kool the gang

Bassist Robert “Kool” Bell’s half-century as a performer and bandleader has taken him from hole-in-the-wall clubs to the top of the charts to England’s Glastonbury Festival and opening for Van Halen’s 2012 tour. Photo by Silvia Mautner

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.

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