Robert “Kool” Bell: The Gang Plays On

Kool and the Gang began as a ragtag group of teens in Jersey City before spinning hits like "Jungle Boogie" and "Celebration." We spoke with Robert "Kool" Bell about the band's origins, and touring with Van Halen.

Robert "Kool" Bell and the Gang are celebrating 50 years of making music.
Photo by Sam Erickson

It started in 1964 in Jersey City. A group of seven teenage schoolmates formed a jazz and soul act called the Jazziacs. They tried other names, eventually settling on Kool & the Gang. In time, they developed a pioneering, horn-driven funk sound that produced enduring pop hits, including “Jungle Boogie” and the party favorite, “Celebration.” This year, the band is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a global arena tour.

Remarkably, four original members remain: Robert “Kool” Bell (bass), his brother Khalis Bayyan (a.k.a. Ronald Bell, tenor saxophone), Dennis “DT” Thomas (alto sax) and George Brown (drums). Montclair resident Robert Bell spoke with New Jersey Monthly about the band’s Jersey roots and lasting appeal.

New Jersey Monthly: How did the band come together?

Robert Bell: We all went to the same school, P.S. 22. My brother and I met DT, George, Spike Mickens and Ricky West. That was the beginning of the Jazziacs. There was a small theater right next to a church, and every Sunday would be Jazz Night. We’d play an opening set.

NJM: What early challenge sticks out in your mind?
When we came out with our first record [Kool & the Gang, 1969], we went to the Apollo Theater. There was this group called Willie Feaster and the Mighty Magnificents with Skip, Sonny and the Pace Brothers. They blew us away—nearly ran us back to Jersey City! We thought, Wow, if we want to be in show business, we have to change our act. We can’t just stand up there and play.” So we started to develop our show.

NJM: James “J.T.” Taylor joined the band in 1978 for a string of pop hits, starting with “Ladies’ Night.” How did your die-hard funk fans react to this change in direction?
Some people said we sold out! We tried to keep our identity. But [producer] Eumir Deodato was saying, “Listen guys, you have to make room for the singer now.” And it was a successful run.

NJM: When the hip-hop era began, Kool & the Gang became one of the most sampled groups. What were your initial feelings about this?
At first we thought, That’s our lick; what’s going on? There was nothing you could really do. But [thanks to] copyright laws, we started getting credit and getting paid. There have been some big ones—Will Smith with “Summertime” [sampling “Summer Madness”], Diddy and Mase sampled “Hollywood Swinging,” Janet Jackson, Madonna. The list goes on and on.

NJM: In 2012, the band toured with Van Halen, and in 2013 with Kid Rock. How did that work out?
I like the challenge! When the Van Halen shows were announced, people on the Internet said, “That’s not going to work.” So we strategically planned it: We hit them with our rock stuff first. By the time we got to “Ladies’ Night,” they were partying.

NJM: It’s difficult for bands to stay together—even when some of the members are brothers. What is Kool & the Gang’s secret?
We started at 14, 15 years old. Our parents were always around, driving us to gigs. They told us, regardless of what happens, stay together as a family, as brothers. Now, there have been hills and valleys. We argue! But that spirit has stayed with us.

NJM: Is there anything you still want to accomplish in your career?
Two things: a book and a movie. It’s an interesting story: When our family came to Jersey City, everything we owned was in the back of a Bel Air car, like the Beverly Hillbillies. This could be a sequel!

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