Singer, Songwriter, and Acclaimed Instrumentalist, Robert “Kool” Bell Talks Legacy & Music
Robert “Kool” Bell, his name rings from one generation into the next. He’s the immortal of musical composers. In fact, he’s founding member of multi-award winning, pop-funk band, Kool & the Gang.
“When I was a little kid growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, my grandfather had me under the car with him and he was a mechanic,” says Robert. “Before leaving Ohio, I built my own motorbike. I took the motor from the lawnmower, and put it on a bicycle frame, and I ran around Youngstown, Ohio. That’s when I was young. My family moved to Jersey City, and that’s when I played percussion, bongo drums and things like that. My brother [Ronald Bell] and I met the guys [Ricky West, Dennis “D.T” Thomas, Robert “Spike”Mickens, George Brown, and Charles Smith, there [in Jersey]. Along with them, my brothers and I formed the first group called the Jazziacts because we were listening to Jazz. That was our love, of course, [and] then we were Soul Town Band. Soul Town Band was the backup for the Soul Town Review.”
The Jazziacts played in nightclubs throughout New York; they sampled different styles of music under several stage names like the Soul Town Band, and the Soul Town Review, which was a generic replication of acts launching under Motown. Eventually, they changed their name to Kool & the Flames… “At that time, we had James Brown and the Famous Flames, but we didn’t want to have any problems with the Godfather of Soul [James Brown], but we weren’t set on a name. Our music was a mixture of Jazz and Funk from that whole Soul-Town situation,” he said.
Eventually the group found a moniker and a whimsical style that club goers could jam to. They went from Kool & the Flames to the renowned group Kool & the Gang. They released their first record in 1969.
Robert says that you live to learn and then you learn to live, when asked about his experiences... “We had a song called ‘Love the Life You Live,’ back in the day. Going through the various changes, you learn a lot. We started as young guys playing jazz, and young guys backing up local talent in Jersey City, and then coming out with our first record in 1969. It was a growth pattern. Then, we had a lot of different… territorial [accomplishments], I guess you can say in the 70’s. We had songs like Funky Man, Funky Granny, A Breeze of Soul, Sea of Tranquility, and etcetera. Then, we broke out with our first big record called, Funky Stop, and then came Jungle Boogie, and then came Hollywood Swinging. That turned our career around, not only for Jersey City, but also around the whole world.”
Kool & the Gang didn’t find terrestrial success until 1973, when their singles from their junior album Wild and Peaceful hit the billboard charts. That project birthed records that landed on the top 10 Billboard like Jungle Boogie, Hollywood Swinging, and Funky Stuff. That last record resonated at the number one spot for 6 consecutive weeks on the R&B/Pop Charts.
“We won American Music Awards for Ladies Night, and we won about seven of those. We won a Grammy and went to BG’s with Saturday Night Fever. We won the Tokyo Music Awards for Cherish. We got our street name and our town, Jersey City, Kool & the Gang Way. We were inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, The Song Writers Hall of Fame—There were many fond moments,” Robert says.
Speaking of those spectacular epochs, Kool & the Gang is the most sampled band of our time just like their cult hit Summer Madness… "Will Smith took that record [Summertime] all the way to number one. He got a Grammy and a platinum, and he became a big movie star. Then, as far as sampling goes, you have Janet Jackson, Madonna, Tribe Called Quest, and Puffy. At that time, it was Diddy and Mase. James Brown use to say that Kool & the Gang is the most sampled band next to me,” Robert laughed, while imitating James Brown’s raspy voice.
We could summarize that Robert is a pioneer whose done everything under the sun, in every corner of the world. He’s sustained. He said that although he’s experienced a lot, he’s still inspired to do music in this generation and in this culture of R&B-pop music. “Well, you know, we’ve been doing this for fifty years. We’re trying to lock in this day and time with the new millennials, and how music is today, with streaming and social media. That didn’t happen back in the day. I remember vinyl and cassettes, eight track tapes, and this whole streaming world… it’s kinda different for me. My brother gets it, but I’m still kinda old-school. If you sell a million records, you get a million dollars. You got a dollar a record. Today, I don’t know what’s going on with streaming or any of it. The good thing about it is that over the years, we always worked on having a good show and a tight band. What I’m hearing now, for an artist to stream now, they’re streaming to get gigs. Depending on how good they are, even though they have a big record, they must be able to deliver, and we could do that all around the world.”
