Kool & the Gang’s Robert Bell: ‘When the astronauts went into house, they performed Celebration’

It was after a gig in France just a few years again that Robert “Kool” Bell discovered himself in receipt of an unlikely enterprise proposition. “The promoter got here to me and mentioned: ‘Pay attention, your concert events are bought out – how would you wish to promote bottles of champagne at your reveals?’ I mentioned: ‘Properly, what number of of my followers desire a bottle of champagne after a live performance? They need T-shirts and caps, that sort of factor,’” he shrugs. “Then he mentioned that what he actually needed to do was get it on the cabinets, like Dom Pérignon and Cristal. He needed to take me to d’Epernay, to Rheims – the Champagne area. So I went over and we made Le Kool champagne. The identify,” he provides, “has that French vibe to it.”

I didn’t think about I might find yourself discussing Premier Crus, terroir and the continued plans to revise the boundaries of the Champagne area after I arrived at Bell’s lodge in Docklands, London. Nonetheless, there’s one thing telling about it: somebody was ready to market a Kool & the Gang-branded champagne 40 years after the band’s business peak, which says lots in regards to the deathlessness of their hits.

Robert ‘Kool’ Bell.
Robert ‘Kool’ Bell. {Photograph}: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Probably the most well-known of the lot, 1980’s Celebration, wasn’t only a chart-topping world success – it appeared to swiftly grow to be an immutable truth of life. As you learn this, you possibly can assure that there’s a marriage or a birthday or a sports activities victory occurring someplace on the earth the place it’s being performed. Women’ Evening, from 1979, and 1981’s Get Down on It are solely marginally much less ubiquitous: a long time after their launch, they’re nonetheless the sort of songs everybody appears to know the refrain of, whether or not they need to or not.

Their lasting fame implies that the present iteration of Kool & the Gang – with Bell, now 72, and drummer George “Funky” Brown the one surviving authentic members – have simply launched a brand new album and by no means need for gigs: Bell is briefly based mostly in London whereas the band play their regular spherical of the UK’s summer season reveals. But it surely additionally implies that these songs are inclined to overshadow the remainder of Kool & the Gang’s oeuvre and certainly a narrative that’s extra advanced than their picture as perennial bringers of pop-disco jollity suggests.

When Bell’s brother Ronald, the band’s chief songwriter, died in 2020, you couldn’t transfer on social media for individuals suggesting you hearken to Jungle Boogie or Summer season Insanity as examples of the more durable, deeper model of funk they peddled within the early 70s. However that’s not the half of it. For one factor, they began out not as a funk band, however because the Jazziacs, whose identify underlined their John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley-inspired sound: a legacy, Bell says, of their childhood. “My father, he was a Prime 5 featherweight, a Golden Gloves champion out of Cleveland, Ohio who went to New York. He stayed in an condominium constructing the place Thelonious Monk lived, so he knew him. He fought plenty of Cuban fighters again earlier than the sanctions in opposition to Cuba, so he used to go right down to Havana with Dizzy Gillespie and all these guys” – Gillespie was pursuing his groundbreaking fusion of bebop and Latin-American rhythms on the time – “after which there was a fitness center on sixty fifth and 2nd Avenue the place he skilled. Miles Davis needed to be a boxer, so he would come over to the ring and needed to spar with my father, however my father mentioned, ‘Miles, I don’t need to try this with you, as a result of if I hit you flawed and bust your lip, you may not have a profession!’”

Davis’s embouchure was saved, however the affect of jazz continued to permeate Kool & the Gang’s sound lengthy after they pivoted in the direction of funk: they had been nonetheless wont to put in writing tracks referred to as issues like I Bear in mind John W Coltrane, or to cowl Charles Lloyd’s Sombrero Sam.

Kool & the Gang performing on Solid Gold in the 1970s.
Some individuals thought we had been a Spanish band … Kool & the Gang acting on Stable Gold within the Nineteen Seventies. {Photograph}: MediaPunch Inc/Alamy

In reality, it wasn’t fully clear what the early Kool & the Gang thought they had been doing. They’d no lead singer; Bell says that their love of advanced percussive traces led “some individuals to assume we had been a Spanish band”; the identical album that featured their John Coltrane tribute additionally featured a sport try and fuse funk with nation and western (as on 1972’s Nation Junky) amid the James Brown-influenced exercises. It was fascinating however chaotically eclectic and their file label ultimately determined to take decisive motion.

