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All Funked Up

Every decade provides a new challenge for Kool & the Gang

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Nearly 50 years ago, bassist Robert "Kool" Bell and his brother, saxophonist Ronald Bell, started the straight-up jazz group The Jazziacs. That band would soon morph into the funk/R&B/dance music machine known as Kool & the Gang, which delivered a slew of hits through the '70s and '80s. Robert "Kool" Bell recently phoned from his Jersey City home to talk about the band's career as well as the current tour which pairs the group with rap-rocker Kid Rock.

You originally started playing straight-up jazz. How'd you end up embracing funk and dance music?

We started back in 1964. We were young guys who listened to Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and John Coltrane and all those guys. We hooked up with the Soul Town Revue. It was like a little Motown. This was in Jersey City. They had local acts doing the Motown hits. We were the band and we had to learn these songs. By learning these tracks, our music started changing from the jazz and started sounding R&B. We had a jazz and R&B sound that became Kool and the Flames and then finally Kool & the Gang in '68.

When did you get the nickname Kool and why'd you spell it with a K?

That was the name I grew up with after I came to Jersey City. I was born in Youngstown. We moved to Jersey City in 1960. Everyone had a nickname and I was trying to fit into the neighborhood. I was a country boy living in the big city. There was a guy I knew in Newark. He called himself Cool but spelled it with a C. I took that name and changed it to a K. The rest is history.

Kool-Aid is also spelled with a "k." Do you ever drink the stuff?

Oh yeah. Quite a bit growing up as a kid.

"Jungle Boogie" was one of your big hits in the '70s. What inspired it?

My brother and the band came up with that. We had some pressure from the record company after having some territorial hits like "Funky Man" and "Funky Granny." They wanted to put this producer on who wanted to produce a record with Manu Dibango, who had done the "Soul Makossa" record. They wanted us to do the record over. We met with the producer and went into the studio and rehearsed there all day. By 10 that night, we had "Jungle Boogie," "Hollywood Swinging" and "Funky Stuff." After that, the record company didn't bother us anymore. They let us do our thing from that point on.

When disco came along, did you embrace it?

We do our own style. Disco was dance music. We had our own style of playing the funk. It was danceable music but not straight disco. We were in and out of it. We had our first disco attempt with "Open Sesame," which became a successful record and ended up on the soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever with the Bee Gees and K.C. and all those guys.

When you wrote and recorded "Celebration" in 1980, did you have any idea that it would become the anthem that it has become?

No. We didn't. We were celebrating the fact that we had just come off a hit with "Ladies Night." We were at the American Music Awards and my brother came up with the idea to write a song called "Celebration," which is what we were doing. We came up with "Ladies Night" because our career was wavering in the last part of the '70s. We didn't know "Celebration" was going to become bigger than "Ladies Night" and bigger than everything else we recorded, but that's what happened.

Your music has been sampled numerous times. Have you ever turned anyone down?

In the early days, we couldn't control it. Right after that, they changed the law. The record companies and our publishers control the copyright clearances. They would only clear something where they get the rights and we would get paid for. It all worked out after that.

Do you have a favorite song that features one of your samples?

There was the one that Will Smith did with "Summertime" and there was Puff Daddy who took "Hollywood Swinging" and came up with "Feel So Good" with Mase.

You toured with Van Halen in 2012?

We did 48 shows with Van Halen.

Any good David Lee Roth stories?

David was in and out. He would come and do the gig and get on his bus and keep moving. He had to turn all the air conditioning off in the venues because he didn't want to catch a cold and everyone at the venue would be sweating their behinds off. I think it even made CNN. People were having a sweating good time.

How'd you end up on that tour?

Van Halen used to play our music in the clubs. I didn't know that. David Lee Roth told me, "You guys came up with the song 'Ladies Night' and we had 'Jump.' We were the party band of the '80s and you were the funk-pop band of the '80s." Plus, 60 percent of my audience is ladies. He wanted us to go out and have a party.

What's your connection to Kid Rock?

What happened was that Sammy Hagar was supposed to do the tour and there was a conflict with a sponsor. Sammy couldn't do it. Kid Rock had wanted us to do it in the beginning but we were able to work it out. We are able to do 10 of the 15 shows. I met him about five or six years ago at a club in L.A. and he was telling about how he used to listen to Kool & the Gang and the Ohio Players when growing up in Detroit. He was into the group. And when he found out that we had done those shows with Van Halen, he thought it would work.

It must be fulfilling that the group is still going strong.

It's a blessing. It seems like every decade, there's a new challenge. It's like, 'What are Kool & the Gang going to do?' We came back and went out with Van Halen and Kid Rock. That's what we're going to do. We're also doing a Christmas album. Next year will be our 50th anniversary, dating back to the Jazziacs.  We're looking to put some artists together and I've been talking to Bootsy Collins and the lead singer of Chicago. We'll put something together for next year.

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