In a night of so many celebratory moments, it was a subtle but exceedingly profound lightning bolt of Songwriters Hall of Fame magic for inductees Kool & the Gang when James “JT” Taylor joined Robert “Kool” Bell, Ronald Bell and George Brown on stage. It was the first time Taylor had been in the same room with his former bandmates in 25 years after a prolonged legal entanglement severed ties and friendships. After their individual acceptance speeches, where Robert Bell noted he was “honored to be sharing this podium with my brothers,” they kicked into a rousing performance of “Celebration” more fitting than some in the room may have realized.
A few weeks before the show, Billboard spoke with the Bell brothers and Brown, and separately with Taylor, about what the honor, and the reunion, means to them.
James “JT” Taylor’s Songwriters Hall of Fame Interview
What does being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame mean to you at this time in your career?
It’s about the people involved who helped write the songs, your motivation behind the songs, where you recorded the songs, and my family. And all those things. And I think about how if this or that one element didn’t happen, how would that have affected the outcome of the song or motivated it into something else. And when you see how fragile that process is and how fortunate we were to have the stars line up that day for it to happen… so for me it’s about the people and the experience.
With that perspective, and looking back to your time in the band, would you change anything?
There’s always things you would want to change, but I’ve learned that if you take one part away, it could end up being a disaster, so I usually don’t want to go back like that and change anything. But if there was anything I would change it would be us not being friends now as a result of a legal case. Once I left the band they said I was never a member of the band, but you reflect on how we did our music. We were together 24/7 for a decade. Our families were together, we broke bread together and we prayed together. And when we came up with the music, it was like one day a guy would have a great idea and then we would hit the room and the process would start. One day it was me who would come up with the chief idea, other days it was George, or Charles. And we had such a system of doing it; we really just had the desire to write music. When that whole legal thing happened it was like, really? We’ll never be able to get rid of the magic we had, so what’s the point? But when I reflect and see how our music affected people around the world, it’s so humbling. Even right now talking about it I get a little chill. I always keep that in the forefront and count my blessings.
Does keeping the positive in the forefront of your mind help give you perspective?
Oh yeah. That’s why I say, it was just the nightmarish part of it. You just can’t put together how someone would claim you didn’t have anything to do with it all and you were not as important. We had this great run, almost unprecedented by a band. When they received the star on the Walk of Fame they didn’t contact me. When this [SHOF] came around, I was fortunate a rep from BMI actually called my management office and told me about it and he mentioned to the Songwriters that if you’re going to induct these guys, you’ve got to have JT. I was totally oblivious that we were even nominated until that happened. I mention that to say that the pain of that didn’t just stop after the lawsuit happened. It just kept going. At that time I just kept my head straight, I prayed every day, I ran my own record company. One thing you can’t change is the unbelievably fantastic history we had together. Those songs… Everywhere I go somebody is playing “Celebration,” and that supersedes anything.
When is the last time you saw the rest of the guys in the band?
I have not physically seen them in almost 25 years.
So I imagine the Songwriters gala holds even more meaning for you.
It’s a big award for me, but it’s also something for my family. As an artist, especially a performing songwriter, you spend a lot of time alone, away from your family, so to see the smile on their faces is great. When my family found out about this award they were so happy because they remember, they called and said, “Why didn’t you get your Walk of Fame star? You had as much to do with that as they did.” As much as that was a heartbreak, this is uplifting. My only regret is my mother passed away when we were going through the whole legal thing. It will always stay with me not only because it hurt me but because she was also affected by it. Not just a selfish thing, like poor JT, I can endure that, but I will take her into that Hall with me. It’ll be a great night. I’m going to go with a good attitude.
Can you share the story behind one of the band’s biggest hits, “Celebration”?
For “Celebration,” first of all, we have to go back to “Ladies Night.” There was a ladies night in New York, I think every Wednesday. Kool [Robert “Kool” Bell] was the one who would go out and bring in information about what was going on, and the chief writing on that song was George Brown. There’s a lyric in the song at the end when the ladies say, “Come on let’s all celebrate.” And a year after that song came out is when we came up with “Celebration.” We were celebrating kind of the resurrection of the band, and Ronald [Bell] came up these really cool keyboard parts and working with [Eumir] Deodato, the producer, the song came together. And keep in mind, we were actually touring while we were doing this album. You look back and think, “How the hell did we do that?” You finish doing a show, you’re on the bus, and then we would get home after a week and we’d go right back to the studio in West Orange and then we did this “yahoo” thing, just being in the moment, just around. I mean, how many black guys do you hear saying “yahoo?” It wasn’t like a hood thing [laughs], but it ended up becoming one of the signatures of the song. We had demos, and I remember bringing one home and playing on my little cassette player for my mother, and she said, this is the truth, “You’re going to sing that song for the rest of your life.”
