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Arts + Culture Music Remembering Kool & The Gang's perpetual reincarnation, in the...

Remembering Kool & The Gang’s perpetual reincarnation, in the wake of Ronald Bell’s passing

The legendary group maintained a five-decade career through reinvention—and its cofounder's expansive songwriting.

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Being sampled 1,714 times over an almost five-decade career is not just the highest form of compliment. It’s a perpetual reincarnation. Kool & The Gang, the multi-generational-appealing band—whose co-founder and chief songwriter Ronald “Khalis” Bell died last Wednesday at age 68—began as a New York funk-jazz outfit in 1969. Then transformed into a sleek hit-making R&B/pop juggernaut during the conservative Reagan ’80s, and over time evolved into that atypical, eternal group who provided numerous entry points for musical discovery.

Every time a couple somewhere gets married, or a sports team scores a goal, home run, touchdown, winning three-pointer…. From Quinciñearas to Bar Mitzvahs, “Celebration,” their global anthem expressing unity, gets cued up by a DJ and Kool & The Gang defeats Father time all over again. As the country seems to be pulling itself apart, daily, everyone can agree, at some point, they’ve sung “Celebration” at their local karaoke night. It’s just American.

Bell, co-founder, songwriter, saxophonist, vocalist, and producer of the chart-topping group cited that song as his favorite according to Reuters in 2008.

“I had no clue, you know,” said the self-taught musician. “I was clueless, thinking that that was going to be a hit. I had no idea. But after all these years, there are times at the end of the show when I see all of these people singing a song, and after all of an hour and a half, you ask them to jump up and down and they still jump up and down. That’s kind of overwhelming for me.”

“I was reading the scripture about where God called the angels together and made an announcement that he was going to create this being,” he told Songwriter Universe. “He gathered the angels together and they said, ‘We don’t know nothin’, but we just celebrate you, God – we celebrate and praise you.’ And I thought, I’m going to write a song about that, [with the line] ‘Everyone around the world…Come on!’ That’s the intent… it was actually written for mankind.”

Throughout their early catalog, Kool & The Gang—started by Bell and his brother Robert “Kool” Bell in New Jersey with five school friends: Dennis Thomas, Robert Mickens, Charles Smith, George Brown, and Ricky West—recorded live albums. Putting up front those serious jazz chops, this brassy New York-based funk band was the ticket.. So much so, my parents attended a “boat ride,” a three-levels-of-people fundraiser, in the early ’70s, for several local unions. That was the era Kool & The Gang played alongside the Brooklyn-based Crown Heights Affair. According to legend, too good of a time was had by all.

Seems about right. If you listen closely to Live at The Sex Machine (yes that was the name of a West Philly club no longer around) and Kool and The Gang Live at P.J.’s, on both albums you hear the bandmembers talking smack, like basketball players on the court, back and forth amongst themselves while still dealing heat. Toward the end of much sampled “N.T.,” comes “oooh that funky Momma,” an iconic vocal, which could be Ronald Bell after a punchy flute solo. That’s no formula, it’s Vibe. Raw in the moment energy like that, can’t be created from an algorithm. 

Their mainstream breakthrough came with 1973’s Wild and Peaceful album. Lead single “Funky Stuff” became their first top 40 hit in the US, followed by “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging,” which both reached the top 10.

After “Summer Madness,” the jazzy keyboard ode to good weather and lush atmospherics, and “Open Sesame” a disco driven high tempo energy showcase, both landed on Grammy-winning soundtracks for Rocky and John Travolta blockbuster Saturday Night Fever, the band looked further into continuing that success.

With the addition of JT Taylor as lead, a former nightclub singer, and producer Eumir Deodato, the group curated a streamlined pop-oriented sound that delivered the band crossover fame. The decision was prompted when the band found themselves on tour with the Jacksons and were told by the promoter that they needed a frontman. Taylor, chosen for his deep baritone “like Nat King Cole,” was the only singer they auditioned.

Kool & The Gang excelled in the ’80s, scoring huge hits with sentimental ballads like “Joanna” and “Cherish,” as well as the party anthems “Steppin’ Out” and “Get Down On It,” “Ladies Night,” and “Fresh.” I always preferred Too Hot, the “love left the building” story where a couple collectively runs out of gas. It’s believable. That guitar pattern in the beginning—a bluesy melancholic shrug built into the sausage of top 40 radio—spoke louder than any lyric. 

“They were another band when they came back with J.T. Taylor,” stated producer Marc Ronson in Rolling Stone. “A few bands have done that—Duran Duran went away and then came back. But it’s so rare. To do it and reinvent your style completely? To do an about-face and change your whole style is kind of what the Kanyes and Radioheads and Bowies do. There’s nothing better than a comeback story, especially when it’s such good shit at the same time.”

Then hip-hop placed them in the future.

Gang Starr, Public Enemy, Cypress Hill, A Tribe Called Quest, both East and West Coast hip-hop groups agreed that Kool & The Gang possessed that thing. Deep horn lines, Fender Rhodes colors, big band swag that spoke to everybody and specific producers all at once. Not as percussive as The Meters, nor as regal as the Stax arrangements, Kool & The Gang had a griminess to their horn lines. Chest out bravado. Much like the catalog of James Brown, Kool &The Gang built the golden age of hip-hop.

Then a new director by the name of Quintin Tarantino placed their old hit “Jungle Boogie” in his independent film from 1994 Pulp Fiction, which featured an actor by the name John Travolta. Reincarnation, all over again.

John-Paul Shiverhttps://www.clippings.me/channelsubtext
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to 48 Hills since 2019. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in the Wire, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK, and Drowned In Sound.
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