Kool & The Gang
Photo: GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images
50 Years Later, Kool & The Gang Are Still Celebrating The "Pursuit Of Happiness" On New Album 'Perfect Union'
In the summer of 2020, Kool & the Gang's founding member and principal songwriter Ronald "Khalis" Bell wanted to combine the band's dance rhythms with lyrical themes around world peace and harmony for the band's first full-length studio album in over a decade, Perfect Union.
Unfortunately, he would never live to see his musical vision come to life. Bell's life was cut short on Sept. 9, 2020, at age 68. His brother, Robert "Kool" Bell, and original band members George Brown and Dennis "Dee Tee" Thomas decided to carry the torch. Perfect Union's first single, "Pursuit of Happiness," is inspired by President Biden's campaign and features rapper Keith Murray. The album releases on Aug. 20.
For five decades, Kool & the Gang turned their brand of slick funk, disco rhythms, horn-blaring jazz, R&B instrumentals, memorable hooks, and tender pop ballads into GRAMMY-winning, million-selling classics like "Jungle Boogie," "Hollywood Swinging," "Ladies Night," Too Hot," "Funky Stuff," "Summer Madness," "Get Down On It," "Cherish," "Joanna," "Fresh," and the anthemic chart-topper "Celebration."
Originating in Jersey City, New Jersey in 1964, the Songwriters Hall of Fame inductees went through a series of name changes until they released their self-titled debut LP in 1969. The group added lead vocalist James "J.T." Taylor a decade later.
Songs from Kool & the Gang's catalog have been featured in commercials for brands like Kroger, Capital One and Amoco. The band is regularly sampled on hip-hop records, has a street named for them, and is featured at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. The band is in the process of adapting their story for book publishing, film, an extended box set, and a musical.
Robert "Kool" Bell recently sat with GRAMMY.com to chat about Kool & the Gang's new music, grieving the losses of his brother Ronald and original member Dennis "Dee Tee" Thomas, the band's evolution, longevity, and giving back to the community.
What's the inspiration behind the lead single and the album?
I know it's a tough time right now dealing with COVID, but we put this together. My brother basically did most of the album and got us back into the studio before I lost him last year, but it's good to be back out there. When Biden was running for president, he played "Celebration." When he won, "Celebration" was one of the most played songs around the world.
My brother came up with "Pursuit of Happiness." I wasn't sure what route he was trying to go with it, but it turns out he was talking about world peace. When Biden was making his speech for his nomination, he went into the Constitution and spoke about the pursuit of happiness and a perfect union. We have some dance stuff on the album, but this project is about pushing for world peace and people coming together.
How did you get the nickname "Kool"?
I'll try and make this quick. I was a country boy coming to Jersey City, the big city, trying to fit in. My mother sent me to the store one day to get some bread that cost a quarter. Two guys walked up, told me to give them some money, and they took my quarter. I asked myself if I wanted to be a victim or a part of what's going on? So I became a part of that organization, the Imperial Lords, and tried to stay on the good side of things. That's how I got the nickname Kool. It was originally Tamango first because of that movie.
Where did music come into play?
When we first started, my brother was a fan of John Coltrane; Dee Tee was into Cannonball Adderly; Spike Mickens loved Freddie Hubbard; George Brown liked Philly Joe Jones; and I listened to Ron Carter, so the jazz thing was happening.
My father was a boxer, and he used to fight in Cuba a lot before the sanctions. Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis used to come to Cuba and hang out, so it was a lot like Floyd Mayweather being around the hip-hop guys. My father used to live in the same building as Thelonious Monk, and he became my godfather. Miles wanted to get in the ring with my father because he wanted to be a boxer.
How did Kool & the Gang ensure the energy from the studio could translate so well into song?
The energy was 90 percent us. We'd go in and just have some fun, come up with some concepts, and some ideas, man. All the guys would chip in on the writing. We were just jammin', man: makin' up songs like "Chocolate Buttermilk" and "Raw Hamburger."
