Kool & the Gang: Our Life in 15 Songs
In 1964, teenage brothers Robert “Kool” Bell and Khalis Bayyan (born Ronald Bell), unable to afford drums, would collect old paint cans in their Youngstown, Ohio neighborhood and use them as makeshift percussion instruments. It was a crude way to learn music — the brothers would figure out different tones depending on how much paint was in each can — but it launched a musical career that has lasted more than 50 years.
Related: Kool & the Gang Co-Founder Ronald ‘Khalis’ Bell Dead at 68
After moving to Jersey City, New Jersey, the duo set up shop in front of the subway in New York’s Greenwich Village, adding cheap drums to their paint-can ensemble. “We’d make about five dollars in three weeks,” Khalis says, laughing.
The Bell brothers went on to form the Jazziacs with high school friends, eventually transforming into Kool & the Flames and, finally, Kool & the Gang. The revered funk-pop group has sold more than 70 million albums worldwide and spent the past year celebrating half a century together.
At this point, it’s easy to take Kool & the Gang’s catalog for granted. Perpetual life-event earworms like “Ladies Night,” “Jungle Boogie” and “Celebration” are so ubiquitous, they’ve become embedded into our national consciousness. Over the course of 23 albums, starting with 1969’s Kool and the Gang through the 2013 Christmas album Kool for the Holidays, the band has morphed from jazz unit to leading funk ensemble to smooth pop-soul group with the addition of vocalist James “J.T.” Taylor in 1979.
After opening for Van Halen and Kid Rock in recent years, the group continues to tour on its own and will be inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame and New Jersey Hall of Fame this October. We sat down with the Bell brothers to discuss the stories behind their most iconic tracks.
“Sea of Tranquility”
Kool & the Gang (1969)
Kool: For the first album we recorded, the producer at the time was Gene Redd Jr. and he’s the one that brought the title "Sea of Tranquility" because the moon walk was happening at the time and we were focused on the moon. That was a very sophisticated experience for us. We were jazz musicians and that song's a little different and a departure for us. We usually played straight ahead and this was much more creative. And it was also our first album recording, so this one was memorable.
“Kool & the Gang”
Kool & the Gang (1969)
Kool: [Kool & the Gang co-founder] Charles [Smith] would come in and start playing something unorthodox on his guitar because Charles used to play guitar all the time. He started playing something that sounded like two guitar players where your fingers would get stuck in the string by playing it, in between, so it sounded like two guitars and then Kool would just jump on the bass. Gene gave us a commercial curve on it because we tend to play very raw.
When that record first came out, they thought it was a Puerto Rican band. Yeah! When we first heard it on the radio, we said, "Ah, that's us!" But because of the horns and bongos, people didn't know.
Khalis: We used to play a lot of percussion in the streets in the Sixties, go to the park and start beating on drums and stuff in the street.
Kool: Especially on Sundays. Everybody's in the park playing bongos, drinking Budweiser or some type of booze.
Khalis: We were very street percussive, so we blended that element with listening to jazz. You could hear the jazz element. You could hear the Motown element. I don't know if people were sharp enough to hear that little turnaround on this one where it sounds like the Supremes. Don't know if ya caught that, but it does!
“Let the Music Take Your Mind”
Kool & the Gang (1969)
Khalis: We were on a show called Soul — back before Soul Train — and we were talking about how we had to make another record after "Kool & the Gang." So we did "Let the Music Take Your Mind." Charles would play something, I would play something and that's all head charts. Then we started singing over the top, "Let the music take your mind."
Kool: We were influenced by Sly [Stone] and James Brown. We weren't trying to sing. We had no singers! [Laughs]
Khalis: You had a hard time trying to get us to play R&B. We were diehard jazz musicians. We're not stooping to that. We didn't really try to do that until now.
“Who’s Gonna Take the Weight”
Live at the Sex Machine (1971)
Khalis: [Laughs] You wanna tell it?
Kool: You start.
Khalis: OK, we'll tell it together. We were rehearsing in this daycare center and and somebody came in and planted some. . .paraphernalia in a couch. We didn't know that. We got set up, in other words. So this police officer comes in.
