Robert “Kool” Bell and Ronald Bell, the brothers who co-founded the enduring R&B group Kool and the Gang, grew up poor in Jersey City railroad apartments. Their father, Bobby Bell, was a left-handed featherweight boxer with 99 career bouts and more losses than wins. He persisted, but he never broke through. At one point, the family lived off U.S. Army rations. “We used to have to make our beds out of two buckets and a board,” Ronald Bell once said.
On Sept. 9, 2020, Ronald Bell died at his home in the U.S. Virgin Islands, a long way from Jersey City’s condemned tenements. He was 68, and is survived by his brother Robert, his wife Tia and 10 children. In looking back at Kool and the Gang’s remarkable success, which spread across three decades, it seems clear that Robert and Ronald learned tenacity from their father. Like a lot of poor kids, they saw entertainment as a way out of the ghetto. But they also realized that being malleable and adaptable would allow them to make their success more than fleeting.
Many R&B bands who preceded or succeeded Kool and the Gang thrived for a period of time, realized they’d signed bad contracts and broke up until the oldies circuit came calling. That’s how it works in a Hollywood movie. Other than the Isley Brothers, it’s hard to think of another Black band that had as much long-lasting success as Kool and the Gang. Their first chart hit, a giddy funk instrumental called “Kool and the Gang,” came out in 1969; they released their last chart hit, “Special Way,” in 1987. Between the start and the end, they made two major changes.
Ronald, who played saxophone, and Robert, a bassist, grew up listening to jazz records with their father. (Thelonious Monk was Robert’s godfather, which is a hell of a pedigree.) With some high school classmates and friends, they formed a jazz act, using the name the Jazz Birds as well as the Jazziacs. Though they were purists, they began to play Motown songs once they learned that R&B pays better than jazz. “We needed to make money,” Robert Bell explained to Maxim.
After a few years, their record company asked them to write songs that were more commercial. A lot of jazzbos would’ve bristled at the request. Kool and the Gang obliged, and on their 1973 album, Wild and Peaceful, they wrote three great, percussive hits that made them stars: “Funky Stuff” (a No. 29 pop hit), “Jungle Boogie” (No. 4 pop) and “Hollywood Swinging” (No. 6 pop). Ronald Bell came up with the horn riff that opens “Hollywood Swinging.” “He always had this concept about horns as an announcement,” his brother Robert told the Nashville Scene’s music blog.
Spectacular funk riffs, like spectacular melodies, are a limited resource, as even James Brown found out. Kool and the Gang had a few solid but smaller hits: “Higher Plane,” “Spirit of the Boogie,” which again featured the roadie Boyce, and “Summer Madness,” a futuristic track — Ronald Bell plays the ARP 2600 synthesizer, then a novelty — sampled by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince on their 1991 smash “Summertime.” But by 1978, they’d been supplanted by newer R&B groups like KC and the Sunshine Band, and the hits dried up. At one poorly attended in-store promotional appearance, a young woman said to them, “Y’all are old hacks,” an insult Robert Bell remembered years later.
While Kool and the Gang were on tour with the Jacksons, Dick Griffey, one of the greatest Black music executives, said, “You guys need to get a lead singer.” So once again they agreed to an adjustment that more stubborn musicians might’ve rejected. “That’s when we cut back on all the hip stuff we thought we were doing, and we became more commercial,” Robert told the Nashville Scene.
That singer, James “J.T.” Taylor, was a crooner who reminded the band of Nat King Cole. He was almost generic, but had a large range and an agreeable tone. Taylor, who worked as a schoolteacher, was the kind of singer who would never upstage a song — and the band loved his modesty.
Their first album with Taylor, 10 years into their recording career, was their biggest yet. The 1980s was the era of pop crossover for Black artists, and Kool and the Gang were one of the decade’s biggest successes, even as other 1970s funk acts like the Ohio Players and the Brothers Johnson fell off. They reduced the emphasis on horns (Ronald Bell played less sax and more keyboards), added drum machines and coined a sound that unified pop fans of all races and generations.
They were songs, mostly, about having fun: “Ladies Night,” “Get Down on It,” “Big Fun” and the wedding perennial “Celebration,” which Ronald, a Muslim, started to write after reading the Quran passage where the angels celebrate God’s creation of Adam. Some of their singles, most notably “Get Down on It,” “Fresh,” “Emergency” and “Misled,” carried hints of their Jersey City funk. Others, like “Joanna” and “Cherish,” were love ballads that paid rent and tuition. (“We took all the jazz out of the music,” Ronald said years later.) In 1985, the year Robert and Ronald’s father died at the age of 56, “Cherish” made Emergency their best-selling album ever, a rare distinction for a band’s 16th studio album.
Satisfied with what they’d accomplished, and maybe sensing that the end was near again, this time for good, Ronald Bell, James Taylor and trumpet player Robert “Spike” Mickens left the band. Kool and the Gang continued to tour and record, but their biggest sales came from an onslaught of overlapping reissues that traced their path from “Jungle Boogie” into the Top 40.
Kool and the Gang, with important contributions from the late Ronald Bell, were funk pioneers who found a way to stick around, a way to not go back to Jersey City. They were united by a willingness to change. First, they were a jazz band, until they discovered that R&B paid better. Then they had limited success, until the record company asked them to write hits. And they didn’t have a lead singer until Dick Griffey advised them to find one. They didn’t disdain success, or romanticize the artistic struggle, or view record executives as the enemy.