Then we got to a point where we ran out of titles, so we called one song "N.T." for "No Title." We got a lot of samples off of "N.T." It just would all come together, man. "Too Hot" was about George Brown and his wife breaking up because it got too hot. George could write those types of songs; "September Love" was about someone that he met in September. We have a lot of different songs that we revisit every now and then.
How was the band able to straddle successfully between making uptempo anthems and pop ballads?
It was all part of our transition. We were on tour with The Jacksons in the late '70s, and Dick Griffey, a promoter and the president of SOLAR Records, said we were doing well on tour, but we needed a lead singer. So we thought about it; Lionel Richie had The Commodores, Maurice White and Philip Bailey with Earth, Wind & Fire, so it was time.
We only auditioned one guy, and that was James "J.T." Taylor. That's when we went to cut the first song, "Ladies Night." Frankie Crocker broke that record in New York. That's when we decided to blend the music with what we did in the early '70s with the lead singer. That's how we were able to roll into the '80s.
What did it take to make sure that adding James "J.T." Taylor was a seamless transition?
That was my brother and our producer, Eumir Deodato. Eumir told us to focus on the lead singer to some degree, and open up them tracks because the horn players would play all through those parts. We were leaving no room for a singer, so we had to write so that we had that space.
Where did "Celebration" come from?
We were coming off from celebrating "Ladies Night," our first single with J.T. I was hanging out in New York with my wife going to Studio 54, and every weekend somewhere, there was a ladies night. We knew that would be a good song. The tail end of "Ladies Night" says "c'mon let's celebrate," so my brother said there was another song right there.
We went to the studio, and he played this track for us with that down home vibe to it in Alabama with grandma and grandpa sittin' on the porch drinkin' some Kool-Aid. We didn't know that, that record was gonna be the ultimate. We thought "Ladies Night" was. "Celebration" is 40 years old now, and it's still big. It's inducted into the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress, and it's one that you can't go back and try to redo. "Celebration" stands by itself, and we're thankful to have a record that's still as popular as it is.
How does it feel seeing your songs being used in numerous commercials and sampled by countless hip-hop artists?
We feel very good about that, but there's always a couple that I'll miss. It's been so many different ones.
What's your relationship like with Taylor these days?
I spoke to J.T. last week. He called me about Dee Tee and my brother. We still stay in touch.
How's that been grieving the losses of your brother and another bandmate?
It's kinda heavy losing my brother last year, Dee Tee this year, and the whole COVID thing. We're trying to get through it and trying to move forward. Our dates are starting to come back. I just came back from Europe actually. We did a mini-tour: playing France, Finland, Spain and Belgium. During this time we were off, I was doing a lot of social media stuff. It's quite interesting what people being home have had to say over the last year.
What inspired your nonprofit, Kool Kids Foundation?
My wife is responsible for that idea. She passed three years ago, but she wanted to do something for kids in school where there was no music and a lack of funding. When I was in school, you could walk into a classroom and pick up an instrument. I had the opportunity to do that, and she was saying it wasn't there anymore in some areas. She came up with the idea for the Kool Kids Foundation. The year before she passed, I was gonna go big time.
Before that in 1987, I did a tour financed by Pepsi-Cola and Cherry Coke in 48 cities. In order for someone to come, they had to have perfect attendance and perform well in school. These four young men came up to us wanting to sing to us. My cousin, our co-manager, wanted to hear what they could do. They did four songs acapella and sounded pretty good. My cousin introduced them to my other cousin, sent them to New York, and that group became Color Me Badd.
How do you handle lasting five decades in the music business?
It feels great because it shows an accomplishment. Some bands don't stay together for 50 days, and we've been together 50 years. We continue to work; Our parents told us to never give up when times get hard, and they do happen in this music business. You go up and down like a rollercoaster ride. We feel good that those things happen, and we're still out there.