Ronald Bell, George Brown, Dennis Thomas and Robert 'Kool' Bell
By Darlene Donloe
Robert Kool Bell lives up to his name.
He’s about as kool as they come.
He’s laid back. He’s spirited. He’s funny. He’s grounded. He still gets excited about music. And after more than 50 years of making music with the legendary Kool & The Gang, he’ll be the first to tell you, he is still funky. The other band members of the group include his brother, Ronald Bell, George Brown and Dennis Thomas.
At the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles this weekend, Bell and the group, who started as teens in Jersey City, will perform the last show of their Keepin’ The Funk Alive summer tour with a bill that includes Bootsy Collins, Morris Day & The Time and Doug E. Fresh.
I recently caught up with Bell, 66, to talk about the upcoming show and the group’s incredibly successful decades-long ride into music history.
DD: What can fans expect at the Microsoft Theater?
RKB: It’s going to be a high-energy show. After all it is the Keepin’ The Funk Alive show. The show has Bootsy, Morris Day & The Time and Doug E Fresh. We all have great camaraderie. This is the last show for the tour. We will be getting down hard.
DD: How has the response been from fans – regarding the tour?
RKB: It’s been great, just great! You know, Bootsy and I have been talking about funk like this for some years. We also talked about recording something together soon. The tour has been successful because everybody is straight on the funk.
DD: You have a new song on the radio called, Sexy (where'd you get yours). Tell me about the song.
RKB: It’s been over 10 years since we had a record out. To me, Sexy is like the answer for Ladies Night. Now we’re asking the ladies where you get your sexy from. Do you get it from your mama.
DD: Where do you think women get the sexy?
RKB: Most of the time it’s their mother. But it can also be from their sexy daddy.
DD: The band’s new album is due to drop in early 2017. What is it called?
RKB: Yes, yes it is. Legacy is the working title.
DD: What can we expect?
RKB: It’s gonna be more of the same with two or three ballads. We have a track called, Leave It On The Dance Floor – it has a heavy Kool & The Gang groove. When you hear it you will think of Bruno Mars. But Bruno Mars must have thought of us.
DD: How many tracks on the new CD?
RKB: About 14. Three or four of them are ballads. The rest is funk. There is a Sam Cooke vibe. Sam Cook with a Kool & The Gang twist.
DD: Why so long between CDs?
RKB: That’s because we’re been touring a lot. It’s a sign of the times. We needed time to put it together. We did many tours in Europe, Africa, Asia and Russia. We spend time working a lot. We did do a Christmas album – but that took us six years.
DD: Talk about the power of music.
RKB: I think you can look and see how music has been around. Music is powerful for different situations. I mean look at Celebration. Celebration has been played for a lot of things. I hear it was played for the astronauts on the space station. It was played during the hostage crisis when the hostages came back from Iran. It’s been played at many Super Bowl and NBA games. Just think about We Are The World – when Michael [Jackson] and Lionel [Richie]
put out that song it was for salvation around the world. Think about the music of Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder. They’ve all had some wonderful music. Music is powerful.
DD: What does music do for you personally?
RKB: It energizes me. I travel around the world and we play for different audiences. Even when they don’t know English – they understand the music. It works. It speaks to the power of music. It’s a healing force.
DD: How has the group changed over the years?
RKB:In the 60s we were young and learning how to play music. John Coletrane, Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis and Motown were all early influences.
DD: To what do you attribute the longevity of the group? You’ve been touring for 43 years.
RKB: I would tell you – it’s building a fan base and hitting the road in the early days. In the 70s we would go out with Delfonics and the Intruders all on one bus. It was about building. We realized that we had to develop a show. When our first record came out in 1969 we went to the Apollo Theater. There was a group called Willie Feaster and the Mighty Magnificents. They were so good, they ran us back to Jersey City. They had a show. They had a real act. We had a record, but they had a show. We went back and put a show together.
DD: Touring is hard. How do you handle touring?
RKB: Whether we’re on a bus or on a plane, we do a lot of flying. I try to relax by working out. I walk about two or three miles. I stay active. The good thing about touring is when you come back home to your family. There is always energy when you return. It’s always great to come back and share your experiences.
DD: Does this ever get old to you?
RKB: Yes and no. Of course we get tired and want to slow down a bit. Your family always wants you to be home. The wife wants me to be home. The fan base is out there. Fortunately we have so many fans that demand our attention. We have fans in China, Australia and all over the world. When we get there and see the energy and see how they react to our music, even with a language barrier, they remember how music makes them feel.
DD: You’ve had a lot of hits. What is your favorite hit and why?
RKB: I would have to say Ladies Night because back in the 70s my wife and I would hang out in the clubs like Studio 64. There was always a ladies night for the weekend. Every night there is a Ladies Night all around the world.
DD: Have you ever considered changing your sound to keep up with today’s music?
RKB: Well, yes and no. We played around with some different styles. We had some songs that had a rock edge. We also had some that was kind of country and western. But these are songs in the catalog. We are only thinking about it right now. My brother wrote a song called Harley Davidson. It’s guitar driven. We might put it on the upcoming CD called Legacy.
DD: Your thoughts on today’s music?
RKB: Some of the young acts today – their styles are like the 80s, ya know? I like Usher and Joe. You’ve got the flavor of the 80s in today’s music. The millennials don’t know where the music came from. It sounds like old Temptations or Stevie Wonder music. Today’s music is inspired by us. We are thankful for that.
DD: What singers/groups are you most impressed with today?
RKB: Mint Condition because they are musicians. I like their style. Usher has been successful. Kem, I like what he’s doing.
DD: Describe your life if you couldn’t create music.
RKB: That’s a good question. When I was younger my mother and grandmother told me my grandfather always had me under a car with him. I’m from Ohio, but in 1960 we moved to Jersey. I remember I took
a lawn mower motor and put it on a bike when I was about nine years old. I could have been a mechanic.
My father was a top 5 featherweight. His name was Bobby Bell. He was a fighter. He had me boxing for one year. I was 11. I couldn’t get with that.
DD: Anything you want your fans to know about?
RKB: I am working in solar energy. I’m working with the Chicago Institute of Technology. I’m talking to some people about solar energy. There is sustainable energy in Africa. Look at Africa. There is 80 percent sun all the time. I’m in the process of just bringing people to the table right now. I’m doing the introductions. I’m doing this because solar energy is clean. It’s the way of the future. Klean energy is Kool.
DD: Kool & the Gang has sold over 70 million albums worldwide and influenced the music of three generations. You’ve earned two Grammy Awards, seven American Music Awards, 25 Top Ten R&B hits, nine Top Ten Pop hits and 31 gold and platinum albums. What’s left?
RKB: We still haven’t written our story yet. The Kool & The Gang story. It’s going to be called - Hollywood Swinging: The Kool & The Gang Story. It will be a musical maybe something like Mamma Mia! or Jersey Boys. We should be able to do a musical. Then we’ll ride off into the sunset.
Keepin’ The Funk Alive, Kool & The Gang with Bootsy Collins (Bootsy’s Rubber Band), Doug E. Fresh, Morris Day & the Time; 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 28, $49.50-$99.50; (213) 763-6020; Microsoft Theater, 777 Chick Hearn Ct, Los Angeles, CA