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Celebrate Good Times: Kool & The Gang ready to groove in Wichita

Nancy Datata
Courtesy photo

Kool & the Gang will perform Saturday night at Riverfest in downtown Wichita.

Kool & The Gang has been in the music industry for 60 years. The Grammy winning R&B/funk band has produced numerous hits and are 2024 inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Kool and the Gang will perform at Riverfest on Saturday night. KMUW's Carla Eckels talked to co-founder, Robert "Kool" Bell about their music and how they've been able to stay in the business for so long.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kool & the Gang has had a significant influence on the music industry, inspiring generations of musicians. What do you think contributes to your enduring appeal?

Our style. I have to go back to our Jazziac days as young guys; my brother was into John Coltrane, Dennis was into Cannonball Adderley, George Brown was into Herbie Hancock, Charles Smith, West Montgomery. We had all of that going on as young guys. And of course, when we became a part of the Soul Town organization we had to a lot of the Motown and other hits; James Brown, etc. Then we moved on to what we have today with Kool & The Gang. I think that our fan base is around the world — Africa, South America, Japan, China, Europe — and that fan base ... have been very supportive of ... Kool & The Gang. We go into some of these countries, and they don't speak English that well, but they know the songs sometimes better than we know them (laugh). So that has been a good thing for us, around the world. I think that's one of the reasons why, you know, we have been able to sustain in this business — one of ups and downs — for six decades, and we're still here.

That's fantastic. It really is and it certainly says something about your music. And we've got to talk about that, for example, "Celebration," it's one of your most iconic hits. What was the creative process behind that song?

Well, we came up with "Ladies' Night" first. My wife and I were hanging out in New York, at Studio 54, and every weekend they had a ladies' night, and JT Taylor had just joined the group. So I came back to my guys, I said, "Hey, I got the perfect song for JT, for ... our new album," and they said "What?" I said, "Ladies' Night…"

My brother said, "Wow, there's one of those all over the world." So anyway, "Ladies' Night" ended up winning two American Music Awards out in LA. [In] the tail end of "Ladies' Night" — "This is your night tonight, come on let's all celebrate" — my brother said, "That's another song right there." So he went in, put some music together, and we all got back to our studio and worked on it in New Jersey. And he played this track, and [it] had that sort of a down-home sort of groove to it; where grandma, grandpa might be sitting on the porch drinking some Kool-Aid ... out in the Midwest, they might be saying "Yahoo?" We said, "Yeah, that could work!"

Now, we didn't know that "Celebration" was gonna be bigger than "Ladies' Night" but that was the inspiration.

Wow, I have to tell you, Kool, "Hollywood Swinging" — your first number one song — [at] our high school, Heights High School, we call ourselves "Hollywood Heights" based on that song. I mean, it's 50 years old, and still today — when people talk about our school — they say "Hollywood Heights." I mean, it's incredible. I want to ask you about that tune.

Okay, there [are] two sources for "Hollywood Swinging." The first one, we were with De'Lite Records and there was a big record out there called "Soul Makossa" by Manu Dibango. And our record company came to us and said, "Listen, you guys are doing all right, territorially" ... you know in Virginia, Richmond, Connecticut, Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey.

"...but [they] want you to work with this producer who had this huge record." And we said, "Okay." We had a meeting with him and we weren't feeling him. So we went to the studio called Baggage Studio, [a] downtown Soho area in New York. We went in there [at] about [8 a.m.]. By the time we finished, we had created "Funky Stuff," "Jungle Boogie" and "Hollywood Swinging."

Oh, my goodness. And they were all popular. I mean, incredibly popular. Everybody was playing them, everybody was singing the songs. Wow. So ... when you think about that, Kool, ...who wrote those lyrics, and tell me why?

Well, we all came together. It wasn't just one person. It was all of us writing the songs. "Funky Stuff," again, was more on the funky side, and I [sang] with that; "we can't get enough of that funky stuff." And then "Jungle Boogie" was very created from my brother's side, with that ... bass and the horn line playing the same thing and just really groovin' and then bringing that note with the jungle sound. Now "Hollywood Swinging," we went out to Hollywood, drove out there one time. [When] we finally made it out [there], that had a lot to do with the song as well. ...We said, "Oh wow, we're finally going to Hollywood." So the whole lyric thing came from going out to Hollywood.

Your songs have been sampled too.

Yeah, we're the most sampled band ever because [of] hip hop.

Why do you think they sample so much?

Well, I think they sample more of the '70s because we didn't have a lead singer during that time; we were more funk instrumental, and for a rapper, or someone in hip hop, [that] was easy for them to get drum parts, the bass parts and the guitar part.

That makes sense.

Questlove told me ... "You've been sampled 1,800 times." I said, "Quest, are you sure? 1,800 times?"

That's amazing.

Amazing. Yes.

You talked about the music industry; you talked about the labels. There are so many changes that have happened. What stands out for you and how have you adapted to those changes?

We are constantly building markers and going back to the places that we have built [around] the world, and back ... [then] when you had just cassettes and vinyl and CD's — and if you weren't number one or you sold a million units with a vinyl album — that's what you made a million dollars on, singles [or] whatever.

Today, the record business has changed a lot, and although I'm hearing that vinyl might be coming back, thank God for that, but the thing about it is that it's all about streaming. Now, I'm old school and I just can't figure out streaming. I'm trying to find out what river is that stream going into because it ain't showing up in my pocket. So now you have to build your market because now you have to do your live performances because the record sales are not anymore like it used to be, which means that the record companies are not there like it used to be.

Kool and the Gang 2024 Inductee Reaction.mp4

How did you feel when you first learned that you will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

Oh, I felt pretty good about that one because since we were nominated to go into the Hall of Fame and then we had the fan votes, and I thank my fans out there because I got a lot of votes ... on the voting side. And you know after sixty years in this business, and to be in Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ... we have done a lot of stuff on the rock and roll side as well. We did 48 shows with Van Halen. We did 10 shows with Kid Rock. We played with Elton John, Rod Stewart, Dire Straits. So we said if this is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we have rocked with the rockets. (laugh) We turned around and we made it in there. Of course, you know, a lot of people and groups are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, like George Clinton, on the funk side.

I absolutely love that. I was thrilled when I heard about it. So, you mentioned 60 years.

We started back in 1964, and the name of our group at that time was The Jazziacs. And then the name was changed to The Soul Town band. The Soul Town band was backing up the Soul Town Review, in Jersey City, New Jersey, and they were trying to be like the Motown Review. So we had to learn Motown songs, as we were backing up these groups that were singing Motown songs when we were in the Soul Town band. Then we moved on to Kool and the Flames. You had James [Brown] and The Famous Flames, so we didn't want to have any problems with the Godfather [of Soul]. So, we said "What should we call ourselves?" We came up with Kool & The Gang in 1969.

My goodness, and it stuck and it's a great name, no doubt. You also have new music out.

I'll give you a couple, "Pursuit of Happiness" was the single, "Perfect Union" was the name of the album. That's the one that my brother did before he passed. The second one is "People Just Want to Have Fun." That's the one that's out right now. So there are two albums out there over the past three or four years. We bring the funk, we bring the party, we bring the VIP, we bring "Celebration," the "Get Down On It," "Ladies' Night." We bring the songs that you all love. That's why you should come see us.

Carla Eckels is Director of Organizational Culture at KMUW. She produces and hosts the R&B and gospel show Soulsations and brings stories of race and culture to The Range with the monthly segment In the Mix. Carla was inducted into The Kansas African American Museum's Trailblazers Hall of Fame in 2020 for her work in broadcast/journalism.