Music

Kool & the Gang's Robert Bell on music, politics and the secret to a happy marriage

His dad wanted him to be a boxer, but with Kool & the Gang he ended up a funk/soul icon who has cause for celebration

Image: Nancy Dagata

Robert ‘Kool’ Bell was born in Youngstown, Ohio, US, in October 1950. He grew up in Jersey City, New Jersey, where he learned the bass and in 1964 formed an instrumental jazz and soul group named The Jazziacs with his brother Ronald (keyboards) and school friends. The group got a regular gig playing every Sunday at a local jazz club as the opening act and ended up playing with jazz greats including Pharoah Sanders, McCoy Tyner and Leon Thomas.

After stints as The Soul Town Band, The New Dimensions and Kool & The Flames, they became Kool & the Gang in 1969 and signed a deal with manager Gene Redd’s Lite Records. After moderate success they broke through with thei single Funky Stuff and their fourth studio album, Wild And Peaceful, which saw them lean into the emerging sound of disco.

A string of hit singles followed, among them Jungle Boogie, Hollywood Swinging and Higher Plane, but during the mid-70s the band suffered a period of commercial decline. That all changed with the release of their 1979 single, Ladies’ Night, a US Top 10 hit. Another streak of hits ensued, including the all-time party classic Celebration, a worldwide number one single, Joanna and Cherish.

Speaking to The Big Issue for his Letter to my Younger Self, Bell recalls his tough upbringing, getting to know his jazz heroes and being part of Band Aid.

At 16, I was already really into my band. Kool & the Gang started, with a different name, in Jersey City, New Jersey when I was 14. We were called the Jazziacs at the time, and this was 1964. So it’s been 60 years this year. My brother was into John Coltrane; George Brown, my drummer, was into ‘Philly’ Joe Jones; Dennis Thomas, another original member, was into Cannonball Adderley; Ricky Westfield was into Herbie Hancock. We used to rehearse in a church hall with a little stage room. People like Pharoah Sanders and McCoy Tyner would come over for Sunday jams. 

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I had three things going on – I could be a mechanic or a boxer, but I became Kool in Kool & the Gang. My father had wanted me to be a boxer. He had me in the ring when I was only nine and we would do three rounds. And my grandfather wanted me to be a mechanic – when I was two years old, he used to have me under the car with him getting all greasy. When I was still in Youngstown, Ohio, I even built my own motorbike by taking a lawnmower motor and putting it on a bicycle frame. But once I got to Jersey City, everything changed.  

My father was a boxer and he was like a rolling stone in the sense that he wasn’t home a lot. He and my mother had a few problems. At that time, we lived in a home where we didn’t have a lot. So my mother’s sister said, “Girl, I gotta get you out of here.” She came with her station wagon and her husband and everything we owned went in the back of it. If they hadn’t brought us to New York, there would never have been Kool & the Gang. There were six of us, so they split us up – some of us lived with one of my mother’s sisters, some with another sister and my mum found a job and a house for us in Jersey City. So I was a country boy, we were almost like The Beverly Hillbillies, but God blessed us and here we are.  

The neighbourhood in Jersey City we were staying in was a little tough. There was a guy who called himself Cool. I liked that so I took the name Kool as my middle name. But I had to learn how to defend myself, because my father was a boxer and there were guys who wanted to challenge me. It was called neighbourhood survival. 

Receiving a Gold Disk for Jungle Boogie, 1973. Image: Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

There were always musicians around. My father used to live in the same building as Thelonious Monk near the Lincoln Center in New York. He asked Thelonious Monk to be my godfather. And Miles Davis used to come over to the gym when my father was boxing. He wanted to spar, but my father said, “If I hit you in the mouth, I could mess up your career.”  

I would tell my younger self to stay positive about what you’re doing in life. Whether you’re trying to be a musician, like I became, or a doctor or anything, only the strong survive. That’s what kept Kool & the Gang together for so many years. My parents used to tell us original members of Kool & the Gang, don’t give up, stick together. If we had problems, we would work it out. 

