“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.” Photo by Silvia Mautner

A New State of Affairs
The next five years saw the band digging back to the funk on songs like “Fresh” and “Misled” (from 1984’s Emergency). At the same time, they paid more and more attention to their live act, pouring more money into their stage production. “It was the era of the big show,” Bell notes. “Earth, Wind & Fire had the whole nine yards, and Parliament-Funkadelic were landing a mothership onstage. We had to compete, so we went wild with production. The crowds dug it.”

Bell doesn’t recall any tensions between J.T. Taylor and the band leading up to a 10-date Christmas holiday engagement in Atlantic City in 1988, so he was taken aback when, after the singer lost his voice during the second show, he announced that he was leaving. “We were like, ‘You’re leaving? For what?’” Bell says. “It just didn’t make sense. And J.T. said, ‘I’ve got a better deal, and I’ve got some problems with management.’ There were all kinds of reasons. We honestly didn’t see it coming.”

For the next eight years, the group soldiered on, concentrating on international markets and working with various singers—Skip Martin, Odeen Mays, and Gary Brown. “It was a trying time,” Bell admits. “We had great people singing with us, but it wasn’t quite the same as when we had J.T.” As it turned out, Taylor was struggling as well—his three solo albums failed to reach mainstream audiences—and in 1996 he contacted the band and expressed his desire to return. “We wanted to rock ’n’ roll, so that was fine by us,” Bell says. “He made some demands, like billing us as ‘Kool & the Gang featuring J.T. Taylor.’ We went back and forth and finally agreed on that.”

YouTube It

Robert “Kool” Bell’s bass line is an essential hook for Kool & the Gang’s funk classic “Jungle Boogie,” which Billboard ranked as the number 12 pop tune of 1974. In this performance, from the historic TV music show, Soul Train, Kool wields a Fender bass as he wades in with his ascending and descending riff at the 30-second mark, and repeats the figure during each vocal break to drive it home.

Kool & the Gang quickly recorded the album State of Affairs with Taylor, and while the record failed to connect with audiences, it did score high marks with critics. “We thought we were on a road to a return,” Bell says. “We were playing good shows, working on new material. All seemed fine.” But by 1999, Taylor again began to express his doubts about being in the band. He started missing shows, including an important festival date in Germany, in 2001. “That was the final straw,” recalls Bell. “When he didn’t show up for that gig, we had to let him go.”

To fill the lead singer slot, the band went back to Skip Martin and Odeen Mays before promoting guitarist Shawn McQuiller, who had joined in 1991, to the frontman position, where he remains to this day. “We’ve had some bumps in the road, but nothing we couldn’t ride right on through,” Bell says. “Shawn’s a big talent, playing guitar and singing. With him and all the other guys, we’ve got the brand solid.”

The group was solid enough onstage at England’s Glastonbury Festival in June 2011—so much so that Van Halen singer David Lee Roth, who caught their set, put in an excited call to Eddie and Alex Van Halen to rave about what he’d witnessed. As Bell explains it, “David said to them, ‘I’ve got the perfect opening band for our tour next year—Kool & the Gang.’ They were like, ‘What?! Kool & the Gang?’ But David convinced them: ‘The tour’s a celebration for us, and they’re the ultimate celebration band.’ David told me, ‘Kool, when I was comin’ up, I used to play your music. In the ’80s we were the rock party band, and you guys were the pop/R&B party band. So let’s put the bands together and throw a big party.’”

Booked for 48 shows on Van Halen’s 2012 sell-out tour of U.S. arenas, Kool & the Gang played to their biggest audiences in years. Even so, Bell admits that he was trepidatious about facing a sea of (predominantly white) hard-rock fans. “We hit them with some of our rock tracks first,” he says. “Then we got to our big hits, and the crowd started getting into it.” By the time the band got to “Ladies Night,” Bell recalls seeing the girls in the arenas getting out of their seats to dance. “That’s when I knew we had ’em,” he says with a laugh. “Finally, we played ‘Celebration,’ and that’s when the ladies looked at the hard-core dudes and said, ‘You’d better get your asses up right now and start dancing!’ And they did. We went down a knockout. It was pretty cool.”