Ronald Bell, one of the founding members of the 70s and 80s pop group Kool & the Gang, has passed away at the age of 68.
He founded the band with his brother Robert “Kool”
They became one of the most popular and influential soul and funk bands of the time, with hits like Celebration, Ladies’ Night and Get Down On It.
Their music has also been featured in several films, including Saturday Night Fever, for which they received a Grammy in 1978, and Pulp Fiction.
Bell died at his home in the U.S. Virgin Islands with his wife by his side, his press officer said. The cause of death was not given.
Saxophonist and self-taught singer, he founded the group in New Jersey with Robert and five schoolmates: Dennis Thomas, Robert Mickens, Charles Smith, George Brown and Ricky West.
Their career has been divided into two distinct halves. In the early 1970s, they scored American hits with the racing funk of songs like Jungle Boogie and Hollywood Swinging. Then, with the addition of singer James “JT” Taylor in 1979, they transformed into a successful R&B band, achieving the biggest commercial success of their careers when they hit their 20th anniversary.
As musical director, Bell has co-written all of their biggest hits, including the wedding nightclub classic Celebration.
- BBC Music: Kool & The Gang
It was his “favorite song” from the band’s vast catalog, he told Reuters news agency in 2008.
“I had no idea, you know,” he said. “I had no idea, thinking it was going to be a hit. I had no idea.
“But after all these years, there are moments at the end of the show where I see all these people singing a song, and after an entire hour and a half, you ask them to jump up and down and they keep jumping up and down. It’s a bit overwhelming for me “.
The group received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015 for their contribution to show business and was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall Of Fame in 2018.
Too poor for the battery
Bell was born and raised in Ohio and picked up the music bug from his father, a professional boxer who was a close friend of jazz musicians Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.
Unable to afford drums, he and his brother learned to play improvised instruments on their own.
“I used to beat paint cans like bongos, and depending on how much paint was in it, that would have determined the tone of the sounds we made,” he later recalled.
After the family moved to New Jersey as a teenager, Bell’s mother bought him a proper set of bongos and began teaching bass on his own, borrowing an instrument from the brother of his future bandmate Robert “Spike. “Mickens.
“Irreducible Jazz Musicians”
The first incarnation of Kool & The Gang formed in 1964, but they went through several names – including Jazziacs, The New Dimensions, The Soul Town Band, the Jazz Birds, and Kool & the Flames before settling on their final moniker in 1969.
Along the way, they combined their love of jazz with the gritty beats of street funk, creating a sound that would lead to their success in the 1970s.
“We used to play a lot of drumming on the streets in the 60s, go to the park and start hitting drums and stuff,” Bell told Rolling Stone.
“You had a hard time convincing us to play R&B,” he added. “We were diehard jazz musicians. We’re not getting low.”
Like Jazz Birds, they won Apollo Theater’s famous Amateur Night and landed a record deal with a small label called De-Lite Records.
Three singles from their self-titled debut album hit the pop charts, with the instrumental track Kool & The Gang displaying their hoarse, horn-driven sound.
Their mainstream breakthrough came with the 1973 album Wild and Peaceful. The lead single Funky Stuff became their first top 40 in the United States, followed by Jungle Boogie and Hollywood Swinging, which both hit the top 10.
Jungle Boogie became one of their most famous songs, used in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and sampled in Madonna’s Erotica.
It was only written after the band’s record label, looking for a single in the top 10, pressured Kool & The Gang to record a cover of Manu Dibango’s Soul Makossa.
“It would have been a success,” Bell later recalled. “But we decided that we would not record Soul Makossa – we will come out with our own ‘jungle music’, not to be derogatory.
“We composed the song in rehearsal, went in and recorded it that night. Jungle Boogie is a take.”
When the club rose to prominence, the band struggled to replicate their early success, even as they won a Grammy for Open Sesame, their contribution to the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.
That changed with the addition of Taylor, a former nightclub singer, and producer Eumir Deodato, which resulted in a cleaner, more pop sound and crossover single Ladies’ Night.
The decision was made when the band found themselves on tour with the Jacksons and the promoter said they needed a frontman. Taylor, chosen for his deep baritone “as Nat King Cole”, was the only singer they auditioned.
Unlike many of the funk bands of the 70s, Kool & The Gang thrived in the 80s, recording big hits with sentimental ballads like Joanna and Cherish, as well as party anthems Steppin ‘Out and Get Down On It, which now is their most streaming on Spotify.
Perhaps their most enduring success is Celebration, which was written after Bell took the Bible from a hotel room.
“I was reading the scriptures about where God called angels together, and I made an announcement that He would create this being,” he told Songwriter Universe.
“He gathered the angels and they said: ‘We know nothing’, but we celebrate you, God, we celebrate you and we praise you.”
“And I thought, I’ll write a song about this, [with the line] ‘All around the world … Let’s go!‘
“This is the intent … it was actually written for humanity.”
The group found a new generation of fans in the 1980s and 1990s as their music was sampled into a variety of pop and hip-hop songs.
Jungle Boogie’s horn riff appears in Luniz’s I Got 5 On It; Summer Madness formed the basis of DJ Jazzy Jeff’s Summertime and The Fresh Prince; and the syncopated rhythms of Jungle Jazz appear in dozens of tracks, from Pump Up The Volume by MARRS to Don’t Walk Away by Jade.
When Public Enemy sampled three separate Kool & The Gang songs for Fear of a Black Planet, Bell expressed her approval.
“After Public Enemy, I was all-in [with hip-hop]”he told Rolling Stone in 2015.” The music was all new to me. I sat down and listened to Fear of a Black Planet and was thrilled. I thought it was great.
“You can practically hear [drummer] George [Brown] play that break beat. You can listen to our music in the background. You know it was composed and compact, but you can hear Kool & the Gang’s music in all that hip-hop. “
The rise of hip-hop and Taylor’s departure in 1989 effectively ended Kool & The Gang’s presence on the charts, but Bell continued to record and tour with the group as a hereditary group in the 1990s and 2000.
At the time of his death, he was working on a solo album called Kool Baby Brotha Band, as well as a series of animations about the band’s childhood and career.
In an interview with Billboard last year, he said he felt grateful that he had a career in music.
“And why it is so long,” he added. “For me, I’m very grateful for that, for still being relevant ever since [we were] 19. “
The musician leaves behind his wife Tia Sinclair Bell and 10 children; as well as his brother Robert and three other brothers. The family will hold a private funeral and have asked fans to donate the Boys and Girls Club of America to the children’s charity.