Robert continued by saying he’d liked to see more developed acts and groups from the R&B community. “Bruno Mars, he’s from old school and he’s new school. He has a big band sound for what he does. There’s a group called Mint Condition that I really like. I found that traveling around the world, you go into Japan and Singapore, and some of these other areas, you got these bands in there doing their thing, and they’re getting top dollar to do what we [Kool & The Gang] did. I don’t know how many groups in America is doing that, but they are listening to old-school over there."
Kool & The Gang does one hundred shows a year. They recently toured Germany, France, Italy Spain, Africa, and Montréal. “We mix it up” says Robert. “We’ve done 48 shows with Van Halen. We’ve done shows with Kid Rock. We have worked with The Dave Matthews Band. We worked with, Elton John, and from him to Gladys Knight."
Delving a little further into his attainments and philanthropic successes, Robert is US Ambassador of Music and the Arts to various countries. He’s also a Music Ambassador of Tourism to the Ivory Coast of Africa. In 2015 R.E.A.C.H [ Renewable Energy Applications to Conserve Humanity] named Robert Global Ambassador for sustainable energy. “Working with REACH, that was a good thing to do. We have done many things for hospitals, and for kids before my wife passed on. I lost my wife over a year ago. She set up Kool Kidz Foundation. She pushed music in schools—She also set up Dream Starz, where young talents become successful almost like the American Idol concept. We have three groups now, but even though my wife is not here anymore, I’m pushing these three groups into the new year. I have Solar Energy with Dusty Baker. We’re looking at a Kool-Baker Energy for Africa. We are looking at that next year. I want to do something that I call a power conference. It’s where you go into a stadium in Africa and we power the show from the grid and the solar of the sun. I’m also working with my son, Prince Hakeem. He’s a DJ. He has groups that he’s working with. He has a group of producers. We’re working and we are trying to keep the funk alive.”
Kool & the Gang honored at the Kimmel Center for the 2019 Marian Anderson Award
Recently, Robert “Kool” Bell celebrated 50 years in the music industry, in addition to his international stretches, by launching Just Kool Enterprises, a conglomerate focusing on various projects and brands at once like the Kool Kidz Foundation along with Just Kool Cologne and Le Kool Champagne… “We’re also working on a book, and a new album called “Legacy.” We have a deal with Universal Records. We’re also working on a project called Kool & Friends Anthology, it’s with various artist who are fans with Kool & the Gang. I would love to get Bruno Mars out there.”
Robert launched London’s Gate, which is a management and artist development company as well. Furthering the statement, Robert is partnering on another project. “I’m doing something in the agricultural business with my partner in West Africa, and we’re dealing with organic feralizer. We’re also launching a hand sanitizer called Durisan."
Robert is multidimensional in his business practices, but he doesn’t believe in spreading himself too thin. “You must have good partners. You want to delegate your partners to the various projects and make sure they’re on top of it.
‘You want to have time to focus on what you have. You don’t want too many groups. I’m an artist, but I’m also a manager and entrepreneur. I don’t want the artist under me looking at me crazy because I have this group and that group. I did the same thing with my manager. That’s why I want to make sure that I deliver.”
In that same breath, Robert said that up-and-coming singers/rappers need to be serious about their careers. “Once you get into the business, understand the business side of music in terms of how music is played, the publishing, the writers, the copyrights, accountants, and make sure you pay your taxes. Just stay on top of things. Just be honest about what you want to do because it’s not easy out there. In that whole social media world, there artist that pop out there and they become social media famous overnight, so that can happen, too, you know?"
Robert agrees that singers who use social media have a strong advantage now, opposed to when he started out with Kool & The Gang.
“You can reach more people all around the world, and you can reach people without having a record company, and then the record company will come knocking on your door once they see your numbers.”
Along with that powerful list, Robert is managing Lady Kool Enterprises, a legacy company created by his late wife, Sakinah Bell.
Learn more about Robert "Kool" Bell here.