‘Funky Stuff’ Interview with Kool & The Gang
Fitzroy speaks with Robert ‘Kool’ Bell and Ronald Khalis Bell bassist and horn players of Kool & The Gang who are performing at The Indig02 this Sunday 11th June 2017, the first of a few UK dates!
Fitzroy: How was early life in Ohio with you, Robert, being the eldest and Kevin, the youngest forming The KG’s and at what point did you move to New Jersey?
Robert : I left Ohio in 1960 when I was 10 years old and our group came together in 1964. At primary school I met Dennie Thomas, George Brown, Rick West and Claydes Smith. We first called ourselves The Jazziacs. Going back to being a youngster, I didn’t know I was going to be in the music business. I was two years old and my Grandfather had me working with him underneath the car, and my Grandmother would holla “Get that boy out from under the car.’ When I was 7 years old I built my own motorbike by taking a lawn mower motor, and putting it on a bicycle frame. Before we left Ohio in 1960 my brother Ronald and I used to beat paint cans like bongos, and depending on how much paint was inside, this would determine the tone of the sounds we made. When we moved to Jersey City my mother bought me some bongos. I later went on to the bass guitar when I was 14.
Whilst you picked up the bass and who were your bass influences?
Robert : Spike Mickens our trumpet player and his brother who played the bass guitar, used to practice at their home. I’d go there and fool around with the bass. I could play one song, Herbie Mann’s version of ‘Coming Home Baby’. My brother suggested when we were playing at the Cafe Mar in the village area, to play ‘Coming Home Baby’ on the bass, and I could do that all on one string. That was the beginning of my bass career. During that time Mr Charles Smith who became our guitar player when we joined the Soul Town Band, used to show me how to play different licks. We became the back up band for Soul Town. Soul Town was trying to be like Motown and we had eight to ten artists and had to learn how to play Motown songs behind these local artists, and that is how I started learning my chops. At that time whilst we were the Jazziacs, I was listening to bass players like Ron Carter, Reggie Workman of The Jazz Crusaders on the jazz side, and at the same time James Jamerson of The Motown Funk Brothers on the R&B side.
Fitzroy : Ronald with influences ranging from Miles Davis, John Coltrane & James Brown, where were your early gigs and do you have any memories of individual talent who broke through in the late 60’s early 70’s?
Ronald : I remember my father who was a professional prize fighter bought home a stereo and I was fascinated at this thing going around by itself playing music. Our Jazz influence being our first love came from Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Herbie Hancock. Because I played saxophone John Coltrane and Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Archie Sheppard, Sonny Rollins to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers we kind of emulated them. Listening to a lot of Motown we worked with an organisation called a Soul Town out of Jersey City trying to emulate the Motown artist so that’s where we got our muscle in R&B influence from The Temptations, The Marvelettes, Stevie Wonder, Earl Van Dye & James Brown. Regarding memories At the café Wah, before we became Kool & the Gang we used to frequent there, Bill Crosby, Richie Haven and Richard Prior was there and we used to play for sandwiches. Yeh potato chips ‘Coming Home Baby’ by Ben Tucker and Herbie Mann we used to love playing that, in fact Kool used to practice bass to that!!
Robert : Ok let me go back to Ohio. In the neighbourhood we had little street gangs and as a country boy coming to Jersey City, I had to adapt to what was going on. I noticed there was a guy who called himself Cool spelt with a C. I liked that and decided to take the name on as my nickname and spelt it with a K, not knowing that it would eventually inspire the name Kool & The Gang. When we became part of Soul Town and left to work at the Blue Note Lounge in Jersey we decided to make a name change from The Jazziacs. The clubs MC was a part of Soul Town and came up with an idea to advertise us in the window as Kool & The Flames. My name was in a block of an ice type font with the Flames name as a melted one. Our first manager Gene Redd advised we shouldn’t use the name Flames because of James Brown & Famous Flames and we didn’t want to have any problems with the Godfather. We went thorough a few names and decided upon Kool & The Gang. That was in 1968, which will be 50 years next year.
Fitzroy : The sense of black pride obviously had an influence on you during the 60’s Mohammed Ali, Nation of Islam and the clench fist of the Olympic medalist’s. At what point did you become influenced to change your way of living and become Muslim?
Ronald: The Islamic influence – well at the time everyone was trying to raise their consciousness, afro and the Afro American experience was all around, I guess it was time for change we were listening to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Elijah Mohammed speak all this energy for us, John Coltrane being a revolutionary in music, I don’t see it as a change I don’t divide religion up it’s like music is just one note. I read the bible, the Koran, the bahagamagita and lots of other things. It just evolved as a way of life and Islam was the only one that excluded none. It didn’t seem right to me to that the creator would not include all people. John Coltrane…he summed it up for me perfectly…a ‘Love Supreme’. I can’t speak for no one else but for me Islam translate into peace in Arabic, Muslim in English means one who submits themselves to the creator, and all people eat the food and breathe the air provided by the creator so I don’t see any difference in how we should treat each other.
