Robert "Kool" Bell: The Current Q & A

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Kool & The Gang 2012: founding members Dennis Thomas, George Brown, Robert "Kool" Bell, and Ronald Bell (photo by Silvia Mautner)

When Kool & The Gang was putting the world to dance in the '70s, Van Halen was only beginning to get noticed after a decade struggling in the Sunset Strip. When Van Halen exploded in the '80s, who would've thought that one day Robert "Kool" Bell and his funky gang would one day open for Eddie Van Halen and Co.? That's exactly what has been happening since February, and that's what will happen Friday at the AT&T Center. The 12-piece band, fresh off an amazing performance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, comes to San Antonio with a four-piece horn section and its energy and chops intact. Days before their San Antonio show, bassist Robert "Kool" Bell (one of the four remaining founding members) spoke to the Current about the band's longevity, the not-so-odd pairing with VH, and how his father saved Miles Davis career. Kool & The Gang is still the ultimate party band after all these years. How does that make you feel? That makes us feel very good. To be able to be around for over 48 years and still be loved by our fans, and still have a strong fan base, it’s an amazing thing. We’re very thankful for that. Yet, you didn’t settle into funk until the late '60s, after playing jazz for several years. Why did you make the switch? In the beginning we were just trying different things. We didn’t know we’d be this big and still be around so many years later. But our music went through an evolution. When we started in the ’60s we were young guys and we grew up listening to jazz and R&B. We listened to people like John Coltrane and Miles Davis, and I also liked Motown. When our first record came out in 1969 (Kool & The Gang) people thought we were a Spanish group. Then we started doing gigs with Willie Colón. You played with Willie? I love Willie! We were exposed to the Latin community a lot by playing in Manhattan. Joe Bataan, does that ring a bell to you? Of course! The Latin soul legend. Exactly. So that was our world back then. To answer your question, our music continuously evolved through “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” [from 1973’s Wild and Peaceful], all funky stuff, and when “Summer Madness” [from 1974’s Light of Worlds] came out, people didn’t think that was Kool & the Gang; they thought it was Herbie Hancock or somebody like that. It’s interesting that you mention the link between African Americans and Latinos in NY. In this same issue of the Current we’re running a feature on a hip-hop concept band, Third Root, that unites black and brown sounds and themes. We’re so different, yet so similar in many respects. You experienced that first-hand in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a key time for African American and Latin music in NY. How important was that connection for you guys? It was very important. We pretty much grew up in the same neighborhood. For us, listening to Willie and Joe Bataan and just kind of being in that environment, it was very important. And you all got along No problem, no problem. Thelonious Monk is your godfather. Do you have any memories of any of those jazz greats coming to your house? My father was a boxer. People like Miles Davis would come over ’cause Miles always wanted to be a boxer, people don’t really know that. My father would tell Miles to stick with the trumpet. He’d say, “You know, you get up here and fight and mess around and [if] somebody bust you in your lip you might mess up your career.” So Miles went on to do that. Monk and my father lived in the same apartment building in New York, so he and my father became good friends. When I was born he told Monk, “I want you to be the godfather of my first son,” and that’s how Thelonious Monk became my godfather. Do you remember him or Miles? No. My father traveled all the time. He was on the road boxing in Paris and all over Cuba, all through Mexico. He fought a lot, so I didn’t get a chance to meet any of these guys. I was a baby and I learned about that later from my mother. I must confess that, when I first heard you were opening for Van Halen, I thought it was a crazy idea. How has it been working out? We’d been out since February, and it’s been great. Most in the crowd are Van Halen fans but they are familiar with Kool & the Gang’s music. When this first happened, people were saying, “Well, how’s that going to work? Kool & the Gang opening for Van Halen, which is more on the rock side?” When I met with David Lee Roth in L.A., rehearsing the show, one of the things he said was, “Do you know that 60 percent of our fans are ladies?” And I said, “No, I didn’t know that.” He said, “In the ’80s we were the party rock band and you guys were the pop funk band. You guys wrote ‘Ladies Night,’ so why not go out and have a party?” That was three months ago and what I'm finding is that he was right: 60 percent of their audience are ladies. You’ve got the hardcore Van Halen fans, but by the time we get to “Ladies Night” and “Celebration,” it’s nothing but a big party. That’s been happening all across the country and the show's been selling out everywhere. Have you watched any of their sets? Oh yeah, I catch them every night. They’re sounding great and people love them. You never really “disappeared,” but how important was Pulp Fiction in your career? “Jungle Boogie” being on the soundtrack for Pulp Fiction was a boost in our career. It was a big movie and a different kind of record. It gave us a little view for people that probably weren’t into Kool & the Gang. It meant pulling in another crowd and it brought us back to [John] Travolta. You know, we were featured in the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, so we’ve been connecting with a John Travolta movie for two big records. Have you ever told him this? No, I’ve never met him, but I’d love to. Have you been working on new music? We’ve been in the studio working out in California for a collaborative project that will probably come out next year. I have spoken to Bootsy Collins, Jason Scheff [Chicago’s singer and bassist], Charlie Wilson from the Gap Band, and others. After that, we’ll do another Kool & the Gang studio record. We’ve also been working on the possibility of a musical by Ben Elton [We Will Rock You, Love Never Dies], who is very interested in doing a musical around our music and our lives. We’ve been looking at a couple of scripts he sent us for the story, so hopefully we will get that out next year.

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