Kool & the Gang got their start in New Jersey as a jazz band called the Jazziacs. They performed with jazz greats such as saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders and pianist McCoy Tyner. They even formed friendships with pianist Thelonious Monk and trumpeter Miles Davis.
“When we first decided to form a band, we all enjoyed listening to jazz. We were practically raised on it,” Robert “Kool” Bell told the Philadelphia Tribune. “But a little later we decided to create a unique musical blend of jazz, soul, and funk, and that’s when the band went through several different names – The New Dimension, The Soul Town Band, Kool & The Flames – before finally settling on Kool & The Gang.”
When a teenaged Bell gave himself the nickname “Kool” as a way of making New Jersey street gangs think he was tough, he had no way of knowing that one day he would also be known as Kool to the world.
You can check out Kool & the Gang when they perform with the Sweetwater All Stars at the Sweetwater Performance Pavilion on Sept. 3.
Finding Their Groove
The band scored a trifecta of hits in the 1970s. Songs like “Funky Stuff,” “Jungle Boogie,” and “Hollywood Swinging.” Shortly after, disco came along.
Kool & the Gang liked their funk funky and disco fans liked their disco funk-less. But as time went on, the band decided to make changes in order to stay relevant. Solar Records founder Dick Griffey gave them some unsolicited advice that they took to heart.
“[…] he came to us and he said, ‘Listen, man, you guys are doing great on the tour, but there’s one thing I think is missin’. You guys gotta get a lead singer,’” Bell told Richmond Magazine. “So, we thought about it [and decided] we should try to do that.”
The band already had guys who could sing, of course, but what they didn’t have was a dynamic and flexible lead vocalist who could command attention regardless of what material they were performing.
The owners of a studio called House of Music in West Orange, N.J., told them about a vocalist named James “J.T.” Taylor. When they heard him perform, they knew they didn’t have to audition anyone else. They also hired a producer named Eumir Deodato. Deodato was a jazzman, but he somehow spirited out the quintessential Kool & the Gang sound.
“It was something he brought out of us,” Bell recalled. “We thought that getting Deodato, he would take us in that [jazz] direction also — because of his background. But he said, ‘No, we gotta go in this direction.’”
The direction he chose is typified by hits like “Ladies Night” and “Celebration.” It was a lighter, cleaner, and more mainstream sound than the band was used to, but it proved enormously popular. Bell admitted he never tires of performing “Celebration.”
“We could not close the show if we did not do ‘Celebration,’” he said. “They’d run us out of there. ‘Celebration’ is something we always have to do, even up to today. We have fun with it. My son, he’s a rapper and producer — he comes out and [does] a little rap on ‘Celebration.’ We keep it fresh.”
The song is known all over the world and triggers celebration in places where that word is not part of the native language.
“They know the lyrics, no matter what language it is,” Bell told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s at every party, every bar mitzvah or bat mitzvah; every time there’s a celebration, [like] when the hostages came home from Iran on the space shuttle. It just celebrates good times.”
The band was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame a few years ago and it came as a bit of a shock to Bell. He experienced imposter syndrome at first, but he eventually got over it.
“That was a surprise for me,” he said. “That’s like all your peers. There’s some great songwriters there — you know, John Mellencamp. There’s so many writers there, it was unbelievable. Being in the same room with them, it made you kind of nervous. Being in there with lyricists, real heavy storytellers […] we made it in. We’re really honored to be amongst that class of writers.”
The band has seen some turnover throughout the years, but until September 2020, its core consisted of the four original members: Brothers Ronald and Robert Bell, plus George Brown and Dennis Thomas. That was the month Ronald Bell passed away at 68.
“When we first formed the band, we were told to always stick together,” Robert Bell said. “That was good advice and it worked for us. It’s been hard with my brother Ronald now gone, but we carry on.”
Kool & the Gang has never been an act that fans have expected to comment on the major issues of the day, but with issues getting heavier with every passing moment, some fans might be looking to the band to provide a reprieve from that.
“If we can bring joy to people’s lives, make them forget some of what’s going on in a somewhat troubled world, that’s a good thing,” Bell told Newark’s The Star Ledger.