TIR 73: Robert ‘Kool’ Bell Tells How His Gang Brought the Funky Stuff

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Brought to you by FUNKNSTUFF.NET and hosted by Scott Goldfine — musicologist and author of “Everything Is on THE ONE: The First Guide of Funk” ― “TRUTH IN RHYTHM” is the interview show that gets DEEP into the pocket with contemporary music’s foremost masters of the groove.

Featured in TIR Episode 73: A true giant of funk, R&B and pop music — founder and leader of Kool & the Gang, bassist Mr. Robert “Kool” Bell. As the group celebrates 50 years of releasing records in 2019, it also looks back on one of the most successful string of hit songs ever generated by any act in any genre. Between Kool & the Gang’s 1969 debut album and the late 1970s, the jazz-trained ensemble rang up 22 top 40 R&B singles, most of which were among the greatest funk tracks ever produced. They included classics like “Funky Stuff,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Spirit of the Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging,” “Music Is the Message,” “Higher Plane,” “Soul Vibration,” “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight,” “Love and Understanding,” “Open Sesame,”  “Pneumonia,” “N.T.,” “Love the Life You Live,” “Good Times,” “Slick Superchick” and so many more — plus the  dreamy instrumental “Summer Madness.”

Their distinctive sound of urgent syncopated rhythms, powerful and brassy horn blasts, group vocal chants and overall house party atmosphere was evident right from the very first record — and unlike anything else even during funk’s peak era. Having peaked in 1973 with the immensely popular Wild and Peaceful album that included three top 5 R&B singles, all of which also cracked the pop top 30, by the end of the decade the band had lost its spark and was faltering among the rise and demise of disco and swell of smoother R&B.

Kool & the Gang went into the studio and reinvented itself unlike perhaps any group had before or has after. Enlisting a true lead singer for the first time in James “J.T.” Taylor and bringing in Eumir  Deodato to produce, the band unveiled a much more polished sound in 1979 with the release of the Ladies Night album and what turned out to be a No. 1 R&B and top 10 pop smash in the title cut. Although many from Kool & the Gang’s core fan base of funk enthusiasts — present company included — were put off by the more mainstream style, it attracted legions of new fans and totally turned the group’s fortunes. Kool & the Gang would spend the next decade as one of pop’s leading hitmakers, amassing 16 top top 40 hits, including the No. 1 monster “Celebration.” At the same time, those singles continued to score on the R&B chart as well. They included “Too Hot,” “Take It to the Top,” “Jones vs. Jones,” “Take My Heart,” “Steppin’ Out,” “Get Down on It,” “Big Fun,” “Let’s Go Dancin’,” “Joanna,” “Tonight,” “Fresh,” “Misled,” “Cherish,” “Emergency,” “Victory” and “Stone Love.”

By the end of the 1980s the string of releases and hits fell off and J.T. unsuccessfully pursued a solo career. Subsequent decades would see Kool & the Gang continuing to draw well as a live act and picking up lifetime achievement awards — with Kool, his keyboardist brother Ronald Bell, drummer George Brown and J.T. being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018 — but seldom releasing new music.

Long seeking presenting the Kool & the Gang story, TRUTH IN RHYTHM finally caught up with Kool during some holiday season downtime in Florida. He shares how the band first got its jazz sea legs as the Jazziacs before honing its funk chops as Kool & the Gang, with considerations of all the amazing albums and tracks. Kool also talks about so many unforgettable moments as well as collaborating on his son Prince Hakim’s new single “R.O.Y.A.L.T.Y.” and planned upcoming new Kool & the Gang music. It is time to get down, get down with the original “Jungle Boogie” man, Robert “Kool” Bell!

RECORDED DECEMBER 2018

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