Five decades and still Kool
“Whether it’s for three people or 300,000, when we hit that stage, we feel that same energy,” said Kool himself, also known as Robert Bell.
Bell gave himself the nickname as an adolescent. He had just moved from Ohio to New Jersey with their family. “Everybody in Jersey City had a nickname, you know?” he recalled. “There was a guy named ‘Cool’ and I liked that, so I spelled mine with a K. The rest is history.”
The band he formed in 1964 is still going strong. It’s the longest-running R&B group out there, with four of its eight original members part of the action.
“We’re family,” Kool said of his bandmates during a phone interview from Albuquerque, N.M. “Families don’t agree on everything, of course, but we agree on enough. It’s been great.”
They tour extensively and play all over the world these days. This week, they’ll be in Yamhill County to play a Saturday night show at Spirit Mountain Casino.
The concert will start at 8 p.m. in the casino’s concert hall. A few tickets are left, starting at $25. For more information, check the casino website, at www.spiritmountain.com.
Kool, who was 14, first put together the band with his brother, sax player Ronald Bell, and friends Dennis Thomas and George Brown.
They had always gravitated toward music, Kool said. “Music was in our house,” he said. “Our grandmother played piano; our father was a boxer, but he was around a lot of musicians like Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie. He boxed in Cuba when a lot of jazz musicians hung out there, like Miles Davis.”
Influenced by the jazz greats, he and his gang first called themselves the Jazziacs. They changed the name to the Soul Town Band when they started playing backup for a Motown-wannabe revue in Jersey City.
“We had to learn the Motown hits, because that’s what the local talent wanted to sing,” Kool recalled. “By doing that, our music started to change from jazz to R&B.”
When they left the revue, they changed the name again, this time to Kool and the Flames. But James Brown was calling his group the Famous Flames at the time, and “we didn’t want a problem with the Godfather,” Kool said, so they became Kool and the Gang.
The new name became permanent when they released their debut album, titled Kool & the Gang, in 1969. Mostly instrumental, it quickly spawned a Top 40 hit of the same name. “That was exciting,” Kool recalled.
From the beginning, Kool & the Gang’s sound was unmistakable not just only for the tunes, but because of the instrumentation. In addition to the guitars, drums and keyboards standard at the time, the group included saxes, trumpets and trombones.
“Horns are our signature. You hear Kool & the Gang, you always hear horns,” he said.
Kool said he considers his own instrument, the bass, along with the drums the foundation of the music. On top of that rhythm, the group layers keyboards, guitars and the horns. “It’s like building a house,” he said.
More albums and hit singles followed the first one. Soon the group was known for a string of hits -- “Get Down on It,” “Ladies’ Night,” “Hollywood Swinging, Jungle Boogie,” “Fresh,” “Joanna,” “Cherish.” It’s biggest hit, 1980 “Celebration,” became an anthem.
Kool said he still loves playing those songs. In fact, the part of the band’s show he enjoys most is the section focusing on the ‘70s.
In recent years, he and his gang have toured with Van Halen and played with Kidd Rock and other artists. They’ve even been approached about doing a musical based on their library of music -- something they want to get back to when they’re not quite so busy, Kool said.
This year, for the very first time, they’re putting out a holiday collection. And next year they plan to do a new album, their first since 2005. A 50-year celebration, it will feature new material and classics performed by guest artists as well as Kool & the Gang.