There’s no real formula for success in the music business. Sometimes, it’s just the right mix of talent, timing and songs. Other times, it’s as simple as a name change. Take the Jersey City collective once known as The Jazz Birds, for example. In a career spanning nearly 60 years, the band has recorded 23 albums, earned 25 Top 10 R&B hits, scored 10 Top 10 pop hits, achieved 31 gold and platinum albums, won two Grammies and seven American Music Awards. You’ve never heard of the Jazz Birds though – but you do know them by their alter-egos, KOOL AND THE GANG.
Since releasing their first album in July, 1969, Kool and The Gang have gained international success with their unique hybrid of jazz, soul, R&B, funk, rock and Motown influences. With songs like “Celebration,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Get Down On It,” “Joanna” and “Ladies Night,” KOOL (a.k.a. Robert “Kool” Bell), his brother Ronald Bell, and their rotating Gang of players have toured the world, topped the charts and secured their place in American music history. With an upcoming show June 21st at Fallsview Casino, Ronald Bell took time to chat with GoBe Weekly about the band, the Toronto Raptors and the honour of being elected into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
GoBe: When you think back to those early formative days, and the reasons you might have had for forming the band, what was the goal back then. What were you hoping to accomplish?
RON: Well, we all wanted to be jazz musicians, at least the horn players and keyboard players, and possibly the drummer. We wanted to be jazz musicians and we just fused the jazz into R&B and some soul and they some progressiveness once we learned to blend in Motown music. That’s really how we came up with the Kool and The Gang sound.
GoBe: Has the journey you’ve been on these past 50-plus years matched the early dreams you may have had, or has it far surpassed everything you had hoped for?
RON: Far surpassed, way past. Personally I think I wanted to be remembered like John Coltrane, but everybody was chasing the ‘Trane and never caught him. In other ways we accomplished more than we ever dreamed of.
GoBe: July 3rd will mark 50 years since the first Kool and The Gang album came out. When you look back on your career does it seem like yesterday or a lifetime ago?
RON: (sings…) Yesterday…. (laughs). It’s actually kind of surreal right now because it’s all said and done in a way. But we’re still making music. It’s like, what just happened. Time flies when you’re moving that fast. There was never a dull moment, and we just kept on going. We just kept pulling on our boot straps and dug in, kind of like The Eagles (laughing).
GoBe: I’ve got to tell you, I was watching the Toronto Raptors parade today, as nearly two million people packed into downtown Toronto to celebrate the team’s NBA title. Of course, they started cranking “Celebrate” over the sound system and I thought of you knowing we were chatting today. What does it mean to you to know you’re helped create a piece of art that is such a seminal part of the happiest times of people’s lives, whether it’s a wedding or a favourite sports team championship.
RON: You know, that song came from a scripture where I was reading about the angels celebrating God for creating humans, creating Adam. That’s where it really came from. It’s overwhelming and surreal to me that we can be a part of something huge like the Raptors celebration. We’re pleased and honoured to be a part of anybody’s celebration. It’s like the new “Happy Birthday.”
GoBe: Not a lot of us get the chance to create something that will be remembered long after we’re gone, but the art you’ve created and the legacy you’ve created must be a huge point of personal pride for you.
RON: It is definitely. I never saw it coming. I do remember being young and hearing this record, it was a country record when we were growing up in Ohio. And it was something like “all I really need is one hit record.” I always remembered that song. To have a song like “Celebration” is humbling and I’m eternally grateful. And whoever played that, congratulations to the Raptors for chewing up Golden State (laughs).
GoBe: You’ve certainly had more than one hit. It’s hard to imagine a band starting out today that could last for nearly 60 years and deliver 23 studio albums. Why has KOOL and the Gang managed to survive where others have failed – especially given the ups and downs the band has endured over the years?
RON: It’s like 25 years of the Raptors since their inception. You just have to keep going until you see the light at the end of the tunnel. 20/20 is like perfect vision, here we are 56 years later and we’re still going. You just have to do what you love. It’s a beautiful thing to be remembered.
GoBe: In 2018 you were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. How important was that to you as a musician and artist to be in that kind of company?
RON: I’ll tell you David, that was the peak for me. We’ve got trophies and gold records and a star in Hollywood and all these accomplishments, but that for me was the greatest accomplishment to be recognized with Neil Diamond and a bunch of others that night. To even be in that company was amazing. That was a true honour for me.
GoBe: At the end of the day, the songs are everything aren’t they? And to be recognized as a songwriter. Was that always a skill you wanted to be recognized for, or did you see yourself as a musician first?
RON: Musician first, and then understanding that, being told by our producer at the time how to make money in this business, he said go write. I kind of liked that. You get a dollar for tooting your horn. (laughs).
GoBe: I’ve seen the band live several times, opening for the likes of Van Halen and Kid Rock. I was always impressed by that fact, that you were all musicians first and fit seamlessly with those bands. I imagine the multiple styles of music you explored over the years helped make it fun as a musician.
RON: Yes, we are musicians first, chasing the great ones. Coltraine, Parker, Jimi, Eric Clapton. We had all that in there, all of it. Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Beethoven, Rockonanov, (laughing).
GoBe: I think that’s the magic of what you’ve created. It’s not hard to tell a Kool and The Gang song.
RON: There were always musicians who were more talented or way more prolific and accomplished than us. I think you’re chosen for some reason for those things. I know we worked hard at our craft. I can’t really say why we chose those songs, especially when you look at some of those words. We knew “Ladies Night” was going to work, and “Celebration” was a spiritual thing for me. That just translated into people celebrating things around the world.
GoBe: That goes back to what we were talking about with The Raptors. Your band was a team, a band of brothers and sisters, everybody had a role to play. Sometimes you won, sometimes you lost, but you stuck it out.
RON: That’s true. The jelly is always in the journey.
GoBe: Well, you’re journeying up to Canada this weekend. What do you enjoy most about playing these days.
RON: The people. Everybody’s singing and saying these songs back to us, singing in any culture and in any language, from eight to 80, and they’re singing these songs, they know these songs. That’s a testament to my mother who told me, you better write some songs!
GoBe: Does the fact you’ve shared this journey with your brother make it sweeter despite and issues you may have had over the years?
RON: Absolutely. My brother is the Kool in Kool and the Gang. It’s truly been something my mother has always wanted for us. I have my brother, my cousin, my wife, all mixed up in the business. And it’s worked, it’s worked for years. Good and bad, success or failure, it’s all been part of the same journey.
GoBe: So of all the accomplishments and accolades, what’s the one you cherish the most personally?
RON: That’s the Songwriters Hall of Fame for me. That was tight. I’m in a room with the whole industry. We’re waiting on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, so I hope I’ around to get that. But for me, it’s that award.