Still Kool around the world

RONALD BELL.
RONALD BELL.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • More than 50 years after they started, Kool And The Gang are still asking the crowd to "celebrate good times, come on".
 

"We do about 100 shows a year, all around the world, in every place you could imagine," Ronald Bell, a founding member of the group, said as they passed through New York.

Indeed, their funk classics still retain a Kool cachet, popping up in everything from stadium pump-up songs to hip-hop samples to wedding parties.

The group have toured North America, Europe and Asia incessantly, sometimes playing three or four shows in a single weekend. They have also found fans playing in countries less frequented by United States musicians, including Algeria, Cuba, Kenya, Peru and Uganda.

"That is phenomenal to me, to have that music cross all cultures like that," Bell said.

"To me, that's unexplainable. I had nothing to do with that. That's the Creator. Music is a universal language," added the 66-year-old.

We do about 100 shows a year, all around the world, in every place you could imagine... That is phenomenal to me, to have that music cross all cultures like that.

'' RONALD BELL, a founding member of Kool And The Gang, on how the group have toured North America, Europe and Asia and also found fans in countries such as Kenya and Peru

On a recent Friday night at the B.B. King Blues Club And Grill near Times Square, fans - some of them young - were singing along to Fresh (1984) before the lyrics to the song even started.

Other hits include Celebration (1980) - which has become a standard at New Year's Eve parties and in stadiums - and dance-floor favourite Jungle Boogie (1973).

J.T. Taylor, frontman from 1978 to 1988 when Kool And The Gang enjoyed their commercial peak, is no longer the face of the group. But the latest singer, Walt Anderson, resembles him in appearance and voice.

The band have achieved staying power by remaining foremost a collection of musicians, whose roots are in the hardworking world of jazz rather than celebrity pop.

"I wanted to be like John Coltrane and the trumpet player wanted to be Miles Davis," said Bell, a saxophonist whose first group was called the Jazziacs.

"We transitioned to Kool And The Gang when we found we could make some money doing this," he added with a laugh.

The group, whose members started playing together in 1964, brought together jazz and the sounds of soul, Motown and funk.

But the style - largely instrumental work in the 1970s - shifted when Taylor came in as a vocalist.

The group's initial sound provided a rich base for early hip-hop, which sampled liberally from Kool And The Gang. The group had little say in the matter and at first earned nothing from rap tracks.

"One time, I listened to Tribe (Called Quest) and I heard a solo in there. I said: 'Wait a minute, that's me playing.' It's an honour. I love hip-hop. It's the music of the time," Bell said.

He has more mixed feelings about modern-day pop artists. He broadly appreciates the revival of old-school funk as represented by Bruno Mars, the 32-year-old who was the big winner at the latest Grammy Awards.

"Bruno Mars sounds like Bruno Mars, but he sounds like everything we already heard," Bell said. "The rap artists are a little more inspirational."

Still, he admits readily that Kool And The Gang were hardly innovators in their time, with the members dipping into 1950s and 1960s jazz for inspiration.

"Every generation picks from the generation preceding. It's like passing the baton," he noted.

Bell, who is working on a documentary about the group, continues to write songs. "I have over 1,000 songs now," he said. "When they plant me in the ground as a flower, you can hear them."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 21, 2018, with the headline 'Still Kool around the world'. Print Edition | Subscribe