We created our sound mixing jazz with funk and some Temptations and Motown stuff. We changed the name to Kool & The Flames at first, but Gene Redd, our first producer and manager,  said we couldn’t use Flames because James Brown had the Famous Flames. And we didn’t want any problems with the Godfather. He said why don’t you just call yourself Kool & the Gang and that’s what we did. 

Most of my life has been on the road. I came out of high school right on to the road and have been travelling around the world ever since. We played a couple of gigs in Trinidad and while we were there, they had a revolution. So we had to stay for three weeks, which is when we wrote the song Caribbean Festival. We travelled to Europe, played in Greece for US Army troops. We spent time in England as a young band. If I was in Jersey City, I might have read about these places in books. But we went there. We were seeing these towns, meeting the people and it was great to experience all that as a teenager. 

The industry is not always good times. We had to learn about business, publishing, writing, producing, and we had to put together a competitive live show. We were competing with Earth, Wind & Fire, the Commodores, George Clinton and Funkadelic – but in a good way. We didn’t know we were gonna have all those hits. 

I would say I was somewhat political. Over the years we played for the United Negro College Fund, we played at the Jerry Lewis Telethon. Anything helping children. We used to play for the Nation of Islam and lots of fundraisers for political organisations. And we came up with songs like Who’s Gonna Take the Weight and Love & Understanding. We were also on tour in London when Bob Geldof was putting Band Aid together. So we are on Do They Know It’s Christmas? 

We are the most sampled band in hip-hop – which means we are the most sampled band in the world. Because hip-hop does most of the sampling. Questlove did the breakdown and said our songs had been sampled 1,800 times, the drumbeats, guitar lines, bass lines. It’s great. Madonna used one of our songs, Janet Jackson, Jay-Z.  

My wife and I were hanging out in Studio 54 and noticed that all the popular clubs in New York had a ladies night. So I went back to the guys and said I had a great idea for a song. I said there are ladies nights all over the world. George Brown wrote the music and it became a number one record. We got the American Music Award. The tag of Ladies’ Night is ‘celebrate’ [sings song] This is your night tonight/Come on, let’s celebrate. I remember my brother saying, “Wow, that’s another song.” So we came out with Celebration

Celebration was played on a space station. The astronauts were floating around listening to our song. It is the biggest song we have, they played it at the Super Bowl the other night and it’s always played at weddings. It feels so great that our songs are part of people’s good times. 

We have had many accolades, but the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is one of the last on the bucket list. And it took 60 years, but we were just nominated! This business can be up and down. We wrote a song called Hollywood Swinging, but it took us 20 years to get a star on Hollywood Boulevard. So it’s about staying positive and working hard. We’ve played with Elton John, Dire Straits, we did 48 shows with Van Halen, so we have been with the rockers. Right now, we’re waiting on the vote. 

Onstage with the Gang at Hampton Court Palace, 2023. Image: Joshua Atkins

I have a saying that you live and learn and then you learn to live. What I mean by that is that you go through changes and say, I’m not gonna do that again, but it’s what God had planned for you. So you have to understand why you are here and be charitable. We have another song called Love the Life You Live – and I try to do that. I mean, I drank a little wine on the corner when I moved to Jersey City, because I was trying to be hip. But there’s no way I could ever have imagined having my own line of champagne one day.  

I would tell my younger self be true to yourself and be true to your wife. I got married young. I was 18 or 19 when we got together. How did we make it work? You had to come back off the road and do the right thing by your family. That takes a lot of love, talk, understanding, devotion. Some bands can’t stay together for three weeks. We’ve lasted 60 years. Some marriages don’t last two weeks. But when I said “I do”, “I love you”, I cherished the love. My wife passed six years ago. We were married 47 years. 

I lost all original members of the band, who I called the magnificent seven. I am the last man standing. I have 10 guys in the band now. None of them have been with me for 60 years, but some have been with me for 30 years. Now I call it the magnificent 10. Six have passed but I’m here, as one of the songs we wrote goes, making merry music for all our friends. 

Kool & the Gang perform at this year’s Love Supreme Festival, which takes place at Glynde Place, East Sussex from 5-7 July.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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