Kool & the Gang still celebrating
07/12/2012 12:00 AM
07/13/2012 11:41 AM
You can’t blame Kool & the Gang for celebrating, partying and having a good time – everywhere.
On a 40th anniversary tour that included opening for Van Halen last month, Robert “Kool” Bell & the Gang will play Friday at The Palace Theatre in Myrtle Beach.
Formed in Jersey City, N.J., the band has blended jazz, rhythm and blues, and pop into its music through four decades, and their music has lined soundtracks, including “Summer Madness” in the start of the “Rocky” series in 1976, “Open Sesame” in “Saturday Night Fever” (1977) and “Celebration” in “Muppets from Space” (1999).
Kool & the Gang – including Bell and three fellow founding members of brother Ronald “Khalis” Bell and Dennis Thomas on saxophones, and drummer George Brown – helped open the 2012 celebration of “A Capitol Fourth” July 4 on PBS on the U.S. Capitol’s west lawn.
Robert Bell, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, called Monday from New Jersey in a break before a week of several dates across the country and another trip “back across the water” for shows in England, Germany, Monte Carlo and Portugal.
Wherever the band entertains, “We come to party,” said Bell, the bass guitarist.
Question | Just how memorable was “A Capitol Fourth” last week, opening your set with Ronald Bell playing “America” solo on saxophone, then the band joining in for the “Celebration”/“Ladies’ Night” medley to really kick off the whole party?
Answer | It was great to do that. I mean, we’ve done other Fourth of Julys and nice sidetracks. We did one at the Arch in St. Louis one time. ... On our Van Halen tour, we were inspired. We remembered crossing the Rockies on the way to Las Vegas. We stopped in one of those canyons and we played some American music, the “America” theme song. It was one of those afternoons, and people were wondering, “Who are those guys in those big tour buses?” ... So we got the call about doing the Capitol Hill celebration, and we thought, this would be perfect. We did “America.” It worked out.
Q. | Playing for such TV specials as New Year’s Eve shows, and on “A Capitol Fourth,” and jet-setting to play around the world, how rewarding is it to see the music so fresh for other generations and cultures, with audiences singing along with you?
A. | It’s great. .... Another time, there was a date in Lebanon, in Beirut. They’re into the music. They were singing to “Fresh,” “Ladies’ Night” and “Get Down On It.” The Lebanese know how to party.
Q. | On the heels of the “Ladies’ Night” album from 1979, with James “J.T.” Taylor helping usher in a new era and give a new voice for the group through the 1980s: A year later, did you have any inkling, any gut feeling, that the first single from the “Celebrate!” LP, “Celebration,” would become such an anthem that never gets old?
A. | We didn’t know what would happen with “Celebration.” We were celebrating two American Music Awards from the “Ladies’ Night” album ... and my brother came up with this idea, to celebrate a moment. ... He played the music, and we were celebrating. We just had a good-ole-time feeling to it. “Celebration” is a very, very basic song, but there’s a groove to it. “There’s a party going on right now.” It’s celebrating a good time. ... It was the basic sort of song, with “Yahoo,” the twang and the guitars. It worked. The song has been amazing and a blessing, and it’s still a very popular song for all occasions.
Q. | How did the hit “Ladies’ Night” evolve, with its “Come on, let’s all celebrate” refrain?
A. | It was another of these quick ideas. ... I came up with this idea about hanging out in a nightclub.
Q. | With such positive lyrics in the band’s hits through the years, such as “Steppin’ Out,” “Straight Ahead,” “Tonight” and “Victory,” have you heard from fans who have articulated their thanks for the spirit and uplifting message in the music?
A. | We’ve done “Victory” for a few corporate dates. We don’t play all the songs, but for one of the dates, they had requested “Take It to the Top.” We hadn’t done that one for years. I said, “We have to go back and rehearse that. I guess, in the spirit of the convention, for the people who worked for the company, it hit them: “You can make it to the top. Don’t stop.” We didn’t know. ... It affects people in life and corporations around the world. People used that song as a theme.
Q. | For older fans who don’t want to forget Kool & the Gang’s jazz and funkier roots from the 1960s and ‘70s, respectively, as heard on “Summer Madness” and “Funky Stuff,” how immersed and deep did the group get on such recording sessions, especially on “Wild and Peaceful,” from 1973?
A. | “Wild and Peaceful” came around the time of “Jungle Boogie, “Hollywood Swinging” and “Funky Stuff.” On that album, the first side was the “wild side,” as we called it, then there was the peaceful side, because we wanted to do jazz. I call it “cool jazz.” When we cut “Wild and Peaceful,” a song that was at least nine minutes long, it took up half of the B side.
Q. | Does hearing Paul Shaffer lead frequent renditions of “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” on late-night TV for David Letterman for the last three decades further confirm Kool & the Gang’s thick chapter of longevity in American music since the 1960s?
A. | It’s a beautiful thing ... with TV shows and movies using our music. Paul Shaffer, we’ve known for a while, and bassist Will Lee: He played on one of our records; he was a guest bassist on “Tonight.” So we know those guys. And the new guys for Jay Leno’s band: They play a lot of our stuff. ... Then we come to find out on tour with Van Halen ... that when they we starting off in the 1970s, they used to play “Hollywood Swinging” and “Funky Stuff.”
Q. | Having such an artistic signature logo – also displayed on the outer head of George Brown’s bass drum – as other groups such as Chicago, the Rolling Stones and KISS each do: How did Kool & the Gang’s emblem, incorporating the horn, become your stamp?
A. | Back in the early days ... although we a trombone, and saxophones – alto and tenor – there was something about the trumpet that showed what we were about, because we really didn’t have lead singers in the early days. The trumpet: A guy came up with the idea and drew this trumpet as our logo. ... We’ve been using it ever since, for over 40 years.
Q. | You, Thomas and Taylor were the three members representing Kool & the Gang, and with Jody Watley, the only U.S. artists, in the Band Aid single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” recorded in 1984 in England for Ethiopian famine relief. How did this timing and place work out, amid your various charity efforts across Africa, so perfectly?
A. | We were touring there, and Bob Geldof asked, “Would you like to be part of this song we’re doing?” Bob Geldof was our label mate ... and putting it all together. We said, “Yeah, we’d love to be a part of it.” It just so happened we were available that morning, and the rest is history.
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