With more than 70 million records sold, the men of Kool and the Gang stand as some of the most commercially successful funksters of all time. Born in Jersey City, N.J., the band was essentially just a group of friends with a jones for Miles Davis and James Brown. But they hit the big time in 1973 with their dance-party anthems and have never looked back.
Van Halen's David Lee Roth saw the Jersey boogie kings at the Glastonbury Pop Festival and approached them about opening the current Van Halen tour. What at first seemed like an odd pairing turns out to be two of the all-time party bands on the same bill. Winning.
Robert "Kool" Bell has been the throbbing bass funk-motor at the center of the Gang's down-and-dirty hits like "Hollywood Swinging" and "Jungle Boogie" since the band initially formed as the Jazziacs in 1964. Rocks Off caught up with him at sound check in San Antonio.
Rocks Off: Not many bands last 40 years, much less stay popular. To what do you attribute that?
Kool: We've always been conscious of building a fanbase and keeping that momentum rolling. And we stay out there. People can find us.
RO: What's been the hardest thing about keeping an organization this size together so long?
Kool: Family. My brother is in the band, and most of the guys who are in the band or have been in the band were close. My parents always instilled in us that family is the most important thing, that if you're a family, you take care of each other.
That's what it's been like. When we've had disagreements, we've always been able to be respectful of one an another, and to be concerned that everyone is happy with what we're doing. That's the secret for us, I'd say.
RO: You've been quoted as saying you guys came up with "Hollywood Swinging," "Jungle Boogie," and "Funky Stuff" in one long studio jam session. What was the situation that caused that creative outburst?
Kool: Our label was riding us about not having a hit. They had this producer they wanted us to work with to come up with something that sounded like some other things that were hot then. And we did one session with the guy, but we all agreed we weren't feeling it.
So we rented a studio in East Village for a day. We started about 8 a.m. and we just jammed all day. And by the time we finished that night, we had those songs. And we took them over to the label and they dug the songs and then the record came out and did well, so they never bugged us again.
RO: Did you know immediately that you had something special coming out of that session?
Kool: I don't know that we knew they would be hits, but we liked what came out of the session. We felt real good about it.
RO: Have you gotten to watch Van Halen on this tour?
Kool: Oh, yeah. We do 50 minutes, and then I usually hang around and watch the first half of the show.
RO: How is Van Halen doing?
Kool: Eddie is playing his tail off. The other guys are killing it. It's just a real exciting show.
RO: How much are you guys willing to work these days?
Kool: We're still doing about 100 dates a year.
RO: How many gigs do you think you've played?
Kool: Five thousand.
RO: With so many gigs under your belt, are they just a blur or are there solid memories of certain gigs?
Kool: You can't remember them all, but I've got great memories. We played a gig in London with Elton John that really stands out. We played in front of half a million people in Kenya at an AIDS awareness show, that was special.
We did a gig in Algeria where tanks and Hummers were the security for the motorcade that got us to the concert site. You remember those things.
RO: Tanks and Hummers, that must've felt a little weird.
Kool: It did, but the gig was great. It was just the getting there and back that was unusual.
RO: With so many gigs behind you, do you ever feel like musically speaking you're just your own cover band?
Kool: We know what we have to do every night, what the audience is there for. But we also have enough space to stretch out and keep it fresh. And we really do love playing the songs and getting the energy back from people.
RO: Around 1976 you guys shifted gears slightly to a more pop sound. What was behind that artistic tweak?
Kool: We were touring with Jackson 5 and Michael was coming into his own. The Commodores and Lionel Richie were big, Earth, Wind and Fire. So we decided it was time to hire a vocalist. That was the big change.
RO: You guys have always been flamboyant in your outfits and your stage show. Who's behind your fashion choices?
Kool: D.T. [Dennis Thomas] comes up with a lot of our outfits. My wife is a designer, so she is responsible for most of what I wear onstage.
RO: Any last thoughts you want Houston to know before you get into town?
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Kool: You tell Houston that Van Halen and Kool and the Gang are comin' to party, and Houston better be ready to jump.
With Van Halen, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, June 24, at Toyota Center, 1510 Polk, www.toyotacentertix.com