In 1964, a group of Jersey City school kids started a band – never imagining that they would go on to influence the music of three generations with their own trademark blend of soul, funk, jazz, rock and pop.
After testing a few different names, Kool & the Gang was agreed upon in 1969, and they released their self-titled debut LP. Over the next five decades, Kool & The Gang went on to earn two Grammy Awards, seven American Music Awards, 25 Top Ten R&B hits, nine Top Ten Pop hits, 31 gold and platinum albums, and more for their iconic songs like “Celebration,” “Cherish,” “Ladies’ Night,” and “Jungle Boogie.”
Now, they have a new album out titled “Perfect Union,” and Kool and his son Hakim are deeply involved with their nonprofit music initiative, The Kool Kids Foundation. Founded by the late Sakinah Bell (Kool’s wife and Hakim’s mother), the organization is dedicated to supporting music education in city schools. We recently visited Kool and Hakim at the Bell residence in Essex County to learn more about their life and work.
How old were you when you moved to Jersey City? What was it like for you?
Robert Kool Bell: It was the 1960s, and I was about 10 years old when I came from Youngstown, OH. I was a country boy coming to the big city. I was suddenly in areas like Newark and Jersey City and seeing the Statue of Liberty and the George Washington Bridge for the first time.
Are there any standout memories from that time about your childhood years in Jersey City?
RKB: My mother, her sister, and our family all moved together, along with my father, who was boxing featherweight. We went to PS22 in downtown Jersey City, and I graduated from Lincoln High. My memories are of getting used to Jersey City, meeting the guys, and meeting my wife as a teenager.
We were in grammar school when we met the guys that would become our band. Jazziacs was the first name of our band. We went through a few names and eventually in 1967 we were Kool and the Flames. But James Brown had the “Famous Flames” and we didn't want to have any problem with The Godfather! We said why don't we just change the name, and that's how it started in 1969.
I've seen the street sign in Jersey City dedicated to Kool and the Gang, on Maple Street and Pacific Avenue. Is that where your childhood home was?
RKB: That was actually the location of the second or third home that we lived in. We were in Jersey City for a long time - at least 10-20 years – and lived in a few different residences before moving to Essex County. I have two boys, Mohammed and Hakim, both born in Jersey City.
Tell me about your vision for the Kool Kids Foundation.
RKB: My wife came up with the idea of the Kool Kids Foundation. She passed about four years ago, so we continue the work in her honor. My son Hakim is president, my son Muhammad is vice president, I'm the CEO, and everyone else on our team contributes to Kool Kids Foundation.
Hakim Bell: The Kool Kids Foundation is the vision of our parents. I'm diving in, taking on the role of president since my mom is not with us anymore. We are working to raise money for city school music departments and raising money for music programs in school systems in inner city areas.
Arts programs are the first to suffer when budgets and staff are cut. It’s important for us to give back and help our community as a musical family. Our next step is to get ready for our third annual celebrity golf tournament in June 2022. We are developing different ways and events to fundraise as well. And, we are working to develop our board and operations as a nonprofit organization.
Did your own early musical influences come from school programs?
RKB: Let me go back a little bit to before Jersey City - back to Youngstown, OH, with my brother, who we also lost a year ago. As kids, we used to take cans of house paint and empty the paint to use the cans like drums. Depending how much paint was left in the bottom of the can determined the sound. So, we were first inspired by these homemade, steel drum/bongo paint cans.
Then, Jersey City was great because of access to music in the schools. I was able to get more involved in music classes. First, I played the violin and didn't like it. Next, I tried the cello – didn’t like it. I tried the mellophone, and I didn’t like that either. So, tried different instruments until eventually I ended up on the bass guitar.
Had music education not been there, I would not have had the opportunity to do something in music and that's what Kool Kids is all about.
Your new album “Perfect Union” just came out in August 2021, your 25th studio release. Tell me about that album.
RKB: This is our first album of all new material in over 10 years. We had been working on it for a couple of years prior. The new album started with my brother, who we lost about a year ago. We dedicate this album to my brother. We also recently lost Dennis Thomas, saxophonist and another founding Kool & the Gang member, and we have him on this album. This project is about pushing for world peace and people coming together.
