GEORGE BROWN DENNIS, THOMAS, ROBERT “KOOL” BELL, RONALD BELL
It’s called the “A Different Kind of Truth” tour. The June 1 concert at the Staples Center (start time: 7:30 p.m.) features one of the funkiest bands of the ’80s, Kool and the Gang, opening for Eddie Van Halen, David Lee Roth and the boys from one of the rockingest bands of that period.
An odd coupling, some might say. How did these two come together?
Rather easily, said Robert “Kool” Bell in a recent phone interview, explaining, “Eddie [Van Halen] told me that when he saw us at the Glastonbury Festival last year, right outside of London … we kinda rocked the show. David [Lee Roth] saw that … so he said to the guys at Live Nation [concert producers], ‘Listen, I want Kool and the Gang to open up, to be our headliner.’ So they said to him, ‘You think that’s gonna work?’ and he said, ‘Yeah! … Why not? Why don’t we just have a party?’
And party. But then, Van Halen learned what Kool’s fans know: If you’ve ever wanted to get a party started, just throw on a Kool and the Gang jam … and it’s on!
Kool and the Gang 101
The oldest of five boys and one girl, Robert Bell got his “Kool” nickname when his family moved from Youngstown, Ohio, to Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1960.
Said Kool: “Everybody had a nickname and … since I was a country boy coming to the big city … I gotta come up with something … and there was a guy who called himself “Cool” with a “C.” And I said, ‘That’s not too bad — I’ll just take that name,’ but I changed it and spelled it with a “K” and then —
LAS: ? And then came Kool and the Gang?
Kool: And that’s how it all started!
LAS: I do wanna go back and get some basic information, like What would you say were some of the earliest musical influences for you and your brother (saxophonist Ronald Bell), beginning when you moved to Jersey City?
Kool: Growing up in Jersey City, my father, Bobby Bell, was a featherweight boxer. He would run with a lot of jazz musicians at the time. Miles Davis wanted to be a boxer. He would fool around with my father every now and then over in New York City and want to get into the ring and my father said, ‘No, Miles, stay out of the ring … or you’ll mess up your career’ … And when I was born, Thelonious Monk became my godfather.
Kool: They all stayed in the same apartment building … and then me and my brother would listen to John Coltrane and Freddie Hubbard and, of course, Miles Davis and McCoy Tyner. And then I was also listening to Motown ’cause I was trying to be hip in the streets so I would listen to the Temptations and Smokey — all the Motown acts as well … So what happened was we started to develop our sound that was like R&B with a Motown flavor and also with jazz flavor …
From guitar to bass
JC: When did you first pick up a guitar?
K: I picked up a guitar in 1964. I was fooling around with it every now and then. I was playing percussion — bongos and congas — and we were working at this place, and one night my brother said, ‘Why don’t you just try the bass?’ … and I remembered I [had] learned this one song I had played on the guitar called “Coming Home Baby” by Herbie Mann, and you can play a whole song on just one string! So that night I played [the bass] … and after that I took a liking to the bass and I started listening to records … and that’s how it all happened!
A Kool brand of funk
When asked how he would define Kool’s brand of funk in musical terms, Kool responded:
Kool: Well, funk is an energy. Funk is always on the one and the two, and George [Clinton] would always say, ‘You gotta keep it on the one.’ And then I think a lot of the rhythms of funk were started in Africa, you know, with the drums … and then it’s a feeling. A lot of our tracks — in the early days, we would play what we feel … We never said, ‘We gotta figure out how to write a funk song, write the charts’ … We just played funk … It starts with the drummer and the bass … If the drummer is into the groove, then I would put my lines on top of the feel of the drums … It’s like building a house from the foundation. And then my brother would come up with these tricky-sounding horn lines, and then our guitarist (the late Claydes) “Ray” Charles Smith —his style of playing grooves on top of the bass and the drums … and then (the late) Ricky Westfield, with his Wah wah-sounding keyboard — ’cause he was a funky keyboard player! He would rock right in between myself and George Brown, the drummer, and he’d put his little rhythms in there, Charles had his little rhythms and then we’d put the horns on top of that … ’cause back then we didn’t have singers, you know … We had ‘chant songs,’ like “Let the Music Take Your Mind,” “Chocolate Buttermilk” and “N.T,” and we would just come up with any name for the song.”
Since his upcoming gig is with rockers Van Halen, I asked:
“Can you point to any rock influences in your playing?”
Kool: “Misled,” “Emergency,” “Tonight” … But I mean we grew up listening to the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Grand Funk Railroad, Peter Frampton, Three Dog Night and Blood Sweat and Tears …
LAS: So what happened with your lead singer James ‘J.T.’ Taylor … he left?
K: Kool and the Gang has been an evolution of various times — from the 60s, the 70s the 80s. We were working on some shows with the Jackson 5. And that time Dick Griffey was their tour manager at the time. [Griffey also produced shows at that time.] He came to us and he said, ‘Listen, you guys are good and you had your big hits of the 70s — “Hollywood Swinging,” “Jungle Boogie” — I think you guys need to get you a lead singer.’ And we thought about it and we said, ‘Hey, if it’s time to make a change, this might be the best time … and a lot of our music was very melodic, and it was very easy to put a vocal on top of that … So we decided to get a lead singer …. And JT became our lead singer.
Kool added that, though JT left in 1987 (because of differences he had with management and because he wanted to try some things on his own), he did come back in 1995 and stayed in Kool and the Gang for another four years, leaving for good in 1999.
LAS: Let’s talk a little about the “A Different Kind of Truth” tour with Van Halen? Did you listen to them back in the day?
Kool: Of course, their most popular song was “Jump” that crossed over urban pop rock. I was told that at that time, we were both in the Top 5 together. “Jump” was up there along with “Joanna” … We were all vying for No. 1 back in the early ’80s. Then Eddie Van Halen did that guitar solo on MJ’s “Beat It.”
LAS: With them being hard rock and you being funk and soul, have you discovered any musical synergies touring together?
Kool: Yeah, we have a couple of things we wanna do … Actually, my brother came up with the concept for a project called “Just Kool Licks.” There’d be invited guest artists like Bootsey Collins — he’s interested. Nile Rodgers, Charlie Wilson. Also we’re talking to Eddie Van Halen and also the bass player from Chicago [the group] … So you’re talking about synergy, energy … Yeah, we’re hoping we can pull this project off.
LAS: Last question: What brings you joy these days?
Kool: The fact that we’ve able to survive for almost four decades now … We’ve had our ups and downs … in going through the various changes in this business. And the fact that being in this business has blessed us to be able to travel around the world … there’s a lot of joy and blessings in learning so many different things and different cultures and different people.