Two distinctly different types of music fans — the heavy metal crowd and the R&B gang — were each left scratching their heads in 2012 when rock ‘n’ rollers Van Halen announced they’d be touring to celebrate their 40th anniversary as musical rock gods.
It wasn’t the tour announcement that had people perplexed. It was their choice of the long-running R&B act Kool & the Gang to be their opening act for nearly 50 concerts that left fans baffled.
An R&B group opening for a heavy metal band? In some circles, it would be considered musical blasphemy.
But to Ronald Bell and his brother Robert “Kool” Bell, who formed their first band in the early 1960s, the chance to open for Van Halen was a very, well, cool booking.
Ronald says his brother didn’t blink an eye or spend more than a couple of seconds thinking about the unusual offer.
“‘Kool’ said yes immediately, absolutely no hesitation at all,” Ronald says. “They approached us and asked if we’d go out with them, and some people thought we were crazy. But we said yes because we felt it was the right thing to do.”
Kool & the Gang, winners of two Grammy Awards — one more than Van Halen — and with a string of memorable Top 20 hits to their credit, checked their egos at the door. They climbed aboard Van Halen’s private jet and brought every audience to its feet when they plowed through hits like “Celebration,” “Cherish,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Summer Madness” and “Open Sesame.”
If Van Halen was looking for a tough act to follow, they certainly had their hands full.
But there was a method to the perceived madness of a group like KATG — headliners in their own rights — taking second billing to Van Halen.
“We feel we not only added something to the Van Halen show, but we also introduced ourselves to a new audience that may have never heard of Kool & the Gang,” Bell explains.
Kool & the Gang, who rarely fails to bring an audience to its feet to dance and sing in the aisles to their popular hits, returns to Atlantic City — a favorite tour stop — when they perform at 8 p.m. Friday, March 15, at Sound Waves at Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City.
Had the Bell brothers followed in the footsteps of their father Bobby and uncle Tommy Bell, the world would have likely been deprived of the infectious sounds of Kool & the Gang.
That’s because the elder Bells were professional boxers who moved their families from Ohio to New York to train for their fights. As luck or fate would have it, the Bell family found themselves living in the same apartment building as jazz pianist and composer Thelonious Monk.
The late jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis, who was Monk’s roommate and who initially aspired to a boxing career, often visited with the Bell family.
Music called out to Ronald and Robert Bell. Together with five of their high school friends, they formed an instrumental jazz and soul group called the Jazziacs and began playing as the opening act at a weekly jazz night in a local theater.
They went through several name changes, first covering Motown hits and later playing as backing musicians for Soul Town, a Jersey-based music company like Motown, only much smaller.
In 1967, the Bell brothers finally decided they needed their own identity. They picked up a steady gig at a lounge and eventually settled on the name “Kool & the Gang.”
The group began recording in 1969, but struggled on the charts until late 1973. That’s when they scored a No. 4 hit with “Jungle Boogie” and followed it up with “Hollywood Swinging,” which reached No. 6.
But the biggest change was yet to come. In 1979, after deciding they needed more strength to their vocals, they added James “J.T.” Taylor as lead singer.
Not long after Taylor joined, KATG released the album “Celebrate” and spun off the single “Celebration,” which not only became their signature song, but has also become an anthem for fun moments over the past four decades.
It’s hard to attend any kind of special event — wedding, bar or bat mitzvah, graduation party, a sporting contest, even a funeral — and not hear that song.
Taylor stuck around until the mid-1980s, but by then, Kool & the Gang had been solidly established as one of the most popular bands of that era.
At 67, Ronald Bell, admits it’s been a “kool” ride. But a musical career wasn’t his first choice.
“I was into music,” he says, “but what I was really interested in doing as a kid was becoming some kind of engineer.”
Bell has not only written many of the group’s biggest hits, but he’s fulfilled his childhood dream by engineering their recording sessions.
He eventually built a recording studio in his home and has either mixed or co-mixed virtually every song KATG has recorded.
“Not many people can say they’ve experienced the best of both worlds,” he says. “I always wanted to be an engineer, and I’ve always wanted to make music and entertain people. So that’s what I did.”