Kool: Like Starsky and Hutch, there's this officer and his partner.
Khalis: So we're rehearsing 'cause we had a show that night in Hackensack. They come in, stick their hands in the couch and say, "Heyyyy! What's this?" [Both laugh]. "What's going on?!" And he says, "OK, which one of you guys are gonna take the weight for this?" It wasn't no coke. It was doogie.
Kool: That's what they used to call heroin on the street back then: doogie.
Khalis: Anyway, all three of us had to go to jail for a night, and in the jail we all said, "Well, OK, we missed a show behind this, so we wrote a song about it, wanna hear it? Here ya go."
Kool: They threw the case out.
Khalis: We got set up! Luckily, it was just the one time that happened. The intro to "Who's Gonna Take the Weight" is [saxophonist] Dennis [Thomas]. At the time, we were all searching for spirituality and stuff like that, so D.T. is the one who came up with that announcement on the song.
“Love the Life You Live”
Music Is the Message (1972)
Khalis: We were still searching for something in that album. That was our maiden voyage album; the first we produced ourselves without [producer] Gene [Redd Jr.]. So we went in and embarked on that and we were writing songs and experimenting with sympathizers. If you listen to "Electric Frog," you can hear that and you could hear the influence of "Soul Vibration" from James Brown. "Love the Life You Live" is infusions.
You had groups like Chicago and Blood, Sweat, and Tears. You had that synergy going in the air. We were listening to that and trying to find our own way through this 'cause it's our first self-produced album and we came up with "Love the Life You Live," so you could live the life you loved. Just try to get along; let's everyone forgive. [Laughs]
Kool: I have to say to my brother here: It's the type of horn lines that you used to come up with [imitates horn sounds] and people said, "Damn! What are they playing? Who is that group?" It was a big horn sound, but the little things that you used to put into the music was like, "Wow, what are they about?"
Khalis: I wanted to learn how to play the guitar so I actually transposed that from a guitar. I told Charles and he played it, but the bass line was like Herbie Hancock's "Chameleon" [both start harmonizing the bass line in sync]. It just made it more melodic. He knows [the bass lines are similar]. Herbie smiled one day in the airport on the way to Japan and was like, "Hey Kool!" But all of music is just one.
“Music Is the Message”
Music Is the Message (1972)
Khalis: "Music Is the Message" was one of my compositions, but we all were searching, ya know?
Kool: Yeah, we were searching. Let the music take your mind. Music is the message. Universe of love, one and for all.
Khalis: There's a lot of things going on through the song. I'm a John Coltrane fanatic. All of A Love Supreme was infused in the culture and in the streets. That’s where "Music Is the Message" came up in my head because music is the message.
“Wild and Peaceful”
Wild and Peaceful (1973)
Khalis: That's another one of my compositions. I'm still loving jazz at this point. I think this one was inspired from Lee Morgan's [1966 hard bop album] Search for the New Land. I wanted that sound like an open terrain; like the Serengeti.
Kool: That album was a concept, 'cause one side was wild and the other side was peaceful.
Khalis: I can't say we were doing one side more than the other, but the success on that album was the wild side, so we walked on the wide side!
Wild and Peaceful (1973)
Khalis: Charles came in again and started playing that [imitates song]. I said, "Ahhh!" Dun-dun-dun then the bass line, danky-danky-danky, we start singing "Hey, hey, hey/What ya got to say."
I started noticing hip-hop producers sampling it with Eric B. and Rakim. I thought it was very interesting. After Public Enemy, I was all in [with hip-hop]. The music was all new to me. I sat and listened to Fear of a Black Planet and was thrilled. I thought that was amazing. You can practically hear [drummer] George [Brown] playing that break beat. You can hear our music in the background. You know it was compound and compact, but you can hear Kool & the Gang music in all that hip-hop.
Kool: We did four tracks for the Last Poets for a movie that was supposed to be called Hustler's Convention. We didn't know too much about Last Poets and we didn't know how they was gonna put it all together. But they say that was the first hip-hop, and we was a part of that.