Fitzroy : Same question to you Robert
Robert : During that time we were still young at grammar school and we used to play for different events. The Nation Of Islam would have an event they called The Bizzare, which had vendors, food and entertainment. We became the band that played for those events and we also did some fundraisers for the Black Panthers around the neighbourhood at the time. It wasn’t until a few years after that my brother and I decided to be come part of The Nation Of Islam around 1971-1972.
Fitzroy : I personally love ‘Music Is The Message’ as an album with the title track, ‘Soul Vibrations’ and ‘Funky Granny’ with your distinctive bass playing. How did you feel that the marriage between you and Claydes Smith worked? As with your individual guitar parts, yours are a few simple melodic impromptu notes and not pluck and thumping like Larry Graham and Claydes guitar is a very infectious lead?
Robert : Well we established that at Soul Town doing the Motown tracks and we shared and learned the tracks. Claydes was always simple but sophisticated and you hear that on tracks like ‘Funky Stuff’ especially when they do all the double mixing in the studio. Even Prince before he died said the first record he heard on the car radio was ‘Funky Stuff’.
Fitzroy : There were lots of east coast street bands like Fatback, Brass Construction, Crown Heights Affair and later Cameo cutting their teeth on the street funk. With all their different individual sounds, what was in the air to inspire that creativity and what was the edge that Kool & the Gang had as to why they were so successful with ‘Funky Stuff’ and ‘Jungle Boogie’?
Robert : We were incorporating our 1960s experience as The Jazziacs and what we learned of Motown at Soultown, listening to James Brown and being inspired by Sly & The Family Stone. We established ourselves with jazz & RB influences, which became the Kool & The Gang sound of the 1970s. We carried that through till we changed our sound again in 1979 when we added JT Taylor as a lead singer. I was hanging out in New York and every Friday night was ladies night so when JT became our lead vocalist we created the song ‘Ladies Night’ and now our sound has changed again. We became more pop, with ‘Ladies Night’, ‘Celebration’, ‘Get Down On It’, ‘Joanna’ etc. etc. It became an evolution of our music and we started writing those kind of songs because we now had a singer. Our producer Deodato said “Listen guys we got a singer in the band now and you have to make room for the singer”. We said, almost reluctantly, ok. (Robert laughs.)
Fitzroy : Your writing and productions are typical of that spirited era. Other street funk bands, Fatback, Brass Construction, label mates Crown Heights Affair, Mandrill, War and the KG’s also fused jazz soul and funk into a ménage I can only describe as musical magic. Was it difficult to maintain your individual imprint as most of the above acts had a brass section and their own brand of groove?
Ronald: It’s pretty much like today in Hip Hop like back in the Be Bop era people were listening to each other. Our sound was defined I think by the horns because that was primarily instrumental in a street background and the late Charles Smith came up with these incredible guitar line that were almost like James Brown but not quite it. The way he expressed himself playing those licks on ‘Funky Stuff’ our first record ‘Kool & the Gang’ it was all influence from our predecessors that came before us. We just carved out what we liked. I remember when I first heard the ‘Nutcracker’ I was in the 3rd grade in Ohio and that influenced me later to do ‘Open Sesame’ some of that sounds similar as well as John Phillip Souza music is universal. We’d listen Brass Construction to Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers and Earth Wind & Fire and the Commodores. Ask Maurice White he played behind John Coltrane, Ramsey Lewis and Charles Stepney. We listen to everybody Marvin Gaye, Stanley Turrentine, Elton John, and The Beatles The Stones it was all there. Like I said before we had to back up Tina Turner & Temptation, Sly & the Family Stone wanna be’s. We started trying to make our own sounds that’s when we became creative.
Fitzroy : Which is you favourite Kool & the Gang album and titled track?
Ronald: Favourite album was the best recording, it was fun and fondest memory, we recorded it for 6 months that was ‘Kool & the Gang’ by Kool & the Gang. Favourite Kool & the Gang song would be ‘Celebration’
Ronald : Because everyone around the world has been living the dream and manifested actually. I had no idea that song would be what it is, it had a great groove on it and we were focused after ‘Ladies Night’ to continue with music as a pursuit. We started covering some tri ad cords like rock & roll and simplistic cord changes. I read some scriptures where man was being created by god and the angels were celebrating and praising god for doing that. That’s where the inspiration for ‘Celebration’ came from. That may be my favourite song “So every one man woman and child human being around the world come on”!!