That’s a beautiful tribute and a legacy. Do you have a favorite song on “Perfect Union?”
RKB: They’re all my favorites. But, I do like “Pursuit of Happiness,” because of the message. For me, the actual pursuit of happiness is a movement. My brother was the main writer of “Celebration,” which they played during Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. When President Biden was nominated, they played “Celebration” again. In his nomination speech, Biden made reference to the “pursuit of happiness,” and “perfect union” lines in the Constitution – so that felt like a flow. That was a very inspiring moment for me, and my brother came up with these perfect titles and a concept for our upcoming record.
I also like my son Hakim’s song with Walter Anderson and others, which is called “R.O.Y.A.L.T.Y.” He wrote it about his mother - my wife. Their mother was royalty, but also, he and his co-writer are speaking about how all women are royalty. So our wives have to be respected, 'cause they are royalty. They are the ones that brought us up. That's where growth is coming from.
We do have other fun songs on there, like “Leave it on the Dance Floor” and “The Weekend.”
My favorite song is “Hold On.”
RKB: “Hold On” is like a follow up to “Pursuit.” We are saying, “Hold on! Just hold on, don't you give up now.” 'Cause we've been going through the pandemic and suffering right now. So, we are saying hold on, and the pursuit too – you must go after your happiness and seek out what you want to do in life. I think it’s through that pursuit of happiness that we will finally see people to start to come together.
I know a lot of people say that we have to come together, but for me, the perfect union would be if the republicans and democrats can finally come together. Now, that would be the perfect union. That would be the pursuit of happiness. I know we are way away from that now, but like we said in the song “Hold On,” you can't give up hope!
How have you been affected by the pandemic?
RKB: Because of the pandemic, we didn't travel very much for over a year and a half. We did a couple of shows this year – about five. We played at the Hollywood Bowl California with the Hollywood Philharmonic and that was fun. We are starting to travel now a little bit, but now with Omicron we don't know what's gonna happen. We have shows for next year that were pushed back this year into next year. In the meantime, I have another home in Orlando and my cousin and I have been working on social media, podcasting, Zooming - so that’s how we have kept busy.
I read that you used to average about 100 shows per year, until the pandemic. Is that true?
RKB: Yes, we would tour quite a bit around the world – through Africa, all through Europe and Australia. We even worked in Russia, in Moscow and St. Petersburg. In Kenya, we did a concert for AIDS awareness and that was the biggest show we ever played. Look at that crowd - half a million people! That huge billboard! This was about 15 years ago, and the largest crowd we ever played.
Have you a favorite place in the world to play?
RKB: I love working on the Mediterranean, like Saint-Tropez, Nice, the French Riviera.
Besides being one of the longest touring bands, Kool & the Gang is known to be the most sampled. What is that like?
RKB: Well, it’s a blessing to be one of the most sampled bands. We had to put somebody on “sample patrol” to manage all of that. In the ‘70s, our music was a little raw, and we didn't really have any lead singer until the ‘80s with JT Taylor, so a lot of the groups in the hip-hop world like to grab our guitar and keyboard parts since we weren’t singing. There were a couple of surprises, musically. Will Smith’s “Summertime” became a big record for him, number one. He won a Grammy, and he went on to become a big movie star. Also, Diddy and Tribe Called Quest. Madonna sampled a piece of one of our songs, and Janet Jackson. The list goes on and on.
What’s coming up that you're excited or hopeful about?
RKB: I hope to get back out there again and play some of those shows that we missed this year. We have a few gigs lines up, including February 19 in Atlantic City.
We are working on a project here and in Zimbabwe called “Celebrate Life” to honor Mohamed Ali. I'm also partnering with Dusty Baker (who almost won the World Series in Atlanta), doing solar energy projects in Africa. We are working to bring solar energy for concerts of 20,000 people – we want the concert fields to be powered by solar energy and not those gas smelling generators.
Anything else you’d like to mention that I didn’t ask about?
RKB: When I am not doing shows, I'm promoting Le Kool Champagne. It comes from champagne partnership with the France-based House of Berthelot – makers of fine champagne. I also have the new Just Kool cologne.