A few years after a professional boxer relocated his family to Jersey City, New Jersey in 1960, his Ohio-born teenage sons formed one of the most renowned groups of all time with some neighborhood pals: The Jazz Birds. Doesn’t ring a bell? Well, then the band’s second moniker – the Jazziacs — probably isn’t going to illuminate anything for you, either, even though you’ve undoubtedly heard their songs countless times. That’s because it wasn’t until 1969 – 50 years ago – that the group adopted the name that would eventually become world famous: Kool & the Gang.
Morphing from the Jazz Birds to Jazziacs to the Soul Town Band to The New Dimensions to Kool & the Flames before finally settling on Kool & the Gang, Robert “Kool” Bell and his brother Ronald “Khalis” Bell honed their chops on the local Jersey circuit playing everything from jazz to Motown covers. When they finally released their self-titled debut on July 3, 1969, the 32-minute instrumental effort revealed Kool & the Gang to be precise, concise players equally comfortable gifting your ears with lush, pillow-y vibes as they were targeting your hips with mean, fat-free funk.
Despite their freshman status in ’69, they were already R&B PhDs. But it wasn’t until 1973’s Wild and Peaceful that the wider world started to notice, with the unhinged groove of “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” crashing into the Billboard Hot 100’s top 10. Since then, it’s been an unpredictable ride, with commercial and artistic peaks and valleys as the band dabbled in everything from soul-jazz to disco to hard funk to mainstream pop. Both before and after the addition of vocalist James “J.T.” Taylor (who joined in 1979, left the band in 1988 and returned for one album), Kool & the Gang produced several classic albums and numerous cross-generational party jams (“Celebrate,” “Ladies Night”) that remain inescapable.
As radio mainstays and an incalculably influential group, the band’s legacy is secure as they kick off a world tour in 2019. In celebration of 50 years of Kool & the Gang, Robert and Ronald Bell hopped on the phone with Billboard to talk about what’s happened in the five decades since their debut dropped — and their advice for young musicians hoping to enjoy a similarly fruitful career.
You started out playing jazz; when did you morph into the R&B sound you eventually specialized in?
Khalis: We started out playing jazz because we were introduced to jazz as young kids — at five or six, something like that. My father had bought a Miles Davis album, ‘Round About Midnight, and bought a stereophonic system and I’d sit there and listen to it all the time; that and Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five and “Blue Rondo a la Turk” [from Time Out]. Later on, we moved to Jersey City and there was a lot of different bands around town, and a lot of jazz being played. We started playing jazz and then we started playing R&B when we became the Soul Town Band. We took all the Motown, James Brown, Otis Redding, Temptations, and infused it with the jazz we were playing, along with the funk – James Brown, Sly Stone – and that’s how we morphed into the Kool and the Gang sound of the ’70s. Then in the ’80s we took another turn and got someone to sing and became a pop band — pop/R&B, disco, whatever you want to call it.
Kool: Back around that time when we were the Soul Town Band, we’d have to back-up bands around Jersey City. There was an organization called the Soul Town Revenue — they were trying to be the Motown Revue. They had about 10, 15 artists locally, and we’d have to learn those Motown songs they were singing by the Temptations, the Miracles, Diana Ross, etc. etc., and we had to learn those songs. And that’s how we became the Soul Town Band. And that mixture, as we went on, formed Kool and the Gang…. At first, we were Kool and the Flames, but when we got our first manager, Gene Redd, we had to change the Flames to the Gang because of James Brown [and His Famous Flames]. We didn’t want to have any problems with the Godfather.
So you get your first manager, and start recording for De-Lite, his label. You were pretty young – where you nervous at all when you hit the studio?
Khalis: Not really. We had been banging it out for six years before that even happened. We were comfortable in the studio.
Kool: Yeah it was a fun project. We’d been banging it out since ’64 and that album had the energy from what we were doing as a [live] band. That had “Since I Lost My Baby,” which is a song by the Temptations, and “Kool and the Gang,” “Breeze and Soul” and “Sea of Tranquility.” We had a great time doing it.