“They informed us there was an enormous file referred to as Soul Makossa by Manu Dibango and so they needed us to work with the producer of that music. We had a gathering with him, however we weren’t feeling it. Our backs had been in opposition to the wall, so we booked time on this rehearsal studio in SoHo – we went in round eight o’clock within the morning and once we completed at midnight, we had created Funky Stuff, Jungle Boogie and Hollywood Swinging, all on the identical day. That’s what turned issues round for us: they had been all massive hits, the subsequent album went gold.”

The Jungle Boogie record cover.
Our backs had been in opposition to the wall … the Jungle Boogie file cowl. {Photograph}: Advance Communications BV/Publicity picture

However the success didn’t final: the arrival of the disco period introduced with it one of many extra inexplicable interludes in Kool & the Gang’s profession. They shifted their sound once more and secured a spot on the largest album of the period, the soundtrack to Saturday Evening Fever, with Open Sesame. However, regardless of the publicity on a 40m-selling album, their very own disco data ignominiously flopped.

Then, extra inexplicably nonetheless, because the disco increase crashed and took the careers of luminaries reminiscent of Stylish with it, Kool & the Gang abruptly turned big, with a string of singles that sounded precisely like disco. Bell thinks it was right down to the truth that Kool & the Gang had lastly determined to make use of a frontman, James “JT” Taylor (tellingly, they made him sing jazz songs at his audition and, a lot to Taylor’s bemusement, introduced that his voice reminded them of Nat King Cole), and likewise due to some pragmatic ideas about songwriting. “I used to be hanging out in New York with my spouse and among the scorching golf equipment had been having women’ nights. I believed: hmmm. I informed my brother, and he mentioned: ‘Wow, women’ evening – they acquired considered one of them all around the world, don’t they?’ So I got here up with the title, we created the observe and that file was big.”

After which there was Celebration. Ronald Bell preferred to inform interviewers the music was impressed by a verse within the Qur’an – the Bell brothers had transformed to Islam in 1972 – however Robert suggests it may need extra prosaic origins. “My brother was listening to Women’ Evening, and he picked out the road ‘That is your evening tonight, come on, let’s all rejoice’ and he says: ‘That’s one other music!’ So he places collectively this observe and that file shocked all people. They performed it within the house station – when the astronauts went up, they had been floating round enjoying Celebration! They performed it when the hostages got here house from Iran [following the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran in 1979]. They play it at baseball, soccer, hockey, soccer video games on a regular basis.” He chuckles. “Folks had been anti-disco and anti-this and that, and but we slipped in there with the right music!”

For the subsequent few years, Kool & the Gang had been a reliable hitmaking machine. As Bell factors out, the eclecticism that had appeared like an issue early on their profession turned out to be a constructive: they had been capable of navigate the altering waters of early 80s pop, to attract in audiences that didn’t normally hearken to soul or R&B. The “yahoo!” chant in Celebration was, he says, like a extra commercially profitable tackle the country-funk fusion of Nation Junky: it was meant to sound like a cowboy’s cry of “yee-haw!” They may prove rock-influenced tracks (the 1984 hit Misled) subsequent to massive ballads, jazzy 80s funk or the reggae-influenced Let’s Go Dancing. Nor had been they afraid of pure pop. When Joanna was launched in 1983 – by which level Kool & the Gang had been principally unrecognisable because the band who’d made Funky Stuff or Jungle Boogie – Bell says even his mates demurred. “Oh man: it was ‘too pop’, ‘are you certain that’s Kool & the Gang?’, all that stuff,” he sighs. “It was one of many most-played songs in America that yr.”

Their hitmaking period drew to an in depth when Taylor give up within the late 80s, however his departure appeared to do nothing to dent Kool & the Gang’s energy as a dwell draw. In reality, nothing appears to. His brother was “the glue”, Bell says, however after his loss of life, they had been again on the highway as quickly as Covid restrictions would permit. Their newest album consists of songs he accomplished earlier than he died and Bell talks eagerly about the opportunity of celebrating their sixtieth anniversary with a Royal Albert Corridor gig backed by an orchestra.

“Folks have counted us out a number of occasions: ‘Kool & the Gang aren’t going to make it into the subsequent decade’, ‘Are you guys nonetheless collectively?’, that stuff. However we’re a band that retains shifting, retains altering,” he provides, which, given their progress from jazz to funk to disco to pop to champagne manufacturing, feels like an understatement. “And, you realize, individuals at all times have one thing they need to rejoice.”

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