Bell and crew changed their band’s name from Kool & the Flames to Kool & the Gang to avoid confusion with James Brown’s Famous Flames. “We didn’t want any trouble with the ‘Godfather,’” he says. “We were young, but we weren’t crazy.” Photo by Sam Erickson

The group found themselves at an artistic and commercial crossroads in 1973. Although now a major live draw on the East Coast, they were virtually unknown in the rest of the U.S. “We could sell out the Apollo Theater,” Bell remembers, “and we were big in D.C., but we needed a hit record on the pop charts to take us all the way. It was kind of a make-or-break time for us.”

Kool & the Gang’s label suggested that the band cover “Soul Makossa,” a recent crossover hit by Cameroonian saxist and vibes player Manu Dibango, and even arranged rehearsals with the band and that track’s producer, Rolande Le Couviour. “They said, ‘We need a hit, and since you guys haven’t had any hits, this might be the right move,” says Bell. “We went in with him and gave it a shot, but it wasn’t happening. So we said, ‘Let us try and see if we can do something by ourselves.’”

The band locked themselves in a New York rehearsal room—“We just started groovin’ and funkin’”—and by the time they left at 11 that night, they had written “Jungle Boogie,” “Funky Stuff,” and “Hollywood Swinging.”

“After that, there were no more calls from the record company,” Bell says with a laugh. “We had the songs, we had terrific horn parts, and everything was slammin’.”

Robert “Kool” Bell’s Gear

Three Zon Sonus Special 4 models

Eden WT800
Eden D610XST6 6x10 (for low end)
Eden D410XLT 4x10 (for high end)

Avalon U5 preamp

Strings and Picks
DR HI-Beam (.045–.105)

Storming the Charts
All three dance gems were released on the band’s self-produced 1973 album Wild and Peaceful, with “Funky Stuff” hitting number 5 on the R&B chart, while “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” reached numbers 4 and 6, respectively, on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. “Musically, it was a Kool & the Gang approach,” Bell says. “I locked in with George Brown, and I created bass lines that worked with wherever he wanted to go. ‘Jungle Boogie’ has a very strong bass riff that works in unison with the keyboards, and then the horns. The bass is part of the hook. That stuff gets people dancing, and when you do that, you’re gold.”

Along the way, Bell had graduated from his Zim-Gar bass to Fender Jazz and Precision basses. “I really loved the Fenders,” he says, “but their necks were a little wide for me. From there I started playing Alembic basses. I have small hands, and their Oasis basses were perfect for me.”

Bell often paired his instruments with Fender bass amps, but during the ’70s he switched to Sunn amplifiers. “They made great amps, but we had a problem with their stuff,” he says. “Not because we didn’t like the gear; it was because of a trucking situation. We had these two guys driving our equipment out to California, and one day the truck caught fire and we lost everything. It was tragic.”

Kool & the Gang continued to mix their horn-fueled blend of R&B and funk on a trio of successive albums: 1974’s Light of Worlds, Spirit of the Boogie from 1975, and 1976’s Love & Understanding. By the end of ’76, the disco craze kicked in hard and the band adapted to a more streamlined musical approach on the album Open Sesame—the title cut of which would appear a year later in the soundtrack for the film Saturday Night Fever. “We didn’t really have to change too much to keep up with disco,” Bell recalls. “The idea was to keep the Kool & the Gang identity but stay on the edge of what was happening in the clubs. ‘Open Sesame’ was a song for musicians; it had some very complicated horns, but they sounded smooth with the disco beat. Getting on Saturday Night Fever kept us going strong, and it probably brought us even more fans.”

“We played the Motown stuff, too, and that’s another way I developed my bass chops.”

Toward the end of the decade, the band made their biggest change yet, when, at the suggestion of their new producer, Eumir Deodato, they added James “J.T.” Taylor as lead singer. To accommodate both Taylor’s vocal style and the band’s move toward more mainstream pop, the horns were de-emphasized, which, Bell says, “took a bit of work here and there. It wasn’t like we got rid of the horns altogether; we just moved them around and had them punctuate the accents. I probably got a little less busy with my playing, too. We all had to make some adjustments, but the payoff was worth it.”

Taylor made his debut on the 1979 album Ladies Night, which included the lush groover “Too Hot” and the dance-floor title track smash. “I was going to all the clubs in New York City—Studio 54, Regine’s, all that,” says Bell. “I noticed that they would have ‘ladies night’ every Friday. We already had a track that George Brown was working on, and I said, ‘Let’s try to work “ladies night” in there.’ The bass line and the drums were tight, and we fit the horns in with what the vocals were doing. The rest was history. We had a huge hit.”

The group kicked off the ’80s in full-on celebration mode, picking up two American Music Awards for “Ladies Night.” In the spirit of things, Ronald Bell presented the band with an epic party anthem that seemed to capture both their collective moods and the zeitgeist of the times. “‘Celebration’ sounded great the second we heard it,” Bell remembers. “It had the ‘ya-hoos,’ a nice down-home feel, and the horns fit right in. I basically hold down the fort on the bass, but I do a tricky little intro thing I’m proud of. And the song kicked it for us—we had our biggest hit yet.”

In 1983, guitarist Charles Smith started tinkering with an ode to his mother called “Dear Moms.” It was a departure for the band—an unabashed pop ballad with no traces of funk, R&B, or disco. J.T. Taylor tried to navigate his way around the title, but the words felt awkward; they just didn’t roll off his tongue. “So we decided, ‘How about a girl’s name?’” says Bell. “We tried a bunch of names out, and ‘Joanna’ fit the hook the best. It’s funny, because right around the same time, Toto had their song ‘Rosanna.’ It was a weird coincidence, but it wasn’t intentional.”

“Joanna” was yet another Kool & the Gang smash, peaking at number two on both the U.S. and U.K. pop singles charts. But many longtime fans felt as if the band had now strayed too far from its roots. “We got some flack for that song,” Bell says. “Our audience, the ‘Gang Heads,’ as we called them, they liked ‘Hollywood Swinging’ and ‘Jungle Boogie’ and the dance stuff. With ‘Joanna,’ we were a little too pop for them.”