial apogee came after 1979, when they added a lead singer and recorded such full-lengths as Ladies' Night, Celebrate! and In the Heart. "Celebration" and "Ladies' Night" are Reagan-era dance-floor staples that streamline Kool's avant-jazz funk, complete with an African-American vocalist named James Taylor — a singer who may be more innocuous than the well-known Caucasian crooner of the same name. If you want a super-catchy bit of post-Steely Dan funk-pop that sits almost dead center in the '80s and suggests one direction for funk to go after Michael Jackson's Thriller took hold, I recommend the band's 1983 single, "Joanna." Since then, some of the original members of Kool and the Gang have passed on, but the current tour with David and Eddie and company features four of the originals. The Cream caught up with Kool on tour, and he sounded every bit the funkateer.

Nashville Cream: Kool, it's great to speak with you. I know you started out playing jazz in New Jersey. How did you begin to integrate R&B and soul into your approach?

Kool: We started with jazz, and we were playing places where people like McCoy Tyner were playing, and then we got going with an organization called Soul Town. In the Soul Town Revue, we were the Soul Town band. We would have to back up all the local groups, and they would sing all the Motown hits. What happened was, we would have to learn all those songs, and we started mixing the jazz with the R&B.

NC: The horn riff that begins "Hollywood Swinging" is really distinctive. How did you come up with that?

Kool: My brother [Ronald] came up with that. He always had this concept about horns as an announcement. So when you listen to that horn — "Da da, da da da / Da, da, da da da" — and then the lyrics come, he came up with that, out of the concept of making the horns an announcement.

NC: How did you get signed to your label, De-Lite Records?

Kool: Gene Redd was a producer who had worked with Quincy Jones. He was our first manager, and he was the one, when we changed our name from Kool and the Flames to Kool and the Gang — we had to change that because James Brown had the Famous Flames, and we didn't want to have any problem with The Godfather — who kinda discovered us. His father, Gene Redd Sr., used to be a road manager for James Brown. Gene Redd had a pending deal with De-Lite Records, and had a company called Red Coach Records. He first signed us to Red Coach and then he did a deal with De-Lite for the very first Kool and the Gang album. Gene got us more into the commercial side — we were still doing the jazzy thing.

NC: Unlike James Brown or many of the other funk musicians of the late '60s and early '70s, you continued to have massive hits in the '80s. What was the secret of your success, do you think?

Kool: Well, we started out in the '60s playing our style of jazz, and got involved in the whole R&B thing, and then we went to the '70s — music that was like jazz-funk. We didn't really have a lead singer at the time, so it was more songs like "Jungle Boogie" and "Hollywood Swinging" and "Funky Stuff." Then we popped a jazz-stylin' song out there with "Summer Madness" — some people thought it was Herbie Hancock. Then we got involved with the disco dance thing. We didn't want to be a disco band. So we created a song that was on the disco floor, but the horns were intricate. That was "Open Sesame."

NC: That's an awesome song.

Kool: Yeah, disco was runnin' into some problems, you know, some people were saying, "Disco sucks," and they were burning those records up in Chicago. Anyway, there was a promoter — he's passed now — by the name of Dick Griffey, who had a tour out with the Jackson 5 at the time, and we opened for them. [A Nashville native, Griffey started the '70s and '80s soul label SOLAR Records, among many other accomplishments. He died in 2010.] Dick came to us and said, "Man, you know, Kool, what you guys need to do? You guys need to get a lead singer." So we got some people at a studio, House of Music, and Eumir Deodato was doing an album. We didn't really audition a lot of people, and when J.T. [James Taylor] came to the studio, my brother asked him to sing. Then my brother ran some jazz chord progressions, and J.T. ripped through that, and we said, "Hey, this is the guy."

NC: It sounds like you were ready to do things that were a bit more commercial, perhaps?

Kool: We thought that, with Deodato, we were gonna stay progressive to some degree. But Deodato said, "No, you've got a lead singer now, so you've gotta work around the lead singer." That's when we cut back on all the hip stuff we thought we were doing, and we became more commercial. We also wanted to keep the Kool and the Gang identity, so when you hear the horns on "Ladies' Night" and those songs we did in the '80s, you can still hear Kool and the Gang.

NC: How did Van Halen pick you for the current tour?

Kool: Last August, we played for the Glastonbury Music Festival in England, and that's a big festival. David Lee Roth saw us rock a crowd of about 60,000, and he went back to Eddie and Alex, and he told them, "I've got the perfect group to open for us." David Lee Roth came to me, and said, "Kool, our audience is 60 percent ladies. In the '80s, you guys were the pop-funk band, and we were the rock party band, and you guys wrote 'Ladies' Night.'" So I said, "Why not? Sounds good to me."



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