Khalis: And we rocked it out. When I heard Eric B. and Rakim's "Don't Sweat the Technique" [that sampled Kool and the Gang's "Give It Up"] I was like, "Wait a minute. That sounds like me playing." I wasn't angry, though. For me, it was more like, "Ah, that's interesting."
Kool: I was at the Apollo Theater for some type of award show and [Sean] Puffy [Combs] comes up to me and says, "Listen, I want to take one of your songs. I'm gonna make you a hit. I'm gonna make you a big record." I said, "Well, what you gonna do?" He said, "I want to sample that 'Hollywood Swinging' song [for Ma$e's 'Feel So Good']." We didn't know what he wanted to do until later when Ma$e's song came out.
Wild and Peaceful (1973)
Kool: The record company was saying, “Well, you guys ain’t had no big hits lately.” Manu Dibango’s “Soul Makossa” was a big record and our record company had a meeting with his producer and said, “We want you guys to work with this producer who produced ‘Soul Makossa’ and come up with something.”
Khalis: They wanted us to do a cover of “Soul Makossa” and we said, “Naw, naw. We’re not going to do that. We’ll come up with our own ‘Soul Makossa’.” And we did. I was studying the piano and all I see is pyramids on the piano, [starts imitating the sounds in the build of “Jungle Boogie”] and back down. I saw triangles on the piano. I see things in angles and shapes, so that thing on the piano is like a pyramid going up and down. [Sings] “Dun-dun-dun-dun-ahhhhhhhh Jungle Boooogie.”
It was originally called “Jungle Jam,” but that wouldn’t work. So I went home and thought about it. At first, it was like like, “Jungle Boogie/Boogie Woogie/Jungle Boogie/Boogie Woogie.” I said, “That’s not gonna work; let’s take that “Boogie Woogie” out. “Jungle Boogie/space space/Jungle Boogie/space space/Jungle Boogie/now get down, get down.”
After we recorded [the music], we felt we had something, but we didn’t know what it was missing. Our roadie, Don Boyce, said that he had had something for the track with us hollering like Tarzan on the end. We brought him in the studio, he sang vocals and that’s what came out. He sang on “Spirit of the Boogie” and “Open Sesame” after that.
We made the song up in the rehearsal, went in and recorded it that night. “Jungle Boogie” is one take. There’s no more to that. Three minutes and, “OK, enough of that. Let’s go to ‘Hollywood Swinging.'”
When I first saw Pulp Fiction and I saw it in the movie, I was like, “Wow. We’re still here. This stuff must be really good!”
Light of Worlds (1974)
Khalis: We thought we were done with all that commercialism, so we got out of the jungle.
Kool: And the ship came down and said, "Oh you guys wanna go to another level now, huh?" Light of worlds! All the planets and light that goes around Earth!
Khalis: The theme song is a spiritual song about the creator, and that's where we were at the time. There’s songs talking about other things, but that album was a spiritual album for us. And outta that album came "Summer Madness."
"Summer Madness" was actually a song called "You Don't Have to Change" written by a trumpet player Robert "Spike" Mickens and Elton Taylor. It was just three parts, and Spike had been talking about that he wanted to write a song called "Summer Madness," and he never did. So I took the song and separated it from "You Don’t Have to Change" at the piano part. I said, "Spike, listen. This is what I want to do: I wanna take that last part and just start it with the piano."
And then at that time, the Arp 2600 had just came out. I went in the studio and detuned it so it'd get five octaves. I'm in there by myself — it's 5 o'clock in the morning — so I turn on the portamento and it went [makes sound of sliding pitch]. I asked [engineer] Harvey [Goldberg], "What do you think?" He said, "That's amazing!" When I did that portamento, it was done! It was a wrap.
Kool: In the summer, because it's hot and humid, there is a little madness and people are all out in the street and things are happening, and summer can get crazy. I don't know if that's where Spike was coming from in terms of when he came up with the idea, but the summer does have a certain vibe to it.
Khalis: That wasn't something that was composed as a song. It became that because that name was so hip. "Man, summer madness, let's call it that."
