The pairing of Van Halen with Kool and the Gang would have been unthinkable, laughable and potentially hazardous back in the late '70s, when Van Halen was runnin' with the devil and Kool and the Gang was grooving at ladies night.
But in the digital era where both acts easily can turn up on shuffle, the bill has a certain symmetry in mixing party bands from two different schools. Certainly, there's a little "Jungle Boogie" and Hollywood swinger in David Lee Roth. He made the gesture on this tour, and the '70s funk band was more than happy to accept an arena gig -- while taking some of the pressure off Van Halen to compete with another pop-metal band.
Kool and the Gang broke out in 1974 with "Jungle Boogie," but it dates back a decade earlier when brothers Robert "Kool" Bell (bass) and Ronald Bell (sax) formed the New Jersey-based jazz band that would evolve into the pop-funk Kool and the Gang in 1969. It would go on to score more than 20 Top 40 hits and sell more than 70 million albums worldwide.
The Gang is still led by the Bell brothers, with core members Dennis Thomas and George "Funky" Brown. Pittsburgh is familiar ground for the 61-year-old "Kool" Bell. He spent his early years, in the '50s, growing up in Youngstown, Ohio, and coming here for church at Sister Anne's Revival Center, which was on the North Side. "My grandmother would have us going on that bus every Sunday," he says.
How did you react to this Van Halen gig?
We were excited when we heard about it. We were surprised too, because Van Halen being hard rock and we're funk pop. But then as I was speaking to David, he told me he saw us performing at the Glastonbury Festival. We had about 60,000 people, and we rocked them. I guess when he got together with Eddie and Alex, he said, "I want Kool and the Gang to be our support." They said, "Why Kool and the Gang?" He said, "Hey, man, I saw these guys get down in London." He said, "We were the rock party band of the '80s and you were the pop-funk band of the '80s. Hey, Kool, let's go out and have a party."
Were you into Van Halen at all?
Well, everyone knew the song "Jump" and the blistering solo that Eddie did on "Beat It."
You're 10 shows in, so it must going well, or you would have been booted by now.
[Laughs] We've been holding our own. From "Hollywood Swinging" on, the crowd is into us. When we hit "Ladies Night," all the ladies in the audience are doin' their thing.
You guys had an interesting evolution, starting as a jazz band and moving to poppier funk. Is that just what was moving you?
We started as young guys around '64 and we loved jazz. We were listening to Freddie Hubbard, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, so we were learning their songs at a young age. Then we got involved in an organization called Soul Town. We became the backup band for the Soul Town Revue. That meant we would have to learn the latest hits going on, mostly Motown hits. We would have to back up about 15 groups per show. Our music was starting to change. When we were doing our own show we were doing instrumental versions of these songs, we were creating an R&B jazz sound. We became the Soul Town Band and then Kool and the Flames. At that time, there was James Brown and the Famous Flames, and we didn't want to have any problems with the Godfather, so we got rid of the Flames and said, "Why don't we call it Kool and the Gang?"
Were you surprised to come into this situation where you were a pop hit band?
Well, the pop hit thing didn't come till later, although our very first record, which was called "Kool and the Gang," was a Top 40 hit pop record, and some people thought we were a Spanish group, because it was all horns and congas and cowbells. As we made our way through the '70s we had records like "Hollywood Swinging" and "Jungle Boogie." Both of those were Top 5 records. Then came "Saturday Night Fever" with "Open Sesame," and that took us to another level. Then we decided to get a lead singer, named JT Taylor, who came up with the hits like "Ladies Night' and "Celebration," and that established us as a pop group of the '80s.
"Celebration" has taken on a life of its own. What was it originally written about?
My brother came up with the idea of "Celebration." We were at the American Music Awards and we had our first nomination. We won two out of the three for "Ladies Night." We were celebrating the fact that we were turning our career around. So my brother says, "I got this idea. I got this song called 'Celebration.' " We were like, "Yeah, OK, how does it go?" And he started playing the keyboards for us. We said why don't we put some lyrics to this and call this "Celebration." We were celebrating ourselves.
Did you feel like you had a hit there?
We felt good about the song, but we didn't really know. We were just starting a new style with a lead singer. We didn't know the record would be as big as it became. It always had that, I called it "that down-home groove," I call it the "rocking chair groove." We put the little "yahoo" in there, gave it a country vibe and the twangy electric guitar.
The royalties must be amazing from that.
You gotta remember back in the day a lot of these deals were made with the record companies, and the publishers got their share. But put it this way, the record made a lot of money for a lot of people.
Was Kool and the Gang targeted in disco backlash?
That was when we made our change. When they started saying "Disco Sucks," we had that song out "Open Sesame." It had that four on the floor, but we didn't want it to sound like a straight-up disco record. So we had the horns doing some intricate lines. During that time, that was the time we decided to get a lead singer. As that was going on, we came up with "Ladies Night" and we slipped through, because although disco was being bashed, for some reason, "Ladies Night" and our style was more on the funk/pop side. We slipped right through into the '80s and went on with "Too Hot," "Cherish," "Fresh," "Get Down on It," on and on.
And then in the '90s it became hard to keep the band on top.
Yeah, because JT left and we decided to go abroad. We just started pushing throughout Europe. We started to establish ourselves as a touring band because the people knew the hits. We went on to Australia and the Far East and expanded across the world. People over here were saying, "Are you guys still working?"
When hip-hop came along and you were sampled heavily in rap songs, were you honored by it, did you embrace that?
We embraced that, because it brought the younger people closer to what we're doing. In the beginning, they were sampling, but the artist was not getting the recognition and they weren't being paid for it. When they passed the law in Washington that all samples had to be cleared, things started to shape up. Take a guy like Will Smith, who took "Summer Madness" and came up with "Summertime." That was a big record for him, but it also gave us exposure.
Funk is popular now, but so much is done with computers. What do you think of that sound?
Some of it's OK. A trained ear can hear whether it's a keyboard bass or bass guitar. It all depends how it's being used. Some producers will tie in an electric bass and put an electronic bass under it. When it comes to a live performance, if you're old school, bands don't want to see a keyboard playing bass, they want to see a bass player. It ain't about no keyboards.
Do you guys have any new material you're working on?
We got a couple things we're working on. My brother and I are working on a project called "Just Kool." We're talking to Bootsy Collins and Nile Rodgers and Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire. And other people like Charlie Wilson. We might see if Eddie and those guys want to do that.
There's one other thing we're doing. There's a gentleman named Ben Elton, who did the musical "We Will Rock You." He's into doing something with us. He's putting together a couple story lines he's presenting to us, and we might be doing something in the next year. Our music, the story of Kool and the Gang, he really is feeling that.