The great funk band Kool and the Gang began 50 years ago in Jersey City, New Jersey.
In 1964, brothers Khalis Bayyan, aka Ronald Bell, and Robert “Kool” Bell joined their neighborhood friends Robert “Spike” Mickens, Dennis “Dee Tee” Thomas, Ricky Westfield, George Brown and Charles Smith to form the Jazziacs.
As the septet’s name implies, the group’s members were jazz fans. But they also listened to the sophisticated soul music emanating from Detroit’s Motown Records.
By the time Kool and the Gang released a self-titled debut album in 1969, the band’s distinctive blend of horn, melody and funk was set.
“So it was jazz and the R&B of the Temptations, the Miracles and Stevie Wonder that created the sound of Kool and the Gang,” Robert “Kool” Bell recalled.
Despite the fickle nature of the music business, Kool and the Gang prospered through the decades. The group’s sales statistics, based upon hits such as “Funky Man,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging,” “Celebration” and “Too Hot,” are mighty: 25 Top 10 R&B hits; nine Top 10 pop hits; 31 gold and platinum albums; 70 million albums sold worldwide.
“Kool for the Holidays,” a Christmas album released last year, is the band’s latest album. The group’s management is planning events in recognition of its 50th anniversary.
“It’s a blessing,” Bell said of Kool and the Gang’s 50-year career. “Bands with a hit might only last a year or a couple months.”
Bell credits his group’s durability to a lesson the band members learned when they were teens back in Jersey City.
“We started young, only 14 years old,” he said. “And our parents always told us that, whatever you do, stick together. So that stuck with us over the years.”
The 2014 edition of Kool and the Gang features original members Thomas, Brown and the Bell brothers.
“Four of my guys passed over the years, but we still have four of the original members,” Bell said. “And I’ve got some guys who’ve been with me for 20 years, 15 years, 10 years. They’re all part of the family,”
In recent years, Kool and the Gang experienced more remarkable times. A 2011 performance at England’s Glastonbury Festival got the group on Van Halen’s reunion tour.
“David Lee Roth saw us at Glastonbury,” Bell said. “He called Eddie (Van Halen) and Alex (Van Halen) and said, ‘Man, I got the perfect group to co-headline with us.’ And they said, ‘Yeah, who?’ ‘Kool and the Gang.’ And they were scratching their heads. ‘Kool and the Gang?’ David said, ‘Yeah, man. They just rocked Glastonbury. I want them on the show.’
“It was interesting,” Bell said of the Van Halen tour. “This particular tour was kind of get-their-lives-back-together tour. No alcohol in the backstage area. None of that. It went great. Nice guys. We did 48 shows with them.”
After rapping rocker Kid Rock caught Kool and the Gang in Detroit with Van Halen, he invited the band to tour with him in 2013.
“He’d sampled our song, ‘Love and Understanding,’ ” Bell said. “And he’d hung out in New York and Jersey City, which I didn’t know about, trying to get his thing together as a rapper. He is definitely our fan. Opening up for him was a great thing.”
Following the Kid Rock dates, Kool and the Gang opened up for the Dave Matthews Band.
“After all we’d done through the years, all of a sudden we got a rock surge,” Bell marveled.