A question comes to mind when talking to Robert “Kool” Bell about Kool & the Gang’s opening slot on the new Van Halen tour.
Are ya nuts?!
“I’ve heard that,” Bell says with a chuckle. Nevertheless, he doesn’t think it will be necessary to surround his band with chicken wire when the group plays its repertoire of R&B party songs in front of Van Halen’s headbanging fans.
“We’re not worried about it,” says Bell, 61, who co-founded Kool & the Gang with his brother, saxophonist Ronald Bell, during the mid-’60s in Jersey City, N.J. “We had big hits in the ’80s, and so did they. They’ve been kind of like a party band on the rock side, with their audience, and their audience is 60 percent female and we have songs like ‘Ladies’ Night’ and ‘Celebration’ ... and our audience is at least 80 percent a pop audience.
“Most of the time we have a crowd that’s 80 percent white. Plus, we do a lot of international dates with Def Leppard, Meat Loaf, Uriah Heep, Chicago, Elton John. ... A lot of people don’t know that ’cause they don’t really see it. So I think we’ll survive.”
But Bell admits he was “kind of surprised” when his group was invited onto the Van Halen tour, which stretches into June. Apparently VH frontman David Lee Roth caught Kool’s set at the 2011 Glastonbury festival and liked it so much he go this people in touch with their people.
“Kool & the Gang and Van Halen are the sounds of an entire continent at recreation,” Roth told Canada’s Sun Media. “We’ve come to represent that — although you’re more likely to hear Kool and the Gang at a bar mitzvah than me.”
Bell, meanwhile, thought the Van Halen-Kool pairing would be “an interesting combination, because Van Halen is more on the rock side and we do what we do. It really caught us by surprise. But the more people I mention it to, the more interesting they’re saying it is.”
It’s certainly a fresh wrinkle in the long career of a group that’s sold more than 70 million albums worldwide and has notched pop/R&B crossover hits such as “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging,” “Joanna,” “Too Hot” and, of course, 1980’s chart-topping “Celebration.”
Kool actually started as a jazz- and funk-leading instrumental troupe, inspired by James Brown, Motown, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner and Freddie Hubbard. “What we call the Kool & the Gang sound was a combination of all that,” Bell explains. “It was funky, but there was a jazzy side to it.”
After getting some mainstream pop attention with “Open Sesame” on the “Saturday Night Fever” film soundtrack, however, Kool and company were counseled to move in another direction.
“Promoters would tell us, ‘You know, you guys need to get a lead singer,” Bell remembers, “and we were writing songs that really necessitated that. So we decided, ‘Yeah, maybe it’s time for us to change.’ ”
It was a wise move. Adding vocalist James “J.T.” Taylor in 1979, the group reeled off 16 Top 10 hits on the R&B charts during the next eight years, nine of which had similar success on the Billboard Hot 100. None, however, was as big as “Celebration,” which endures — as Roth notes — as a staple for social occasions and as an anthem for sports teams.
The song, Bell says, was his brother’s brainstorm, coming after the 1980 American Music Awards where Kool & the Gang won a pair of trophies. “We were in our dressing room,” Bell says, “and my brother came up with the idea — ‘Why don’t we do a song called ‘Celebrate,’ ’cause that’s what we’re doing right now. So he went back to Jersey and put something together and sent it to the rest of us. We loved the concept and took it into the studio, and that’s how it happened.”
Bell says the group “felt good about the song” but certainly didn’t recognize its long-term appeal.
“The astronauts played it on the space shuttle once — they woke up to ‘Celebration.’ That’s unreal,” Bell says. “You just never know, when you’re writing a song, how strong that song’s going to be. Here we are, over 30-some years later, and it’s going as strong as it was back then. We’ve had other hits, but not as big as ‘Celebration.’ You can’t ever go in and say, ‘We’re gonna do that again.’ ”
How “Celebration” fares with the Van Halen crowds, of course, remains to be seen. But Bell says the group also has some more rock-leaning songs in its catalog, such as “Misled,” “Tonight” and “Emergency,” which he hopes will win a few converts.
“We’ve been doing the rehearsals in LA, and ... it flows,” reports Bell, who also hopes to get his band into the studio later this year for some new recording. “A lot of the guys in my band are definitely into them. Of course Eddie (Van Halen), everyone knows that blistering solo he did for Michael Jackson on ‘Beat It,’ and a lot of my guys are familiar with other tracks they’ve done.
“Everybody’s cool so far. Everything is, as they say, cool in the gang.”
Kool & the Gang performs with Van Halen at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 20, at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Lapeer Road at I-75. Some tickets, priced $29.50-$149.50, are still available. Call 248-377-0100 or visit www.palacenet.com.
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