Rocking for decades: Kool and The Gang have been together as a group for more than half a century. The Celebration, Get Down On It and Fresh singers will be in Kampala and Isaac Ssejjombwe grabbed a chance to ask the group about their music and what keeps them going.
How would you describe Kool & The Gang’s music?
Kool & The Gang music is a mixture of jazz, funk, RnB & pop. We started back in 1964 playing jazz, and at the time we called ourselves the Jazziacs, then the name changed to Soultown Band. We were the backing band for vocal talent in Jersey City and we were trying to be like Motown. We backed up between four and six groups per show, and then our music started to change from jazz to RnB.
As we listened to people like James Brown & other artistes, we got funkier. That is how we became Kool & the Flames. But because at the time we had James Brown & the famous Flames, we did not want to have a problem with the Godfather so we changed Flames to Gang, hence Kool & The Gang. Our very first record came out in 1969 called Kool And The Gang. So Kool & The Gang style had developed at that time; a mixture of jazz, funk, pop & RnB.
Can you give us a little background about how the group came together?
Robert Bell: My brother Ronald and I were born in Youngstown, Ohio & we moved to New Jersey in 1960, where we met the other original members in 1964. And that is when we started the Jazziacs. The other members were George Brown, Dennis Thomas, Ricky West, Charles Smith, Woody Sparrow. Those are some of the original members.
You guys have sold albums, won Grammy Awards and American Music Awards. You have done so much in this music industry so far, what more are you looking for?
We are working on our book, story of our lives, the working title is Hollywood Swinging: The Kool & The Gang Story. And hopefully, from the book there will be a movie, possibly with the same title. And then the last thing we want to do is a musical in Vegas, called “It’s A Celebration”.
From all of your hits over the years, you have so many of them, which one song is most memorable & why?
I’d like to say Ladies’ Night, because Ladies’ Night came about when my wife & I were hanging out in New York, we had just signed James JT Taylor, who became the lead singer for the band. And I noticed that every Friday night, Saturday nights, and on the weekends, it was Ladies’ Night. So I went back to the guys and told them I had a title for a song. They said, “What?” I said, “Ladies’ Night!” And they said, “You know what? Wow, they got Ladies’ Night all over the world!” And when we did our first single with our first lead singer, because in the 70s & the 60s, Kool & The Gang did not have a lead singer, James J.T Taylor was the first lead singer we had, and we recorded Ladies’ Night. There are so many others like Hollywood Swinging, Fresh, Get Down On it, Fresh and Celebration. But it must be Ladies’ Night.
You guys are the most sampled band of all time. How do you feel when you hear younger musicians using samples of Kool & The Gang songs?
We feel very good. I think back in the 70s, a lot of our music was more musical, and had that spunk edge to it. We got a lot of love from the young Hip Hop artistes, who came about in the 80s and when they listened to what we did, they would say: “Oh, I like that drum part. Oh I like that guitar part…” We kept it raw because we did not have any lead singers at the time. So all of our music from the 70s, was sampled a lot. And then of course, there has been samples of our music from the 80s, samples of Get Down On It, you had Will Smith sample Summer Madness, P.Diddy sampled Hollywood Swinging with Ma$e, it goes on & on, Madonna, Janet Jackson, too many to name…
The group has been together almost 50 years now, what is the secret behind the bond?
It is one happy family. Our parents told us many years ago, that, whatever we do, we should stick together as Kool & The Gang, & we still have four of the original members. We started with eight, we lost four over the years. (Robert Bell, Ronald Bell, George Brown & Dennis Thomas are remaining four). And our fans right from our first record in 1969 to the 70s up to today, still support us. We were in Kenya 10 years ago for our Aids Awareness project called No Glove, No Love. More than half a million people turned up and we staged a show right in front of the Ministry Of Health, so we have a strong fanbase in Kenya. I (Robert) have been in Uganda but I have never played there. I have been to the Ministry of Health.
Was there any competition within the group back in the day?
If there was any competition, it was good competition. We collaborated & worked together. My brother might come up with an idea for a song, George Brown would come up with ideas, or any of us and we would work together. It was good competition among us, and we think it helped us write so many records.
You guys have seen it all. What is so different about the music industry over the past four decades and what is the biggest change you can see in the industry?
Robert: The music industry has changed a lot, and now it is almost the same again; you have social media, this whole electronic dance music movement, a lot of the songs are done with computers, not like it was in the old days when you went into the studio straight up. So you had to rehearse a song before going to the studio, because once you started playing, you could not stop. If you stopped, then you would have to start all over again. These days it is like, “Oh, we’ll fix that”. So the music business has changed a lot, record companies back in the day had albums out in vinyl, with lots of pictures and information, stuff to read. Now it is all downloads, streaming. But music has changed. It used to be CDs, you could get tapes, eight-track tapes. I guess you call that modern technology. Thank God that we can still tour. You cannot change that. We are the real deal.
What advice would you give young people who are trying to get into the music industry?
I would say work hard at what you do, be sincere about what you are doing, try to capture an original style, which is hard to do today because of how the music is… they want the next record to sound the same, they want the next group to sound the same, look the same.. so it is kind of hard to not give in. Back in the 70s, we all had our own styles and sounds. Now everybody is trying to sound the same. I call it fast food music, everybody is trying to make music so fast and put it out, just like Burger King & McDonalds. Do not get me wrong, just like these young kids today, we were just like them back when we started. And I thank God for the music, we are still going, even with all the sampling and streaming. It is still a thriving business.
What should Ugandans expect at the Kool & The Gang concert?
High energy, High energy! When we come, we come to play, we do a mixture of hits from the 70s, 80s and 90s; a lot of records, but we try to keep it going on stage & we love to get it on for our audience! All around the world, we get positive feedback when we play. It creates a good family vibe when we play around the world. We have to give it to the fans, we love our fans & we thank you all for supporting Kool & The Gang for so many years.
Started singing: 1964
First group name: Jaziacs, Soultown Band, Kool & The Flames.
First Song: Wild and Peaceful
Remaining members: Robert Bell, Ronald Bell, George Brown & Dennis Thomas.