Kool & the Gang’s Songwriters Hall of Fame Interview
What does being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame mean to you at this time in your career?
George Brown: Every song we’ve done, they’re all like our children. You write for the sake of your art, and try to create the music the best you can. It’s not even the monetary value, none of that comes into play. You’re just doing it for the art. When I found out, it didn’t hit me at first, and then I just couldn’t believe the collective body of work we did to merit such a high honor. It feels wonderful to have your peers honoring you for your body of work.
As you look back, what do you think has been the magic in the band’s songwriting?
Robert Bell: First of all, it’s a blessing to be induced into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. We’ve been doing this over 50 years. George and my brother were some of the key writers in Kool & the Gang. I participate, but in terms of the writing side of that, it’s their ideas and I had a role in the small selective amount of them we were able to turn into songs.
George Brown: Kool said his contribution wasn’t as much, but it is a major contribution because Kool has a lot of vision and insight into what’s trending, and what he’s always done is bring those ideas to this band and expound upon them. He’s always had that insight, like Sean Puffy Combs has insight, of what’s going on in the industry, and that’s a major component of what’s going on.
Ronald Bell: For “Ladies Night,” we were all sitting around trying to find something else to write about and my brother, Robert “Kool” Bell walked in, and said, I have two ideas for you – the first one is hanging out and the second one is ladies night. And right here I said, “Well there’s one of those all over the world,” and we proceeded collectively to write “Ladies Night.” At the end of “Ladies Night,” we are singing, “Come on let’s all celebrate” so “Celebration” comes from the end of “Ladies Night,” but I actually saw that in a scripture I was reading where the creator of the universe that created man and the angels were all celebrating for doing so, and from that idea it sparked writing “Celebration.”
Robert Bell: To add to “Ladies Night,” I think George was working on the music of the song when I came in and had this idea. Ladies night was what was going on in Studio 54 and all the hot spots in New York at the time. Every Friday night was a ladies night, and it all worked, it all came together.
Did you know you had a hit on your hands?
Ronald Bell: Yeah, when he first said ladies night, it was like a bomb went off in my head because this movement was going on everywhere in the world. Why wouldn’t that be a hit?
George Brown: As Kool said, I came up with the track because I went to see a former manager of ours, and I went to get money because at that juncture in our career there weren’t that many dates. And walking back down to Gramercy Park where I lived, I started looking at the people, their gait when they walked, and said, “Hey, that looks like a jazz walking base” and from that I came up with that track and I started harmonizing as far as chord changes and came up with that first verse. And then we brought it into rehearsal with Khalis [Bayyan] and Khalis came up with that hook. So it was a collective process.
You guys are back on the road now. Are you writing any new music?
Ronald Bell: We’re never off the road; we work considerably. We write all the time, in fact that’s was what I was doing before your called.
What feels fresh and current right now?
Robert Bell: We do 100 shows a year, and so there’s a lot of new people around the world, new experiences, new things on the scene. You only get ideas from your travels and from experiences. I just came back from [Johannesburg], so I can write about the Jo’burg Jig, or the Capetown Blues.
Ronald Bell: Here’s my working title for the album, not saying that it’s going to be the name but… it’s Urban Funk Culture.
George Brown: The word urban has always been the popular area in the city, but it’s actually changed definition in our culture because it used to mean the black diaspora in a sense, and urban means now all the music that comes out of the industry. From Bruno Mars to Kool & the Gang, that’s urban dance, urban pop — the R&B aspect has faded. You used to say urban for black music, now it means any music that has that groove and that funk. If you look at Justin Timberlake’s album, it’s ‘80s and it has the funk to it. Bruno Mars — his album is very ’80s, very funky. Even P!nk’s album. It’s the new urban funk, not just from the black diaspora.
This is the first time in decades the three of you will be in the room with JT. How does that feel?
George Brown: We’re always in the room with JT because every time we perform, he’s there.
Are you planning to perform together?
Ronald Bell: We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, this is show business. But I’d like to. In my heart of hearts, I’d really like to because bygones are bygones, and we are all adults.