GOLDMINE: Kool, let’s start with the first time I heard you on the car radio in Northeast Ohio, where you and Ronald were born. It was the fall of 1969 and the instrumental “Kool and The Gang” sounded like a brass party record. It was so exciting.
ROBERT “KOOL” BELL: It was exciting for us too. It was our very first record and we got a deal with De-Lite Records. We were still in high school when we first heard that and screamed, “Hey! That’s us! We’re on the radio!” We were very happy about that. Our very first record was a Top 40 R&B hit. What a great start! A lot of people thought we were a Latin band with that sound and no vocals, just a couple of chants.
GM: You continued with some great instrumentals throughout the years. “Morning Star,” which is the flip side of “Celebration” and “Tonight’s the Night,” which is the flip side of “Too Hot” are very fun instrumentals to go with some of my favorite A sides.
RKB: Yes, you’re right, back in the day when we used to have A sides and flip sides.
GM: Let’s talk about a flip side which wasn’t an instrumental, “Place for Us,” with a theme similar to what Stephen Sondheim wrote about with “Somewhere” from West Side Story. This was the flip side of “Joanna” and is one beautiful song.
RKB: Thank you. A lot of fans, who I call Gangheads, love so many of our non-hits like “Place for Us” that a lot of people don’t know about, which are album cuts and flip sides. Most people just know the A sides.
GM: This gold single is a great example where a lot of people know the A side, “Joanna.” I want to let you know that we have a family friend who is around our daughter Brianna’s age named Joanna, born in the early 1980s, and she said that “Joanna” really helped her. She told me, “I love Kool & The Gang and that song. As a little girl it was always my song, helping me when I introduced myself to others in the 1980s. I was young and shy but when I said my name people would often reply, ‘Joanna, like the song?’ It was pretty cool to have that immediate connection with someone, like an icebreaker. Also, not everyone spells the name the same, so I could say, ‘Joanna’ spelled like the song, with no capital A in the middle.”
RKB: Wow. That’s so nice. “Joanna” was another big one for us. BMI stated that it was the most played song of the year.
Kool & The Gang
Flip side: Place for Us
A side: Joanna
Billboard Top 100 debut: November 5, 1983
Peak position: No. 2
De-Lite DE 829
GM: Speaking of most played Kool & The Gang songs, I went to college in the disco era and “Open Sesame” was on our jukebox, which was a Top 10 soul hit at the time.
RKB: That one ended up in the Saturday Night Fever movie, which was a thrill.
GM: Exactly! You are on side three of that double album soundtrack, which my wife Donna bought me as an encouragement gift to pursue my musical passion. The side ended with Florida’s K.C. and The Sunshine Band.
RKB: Yes, and The Bee Gees, too, with John Travolta on the cover. It was the biggest selling soundtrack album of the decade.
GM: Talking about albums, let’s discuss Perfect Union, which is a wonderful collection of your new songs. It opens with “Pursuit of Happiness,” a great anthem with unifying lyrics.
RKB: Thanks to my brother Ronald. You know we lost him in 2020.
GM: Yes, and I am so sorry. When I wrote his In Memoriam article in late 2020, I included some of the songs he co-wrote like “Hollywood Swinging,” “Ladies Night,” “Get Down on It” and “Cherish,” plus the other hits just discussed.
RKB: He was responsible for creating 80% of this new album just before he passed. When Joe Biden was nominated to be the presidential candidate they played “Celebration,” which Ronald co-wrote and was played when Biden won, too. In his nomination speech, Biden spoke about a perfect union and the pursuit of happiness, and my brother came up with the idea that he had some perfect titles and a concept for our upcoming record.
GM: “Pursuit of Happiness” is followed by the steady dance party song, “The Weekend.”
RKB: We had fun with that one, like “Ladies Night,” it is weekend party music.
GM: Earlier we discussed a Latin sound with your first single. I hear that style with the song “High,” which made my 100 Fabulous Songs of 2021 list. Mark Bowers’ guitar sounds Santana-like to me.
RKB: Absolutely. Mark worked with my brother on various projects and did a great job on this song.
GM: Your bass playing plus the brass instruments stand out on “All to Myself.” The beginning reminds me of Bruno Mars’ “Just the Way You Are.”
RKB: It has a younger sound to it, but still goes back to a similar theme we had with “Cherish.” It is a love song stating, “I want you all to myself,” not trying to be greedy, but you love the girl. You want her all to yourself. You don’t want her walking off with somebody else. Ha ha.
GM: Like “Pursuit of Happiness,” “Hold On” has an encouraging motivational message.
RKB: That song was also written during the months led by my brother. I look at these songs as movement songs with everything that’s going on and a need for world peace. First there is “Pursuit of Happiness” and then comes “Hold On,” backing it up in theme. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the message is just “Hold On” and don’t give up. Things will get better. Keep the faith.
GM: During this pandemic era, we have lost so many people. Not only did we lose your brother in 2020, in 2021 we lost the Gang’s saxophonist Dee Tee. I offer my condolences. I mentioned the July 2021 Hollywood Bowl show he played at in my In Memoriam article on him.
RKB: Thank you. It seems like almost every year I lose someone. Dee Tee in 2021, Ronald in 2020 and in late 2018 I lost my wife Sakinah, the love of my life. We met at the roller rink when I was a teenager. It has been some trying times, but we’re still holding on, staying in there, and doing what we do.
GM: You mentioned President Biden. On your website there is video link with President Obama talking about Kool & The Gang.
RKB: He was another leader who spoke about the pursuit of happiness. My brother said he was inspired by both of these presidents. If the people and the political parties would just get together, that would be a perfect union. People just need to hold on and come together.
GM: Hopefully there will be many people safely coming together on the Ultimate Disco Cruise, which will be departing in a few weeks from here in Florida. In addition to K.C. and The Sunshine Band, who we mentioned earlier regarding the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, there is someone performing on the ship who I met at the peak of the disco era in 1979, Herb from Peaches and Herb. I was working at Peaches Records & Tapes and invited them to do an instore appearance right as “Shake Your Groove Thing” was being replaced by “Reunited” in the Top 40.
RKB: I know all those guys from back in the day, Peaches and Herb, The Spinners, The Stylistics, and more. We did an Ultimate Disco Cruise before COVID-19 hit and Evelyn “Champagne” King was on that one and will be on this one too. These cruises are fun and in addition to our hits, we will play a couple of new songs from the Perfect Union album too.
GM: The cruise goes to Mexico. Your music is known worldwide. In 2017, Brianna was in a club in Namibia, the evening after Chester Bennington from the group Linkin Park passed away. In addition to Linkin Park music played in the club that night, they also played your song “Get Down on It.” She grew up playing “Jungle Boogie” and “Celebration” on trumpet in the marching band.
RKB: Yes, we are popular in Africa, too. “Pursuit of Happiness” was No. 1 in Zimbabwe. I was there working on a project where they were building a monument for Mohammed Ali in a memorial park. Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe is one of the seven wonders of the world. “Pursuit of Happiness” was the first record to go to No. 1 in that country from an artist outside of Zimbabwe.
GM: Well, that’s cause for a celebration! Let’s go from Zimbabwe to France for Le Kool Champagne.
RKB: Yes, about a year ago I came out with that French champagne. So, not only will we be performing with Evelyn “Champagne” King on the cruise, but I also have my own champagne. Thank you so much for sharing my stories and to you, your family and friends for being Gangheads!