Kool got hot again mixing melody and market research
Thanks to one Celebration—the joyously funky single they rode to No. 1 on the pop charts this year—Kool & the Gang are staging another, in jubilant recognition of their rebirth as hit makers. Not only has the New Jersey-based ninesome pulled itself up out of a deep career rut, but it is showing signs of making this new success stick after 12 erratic years of soaring ups and unsettling downs.
The latest turnaround of the group that first scored with Ladies’ Night in 1979 didn’t happen by chance. “Nineteen seventy-seven and ’78—that period was a real downer for us,” says Robert “Kool” Bell, 30, the leader. “People thought we had broken up.” Instead of accepting their descent to oblivion, Kool and his brother Ronald, 29, the group’s music director, decided to survey the market. “We set up the Kool & the Gang Research Committee,” says Robert. His mandate to Ronald: “Go out there, brother, and see what they’re talking about.” So Ronald did. “I tuned in to the radio and listened to more pop music than ever before—Donna Summer, Chic, Rod Stewart, Earth, Wind & Fire,” he recalls. It wasn’t long before Kool and his group began to go with the flow. They dropped the rhythm-heavy street sound of their 1974 hit Jungle Boogie and turned to a more melodic approach.
While their calculated shift in style smacks of bandwagonism, Robert argues that it’s the only way to survive in a fickle business. The evidence suggests that he’s right. The Celebration single has already been parlayed into a top-selling LP, and the group will be doing some profitable partying soon in a series of national TV-radio commercials for Schlitz Malt Liquor. The Gang will also join David Bowie, Pink Floyd and the Police on the sound track of the forthcoming animated film Rock Hobbit. This side of Middle Earth, the group was nominated for the NAACP’s annual Image Award for achievement by blacks, and its members were also named honorary chairmen of the New York March of Dimes.
Through it all, the Gangsters continue to operate as a sort of democracy, writing most lyrics collectively. Their closeness is cemented, perhaps, by a common feeling for Islam. The brothers Bell describe themselves as “striving in the religion,” and the band’s seven other members are actively sympathetic. Once a grass smoker, Robert has taken the name Muhammed, shuns all drugs, meditates daily and fasts periodically—from dawn to dusk during the holy month of Ramadan. A spokesperson for the band says that because the group doesn’t actually drink any beer in the Schlitz commercial, band members aren’t breaking the Muslim tenet against consuming alcohol.
Despite the fluctuations between feast and famine, the band’s core has stayed constant. Six members—Kool, who plays bass; Ronald, sax; George Brown, 32, percussion; Charles Smith, 30, guitar; Robert “Spike” Mickens, 29, trumpet; and Dennis “D.T.” Thomas, 29, alto sax—have been together since they were the Jazziacs at Jersey City’s Lincoln High in 1964. The Bells had inherited their enthusiasm for jazz from their father, a former lightweight boxer who once roomed with Thelonious Monk.
Robert’s professional apprenticeship was served playing for sandwiches and potato chips at the Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village, where the headlines were Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby and Richie Havens. His band cut its first album as Kool & the Gang in 1969 and has issued 17 more since, going gold for the first time with Wild and Peaceful in 1973. Some lean years followed; then the group went disco, and its Open Sesame single made the sound track of Saturday Night Fever. When the disco fever broke in 1978, the Gang’s records were all but consigned to the bargain bins, and at one point the group cut a 30-track concept album that was totally scrapped.
The band then revamped its sound once again, downplaying its three female singers and string section backup. Added to the group were singer Earl Toon Jr., 27, and silky-throated lead vocalist James “J.T.” Taylor, an unemployed former nursery school teacher. Taylor was the first and last lead singer auditioned. “He came in and sang a couple things, and sometimes you just know,” says Ronald. Rounding out the Gang is keyboardist Bell brother Amir, 25.
Offstage and away from the studio, Robert lives quietly in Newark, N.J. with wife Sekinah, 30, and their two sons. Nearby lives Ronald (his Muslim name is Khalis), who is the father of three children and now separated from his wife. The rest of the band reside in the New York area, but the group’s home of late has been a pair of buses carrying the 20-person Kool entourage on a national tour ending this fall. Elsewhere, their follow-up single Take It to the Top shows every sign of living up to its title and justifying Robert Bell’s unquenchable optimism. “You can be successful,” he says, “if you just have that willpower. We kept moving and now we’re back. I wouldn’t say on top, but we’re reaching.”