Kool & the Gang Release 25th Album Shortly After Bandmate Dennis Thomas' Death: 'It Means a Lot'

Kool & the Gang released their 25th studio album Perfect Union on Aug. 20

Kool & The Gang
Kool & The Gang. Photo: Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty

It's a bittersweet time for iconic R&B band Kool & The Gang.

In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, founding member Robert "Kool" Bell opened up about the sudden death of bandmate Dennis Thomas — and the significance of releasing the band's 25th studio album just weeks afterward.

"It means a lot," Bell, 70, says of releasing the band's album Perfect Union on Aug. 20, nearly two weeks after Thomas (often known as "Dee Tee") died on Aug. 7. "It's been rough, but we're trying to move forward. We haven't had an album out in about 10 years."

The Grammy Award-winning band, who are best known for their classic tunes including "Celebrate," "Jungle Boogie," "Summer Madness," and "Open Sesame," recently celebrated their 50th anniversary with a legendary concert to kick off their world tour — a show that just so happened to be Thomas' last hurrah with the band.

Thomas, known as the "quintessential cool cat in the group," died in his sleep in New Jersey, according to the band's Facebook page.

kool and the gang
Theo Wargo/Getty

"Our last show with Dennis Thomas was in Los Angeles on 4th of July weekend," Bell recalled. "We didn't know that he would pass two or three weeks later. It was the greatest show. We blended very well with the live orchestra and it was great. We didn't know that he would be leaving us after that."

While Bell is still grieving the loss of his friend, he said the album will serve as a tribute to Thomas and Bell's late brother Ronald — who produced a majority of the album before suddenly dying in 2020 — while, at the same time, advocating for world peace.

"My brother, Ronald, put together most of this album before he passed," Bell said. "The album represents the perfect union the band makes together and the theme of what not only our country, but the world is trying to achieve right now. "

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Robert "Kool" Bell
Robert "Kool" Bell of Kool & the Gang. Paras Griffin/Getty

The album will contain 10 tracks, including their newest single "Pursuit of Happiness."

The band first called themselves the Jazziacs and had several other name changes before settling on Kool and the Gang. They officially launched their band in 1969 and went on to collect numerous accolades, including two Grammy Awards and seven American Music Awards.

They were also inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame and received their star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015. Recently, in March, Kool and the Gang's hit "Celebration" was inducted into the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, Class of 2020.

As for what's next? Bell said the opportunities are endless.

"We will continue to tour," he said. "We're working on a documentary, a movie as well. My working title is Hollywood Swinging: The Kool and the Gang Story. We're also working on a musical."

"You live and learn, and then you learn to live," he added. "A lot of different things over the years were testing periods for me, learning periods of my life. They won't always go the way that you want them to go. This experience has been a blessing, to be able to travel around the world and see so many different things. What else can I ask for?"

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