The funk bass legend and coleader of Kool & the Gang talks about developing his low-down sound and his secrets for riding the tide of music history for 50 years.
A lot of musicians are cool, but there’s only one Kool, as in bassist Robert “Kool” Bell, who, along with his saxophone-playing brother Ronald, founded and has led the pop-funk band Kool & the Gang for close to 50 years. Thanks to a succession of propulsive dance-floor classics—“Hollywood Swinging,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Ladies Night,” and “Celebration” are just a few—the group has sold more than 70 million albums, survived and thrived through numerous trends, collected practically every conceivable award, and put their own imprint on cinematic benchmarks like Saturday Night Fever and Pulp Fiction.
Key to the band’s sound and success is Bell’s punchy, no-frills, extremely hooky bass playing. Combining the harmonic contours of jazz with the smooth melodicism of ’60s R&B, Bell’s ability to craft lively, memorable riffs helped to bring funk from underground dance clubs to AM radio dials, put the Soul Train dancers through their paces, and influenced bassists such as Flea, Carmine Rojas, and Bernard Edwards. Since the ’90s, Bell’s bass lines have found second and even third lives as samples on records by artists as diverse as Will Smith, Madonna, and Public Enemy, among many others.
This past October the group added two more titles to their list of honors, as they were inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But there’s still one award that eludes the veteran hit-makers, and Bell doesn’t need much prodding to sound off about it.
“Why aren’t we in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?” he asks emphatically. “We don’t have enough hits? We haven’t sold enough records? We ask ourselves about this all the time. The requirements are you have to have been together for 25 years—we’ve got 50 years on us! Hopefully, one year they’ll get to us.”
From One String to Four
Bell was born on October 8, 1950, in Youngstown, Ohio. He remembers his first attempt at making music, and what would ultimately inform his style as a bassist, involved turning old paint cans into percussion instruments. “That’s what Ronald and I used to do,” he says. “We’d empty paint out of the cans and turn them into bongo drums. Depending on how much paint was left in the cans, that’s what created certain tones. We would sit on a hill and play our paint-can bongos—you’d hear them echoing throughout the valley below.
“I think that’s why I play bass the way I do,” he continues. “I always hear the drums, and I always try to work with the drummer. The drums and the bass were always together in Kool & the Gang’s music. If you don’t have that for a foundation, no way will the rest of the music stand on top of it.”
The Bell family moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, in the early ’60s, and before long Ronald took up the saxophone while Robert ditched the paint cans for an actual set of bongos. The Bell brothers got together occasionally with a trumpet-playing neighborhood friend, Robert “Spike” Mickens. “That’s how I first picked up the guitar,” Bell explains. “We were over at Spike’s house, just messing around, and I saw that his brother had a guitar. I picked it up, and all at once I started playing ‘Comin’ Home Baby’—that was a big song by Herbie Mann. You could play the whole thing on the E string. I got it down pretty good.”
The Bell brothers and Mickens, along with Ricky Westfield on keyboards and George Brown on drums, formed the Jazz Birds in 1964 and started gigging around New York’s Greenwich Village. One night, during a set at the Café Wha?, Ronald spotted a spare bass guitar sitting around and suggested that his brother give it a try. “He said, ‘Why don’t you pick that up and we’ll play ‘Comin’ Home Baby’?” Bell recalls. “So I did. It had only four strings, and the strings were bigger than on a guitar, so I played it pretty well. After that, I gravitated toward the bass. My mother bought me a cheap bass from Macy’s called a Zim-Gar, and off I went. I didn’t have any training—I just used my ear.”
Part of Bell’s ear training involved listening to and studying bass greats like Ray Brown, Ron Carter, James Jamerson, and Reggie Workman. “Those guys knew how to play to the song and how to work off the drummer,” he notes. “I didn’t really concern myself with trying to learn fancy stuff. My main goal was to drive the groove within the music we were playing, and starting to write. So my style really developed as the band got going.”
The Jazz Birds became the Jazziacs, adding saxophonist Dennis “Dee Tee” Thomas and guitarist Charles Smith to the lineup, and over the next few years, as they refined a mix of soul, jazz, and funk, they became the New Dimensions and, later, the Soul Town Revue. “We were influenced by the Motown Revue, who, of course, played all the hits of the day,” Bell says. “We played the Motown stuff, too, and that’s another way I developed my bass chops. The bass in those songs was so creative and melodic. You had to move on the fretboard. Great stuff to play when you’re getting your act together.”
Eventually, the band changed its name to Kool & the Flames, adopting Bell’s nickname, but with a spelling twist. “‘Cool’ was my nickname ever since I was in Ohio,” he explains. “It just sort of stayed with me. But there was another guy in Jersey City who called himself ‘Cool,’ so I just became Kool with a ‘K.’ I liked that better anyway.”
The final change to what would become their famous band moniker came about after they signed on with manager Gene Redd Jr., who also worked with James Brown. Brown’s backing band was known as the Famous Flames, so Bell suggested that Kool & the Flames become Kool & the Gang. “We didn’t want any trouble with the ‘Godfather,’” he says with a laugh. “We were young, but we weren’t crazy.”
By 1969, Kool & the Gang were packing clubs throughout the Tri-State Area, providing Gene Redd with enough ammo to score the group a deal with De-Lite Records. Redd pushed the band to adopt a more commercial sound on their self-titled debut album from ’69, which peaked at number 43 on the Billboard R&B chart. Over the next few years, the group honed its sound on a succession of live and studio albums. Their most popular release during this period was 1971’s Live at the Sex Machine, which yielded three singles: the originals “Funky Man” and “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” along with a furious rendition of Sly & the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher.”
“It was a mixture of what we did in the ’60s—the James Brown meets the Motown sound—mixed with the horns,” says Bell. “We were really getting the instrumental thing down, and to that we added these street chants on songs like ‘Funky Man.’”
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’.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”