Fitzroy : What’s yours Robert?
Robert : That kind of a hard question but I’d have to say ‘Ladies Night’ the first single with JT Taylor because I came up with the title.
Fitzroy : Like most player bands of the time, vocals were not your main strength but you managed to do what I call the ‘hustle chant’ which is more like party lyrics (Robert: “Yes, chant music” (Robert laughs.) You created hits like ‘Jungle Boogie’, ‘Hollywood Swinging’, ‘Spirit Of The Boogie’ and the huge crossover jazz funk disco cut that made the ‘Saturday Night Fever’ soundtrack, ‘Open Sesame’. What actually inspired ‘Open Sesame’ as I remember a children’s program Banana Splits with the Arabian Knights cartoon that resonated with me whenever I hear ‘Open Sesame’?
Robert : My brother Khalis wrote that song and it was our approach to the dance floor sound, which was dominated by Barry White, Donna Summer, and dance records happening at the time. We wanted to do something but make it jazzier. So we looked into listening to the kind of scales of someone like John Coltrane. That’s when my brother came up with the horn line because Earth Wind & Fire was out there doing their thing, so my brother came out with ‘Open Sesame’ with those Arabian scales horn lines. Really my brother was just experimenting and the band said ‘What was that, that your brother did?” when he brought that into the studio. (Robert laughs).
Fitzroy : What was the inspiration for ‘Summer Madness’ and adding the soothing jazzy vocals from Something Sweet female vocalists on the extended live version?
Robert : ‘Summer Madness’ was a vamp from a song called ‘You Don’t Have To Change’ from the ‘Light Of Worlds’ album. If you listen there’s a keyboard change of the song vamping out and my brother said “Hey that’s two songs in one”. One night he had just got the Arp Pro synthesiser and was messing around with it till 5 o’clock in the morning. He took the second part of ‘You Don’t Have To Change’ and put a solo on it with the Arp, then Claydes came and played his guitar and we decided to call it ‘Summer Madness’. We didn’t know that the song would become what it is today with Will Smith getting a Grammy for ‘Summertime’ and other rappers and movies using the song.
Fitzroy: Your trade mark music of the early funk jazz era focused universal love peace, unity and “getting down” with the consciousness like the other “super group” who shared a similar kind of success EWF. You seem to source your energy from Africa but share its history with the world regardless of their origin. Was that easy to convince the corporate record company headed by Polydor?
Ronald : Wow oh how to answer that….In a sense we had a record company that allowed us to do whatever, they saw us a creative energy, entity and source. There were times when it was questioned but they were supportive. But when they asked us to make some more commercial music we decided to. Gene asked us to do ‘Soul Makossa’, our focus became sharper and had already been educated coming through the Motown era how to do that
Fitzroy : Did you do ‘Soul Makossa’?
Ronald : No we did ‘Jungle Boogie’ instead; right now “Jungle Boogie” is ranking with ‘Celebration’
Fitzroy : ‘Everybody’s Dancing’ for me was ‘Open Sesame’ part 2. It’s clear that by 1978 there was some pressure to produce a disco hit, which most player outfits leaders like Fatback’s Bill Curtis, Brass Construction’s Randy Muller and Cameo’s Larry Blackmon, whom I’ve spoken with, agree it was make or break with their respective record companies. How did you recruit JT Taylor to record that game changing ‘Ladies Night’ single and album and end up working with Deodato?
Robert : OK long story short. We were doing a tour with The Jackson 5 at the time and Dick Griffey of Solar Records said he like the excitement we were creating on the tour and suggested we needed to get a lead singer. We’d never really thought about it before but realised it was a good idea as Earth Wind & Fire had Phillip Bailey and Maurice White and The Commodores had Lionel Richie. So we were rehearsing at The House Of Music in New Jersey on another album. Deodato was working there and JT Taylor was working with the manager of who owned the studio. We didn’t go through the auction mode as my brother asked JT to come to the studio and he played him some various chord changes for JT to sing to. We liked him and said, “You’ve got the job”.
Fitzroy : You’ve come to the UK many times, of which I saw you at the Indigo back in 2008 and are coming very soon to perform dates, including with The Jacksons. Now that is a line up of full value for money. Will you be including some of the connoisseur jazz/street funk classics as well as the obvious commercial and party ones?
Robert : Yeah we still do ‘Funky Stuff’, ‘Jungle Boogie’, ‘Hollywood Swinging’, ‘Open Sesame’ and ‘Summer Madness’. We got a new single but not sure about the UK airplay called ‘Sexy’. (Fitzroy: “Ok I haven’t heard that.”) It went to number 15 in the top billboard Urban AC chart.
Fitzroy : Thanks gents
Ronald and Robert : Thanks Fitzroy