Pop Quiz: Who is the longest recording R&B group, has achieved over 30 Gold and Platinum albums, earned seven American Music Awards, has had nine Top Ten Pop Hits, awarded two Grammys, sold 70 million albums worldwide and “just keeping the funk alive”? The answer is none other than the legendary Kool & the Gang. I was ecstatic to have a chat with the jazz and funk icon Robert “Kool” Bell, the leader of the gang... obviously.
Highlights from the interview:
Louisville.Com: Kool & The Gang has been around since 1964. What makes your band remain so successful throughout the years?
Robert “Kool” Bell: Well we’ve been blessed to go through four decades. It all started with Jazz, R&B, and then the 70’s R&B funk thing..80s. I think that it’s a combination of some of the songs that we have written over the years like “Hollywood Swingin’”, “Summer Madness”, the Rocky movie, “Ladies Night”, “Joanna”, “Fresh”..the titles we use are very simple and right to the point like “Celebration”, “Cherish”, “Too Hot”..people cherish things in their lives..“Too Hot”..at 17 you meet your high school sweetheart and things don’t work out..things like that just happen in life.
LC: What is like being a huge influence in the music world?
Kool: It’s great. We started very young thirteen-fourteen years old and the music business is not the easiest business and we’ve had our ups and downs..but were still around. People are into what we do and we are getting their love and their respect. It’s a great feeling to stay in this business for so many years. We still have four original members..we started with eight..but we’re still hanging in there.
LC: How do you feel about the current evolution or status of the music industry?
Kool: The music industry is changing..due to the internet and downloading. We have a lot of material that we’ve recored in the last three-four years that we want to put out..we’ve actually put it out..but the industry has a hard time accepting something new and they usually want you to stay the same as the past. But on the touring side..we are touring around the world..we did 48 shows with Van Halen..we’re doing 15 shows with Kid Rock..last night we played in Detroit for over 48,000 people..we’re going to be playing with the Dave Mathews Band..we’re just keeping the funk alive.
LC: What is like touring with Van Halen and Kid Rock?
Kool: It was great! What happened was David Lee Roth (lead singer of Van Halen) saw us at the Glastonbury Festival (10 day music festival in England, June 2011). Coldplay was there, Paul Simon, Bono, U2, and we closed it out. And the last night we played with Paul Simon and Beyonce was on another stage. When he (Roth) saw us playing, he went back stage, and Alex, he said to Eddie (lead guitarist of Van Halen), ‘Hey man, I want to support a reunion tour with them” and Eddie said ‘who?’ and Roth said ‘Kool & the Gang’..we (Kool & the Gang) started scratching our heads and we said ‘sure’, and he said “yea man we saw you rocking out in London at the Glastonbury Festival’..In the 70s we used to play “Hollywood Swingin’” and “Jungle Boogie” in the clubs..and then we were the Rock party band of the 80s and you guys were the Pop Funk party band of the 80s. and 60 percent of our audience are ladies and you guys wrote the song “Ladies Night”..let’s go have a party’. And then we toured 48 cities.
LC: What is it like touring the world?
Kool: Well we’ve been doing it for so many years. It’s great. The music just gets stronger..social media shares more about you..internet and Youtube. Matter of fact we’ve been out of the country for a few years except for Detroit. When we did the Van Halen tour, last year was the first year in awhile we toured America. Now when we were in America we were doing casinos, parks, and festivals..Van Halen was the first tour we did in awhile and now were are doing Kid Rock. In Europe we were doing the jazz festivals we playing with people like Meatloaf, Dire Straits, Blood, Sweat & Tears..we were touring all through Africa, Australia, Bangkok, and Singapore.
LC: Growing up who were your heroes in the music industry? Who influenced your music?
Kool: We starting playing Jazz at an early age so we looked up to people like John Coal Train. On the R&B side there are a lot of Motown artists we were listening to.. and we became the Soultown Band. Now the Soultown Review was competing with the Motown Review. So then all of the Motown artists were groups like Diana Ross & Supremes, Stevie Wonder, and James Brown.
LC: Your music has been described as Jazz, R&B, and Funk. How would you describe your music?
Kool: I would us the word ‘Contemporary,’ because we have Jazz, R&B, Funk..we have recorded songs like “Tonight” and “Emergency” which have a slight Rock edge to them and that’s what we open up the shows with. Immediately people are like ‘I didn’t know that Kool & the Gang rocked it out.”
LC: Is there any bands that you’ve recently liked listening to?
Kool: I like Bono, Chicago, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder.
LC: Does Kool & the Gang plan on recording more songs or albums in the future?
Kool: Oh yea! We are working on our new holiday album right now..a Christmas holiday record. We are also finishing up a hectic summer schedule and it’s going to be out in November. Then next year we are doing a Kool & the Gang and friends 50 year celebration album. We are talking to the lead singer of Chicago, Charlie Wilson, Van Halen, R. Kelly...
LC: What should we be expecting for the Fourth of July show at the Waterfront?
Kool: A Celebration! High energy! Last Fourth of July we played at the White House and it was interesting. We played with the Washington Symphony Orchestra. It was fantastic and a great gig. But this year we’ll be hanging out in Louisville, playing on the waterfront. If it get’s too hot for you just jump in the water!
Kool & The Gang will be performing July 4th on the Waterfront at 8:30pm. But you can go early to catch Brett Dennen and JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound. Then stay after the shows to see the fireworks! It’s going to very Kool!