Khalis: [But other than the Temptations cover] that was all new material.
After a few more releases comes Wild and Peaceful, where you reached a new level thanks to hits like “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging.” Did you know that album would be different?
Khalis: That was on purpose. The record company wanted us to record a hit.
Kool: They wanted us to record “Soul Makossa” by Manu Dibango. So we started to come up with our own “Jungle Boogie” instead and the rest was history.
Eventually J.T. Taylor joins as a vocalist. Was it hard finding a lead singer?
Kool: We were on tour with the Jackson 5. Dick Griffey was on the tour, and he was also the founder of Solar Records. He said, “Hey man you guys are doing good, but I think you need a lead singer.” And we said, “Well we never thought about it like that.” And then we thought “well, Earth, Wind & Fire has Philip Bailey and Maurice White, Commodores have Lionel Richie, maybe that’s something we should look into.” J.T. was the first guy we auditioned — I don’t think we auditioned any more.
Khalis: No, we didn’t audition any more singers.
Was there any friction at first?
Khalis: We were almost finished with an album before J.T. showed up, but it didn’t have lyrics in the format. So what we did when we wrote those songs, not all of them — there’s one instrumental — but we did them around his voice.
Kool: You gotta make room for the singer. Our horns was our singing — all our music was horn-driven and bass drums. Any adjustment to it was that. With Ladies’ Night, that was our first record with a new singer, so you heard just a little horn. But there was very little adjustment for him to sing the song – just making a little room.
Khalis: Yeah and we still had the sing-alongs, “Get Down on It,” etc.
Do you keep in touch with him?
Kool: After he left? He came back in 1995 did an album called State of Affairs (released in 1996), and then left in 1999. Most recently we saw him when we were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
With your world tour coming up, you’re looking back on 50 years as Kool & the Gang. What goes though your head as you think of that?
Kool: This year is special. It is 50 years and the official 50. Our first record came out July 3, 1969, so 2019 will be 50 years and we’re celebrating the whole year. Just trying to keep it on track. Expanding a little bit but keeping it tight [on stage].
Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
Kool: A lot of things you would think you’d have done differently, but the experience is what’s important. The experience of trial and error, living and learning, doing the things we do with our back against the wall and pushing forward. Making things happen. From “Hollywood Swinging” and “Jungle Boogie” to adding J.T., it was every 10 years: “Well, what are you going to do now?” “What are you going to do now?” Each decade we made it happen up until what we’re doing now. Just five years ago we were out playing shows with Van Halen and shows with Kid Rock. Opening up for great rock bands like Elton John and Rod Stewart. And now this.
And looking back on your career, what do you feel grateful for?
Khalis: Just to have one [laughs]. And for it to be this long. For me, I’m most grateful for that, to still be relevant since [we were] 19.
Kool: There’s an evolution of things happening. You’re 14 years old, you’re really young and you have to get licenses to work in clubs. We were just doing what we’re doing, year after year. We’re not talking about someone going to work at a Home Depot. This is our lives. Music is our lives. We said music is the message and music is our lives.
Do you have advice for young musicians?
Khalis: If you do music and have a passion for it, never give up. The other part is a little tricky. But never give up.
Kool: Like Khalis said, never give up. Learn as much about the music and business that you’re dealing with. Try to be creative and a little different, which is hard to do because you have a lot of sound-alike bands, but you gotta find your niche out there. And understanding the business, make sure you got good attorneys, accountants – and pay your taxes. The government is part of it. [Laughs]
And what else are you up to this year?
Khalis: We’re gonna keep hitting the funk. We still make music, we’re in the process of making a book, a documentary, a movie, we’re doing a large box set.
What’s the movie about?
Kool: My brother Khalis is working more on that. It’s the story of our lives, our document. Going back to when my father would play albums in the house. He was a boxer and people like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, back in the day, they would come to see us. The fighters and musicians would hang out, almost like today with Mike Tyson and Jay-Z and all those guys. There’s a lot of different stories to tell.
Khalis: The story takes place up to where we make Kool and the Gang. It’s The Wonder Years.