Open Sesame (1976)
Khalis: I was experimenting with Eastern philosophy and Eastern music and "Open Sesame" was just an experiment. I remember bringing a rhythm track in and playing that Middle Eastern scale on the front. Once that was done, I said, "OK, what are we gonna do with this?" So I actually said a prayer and tapped into an Armenian group that was in the studio the day before [Laughs]. I wasn't with them, but it was just still in the room, I guess.
We're going into space now! Staring into space! The spirit must've been in that room, cause I didn't know what to do with that song. And so I sat down there and I said, "I don't know what to play on top of this" and the whole thing was 12 hours of head charts. And I did not go into the control room until it was finished. And we played that twice, down.
We played once, then double tracked it. We overdubbed it, but it was all head charts. It's part of The Nutcracker so that was in my head from the fourth grade. When I played it back, I said, "Oh that's how I got The Nutcracker. Yeah you're a nut!" They were saying, "You're crazy, man, what are you doing?!" I said, "Listen, just wait 'til it's finished, man. It was just brutal what I did to those guys, because we stayed there for 12 hours until that song was finished.
Kool: The music was changing; we were coming out of the funky stuff. The whole disco thing was happening and I felt that we had to keep our identity. "Open Sesame" was a whole new Kool & the Gang identity, but it was a very big record in the disco. But it was like jazz on top of a straight beat, and people were like, "Ah-oo-ee." The bass and the horns were in two different directions!
Khalis: Yeah, there's two different basses on that record.
On getting the song on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack
Khalis: Oh, you wanna hear that sorry side of that thing, awhhh man! Aww man!
Kool: It was the record company that said it!
Khalis: Record company said, "Listen! There's a movie coming out. We want to put it in a movie!" "OK, that sounds good to us. How much?" [Laughs] "You're not going to get shit, blah blah blah, but it'll be great for your career!" But we can't argue with it looking back. We got two Grammys with that record. I don't know if it deserved it or not but I knew that we had done something special after that when I came back in and listened to it. It was different. The movie's great! It's about disco, Bee Gees! [Laughs]
Kool: And we finally go into the disco scene with the disco movie and sold 25 million albums? That was the biggest record until Michael Jackson came along with Thriller, and Thriller knocked us out of the box. [Laughs]
Ladies Night (1979)
Kool: That was a conscious shift [toward pop music]. We were on tour with the Jacksons and the promoter of that tour was a guy by the name of Dick Griffey. Every night, we would do our thing and Jackson would do his thing, and [Griffey] came to us one night and said, "You have a great show and you’re doing your thing, but you know what you guys need? You're missing a lead singer." At that time, Earth, Wind & Fire had Maurice White and Phillip Bailey. The Commodores had Lionel Richie, etc.
Kool: It was always us singing together. So we find J.T. through Hal Hackett, one of our managers on the tour at the time.
Khalis: We had recorded that whole album before J.T., and before we got a singer — before we auditioned him to sing — we had all those songs in place and started writing the lyrics on top of it.
Kool: For "Ladies Night," I was hanging out during that time at Studio 54 and [we jammed] at all these clubs. It was Friday night; Ladies night! I said, "OK, ladies get in free, the guy chases the ladies and all that stuff." So I came back, "I got an idea, I got a title for one of these tracks!"
Khalis: I never went into Studio 54. He's the party man.
Kool: Studio 54 just had a great vibe to it; it was the hotspot. You gotta wait in line to get in and sometimes you didn’t get in! I had to wait in line too! The ladies weren't too bad on the eyes [Laughs]. A lotta eye candy, so you try your best to stay out of trouble. We ended up playing there once.
Khalis: No, that was the Cheetah Club.
Kool: The Cheetah? I thought we played Studio 54 once.
Khalis: Yeah, I think we did actually. One time in the old CBS studio before it became Studio 54. Anyway, Kool came back and told me, "I got two titles for you!" I said, "Well, whatcha got?" "Hanging Out!" I said [looks at Kool skeptically] "Hmm, yeah, everybody hangs out, I guess." But when he said, "Ladies Night," a bomb went off in my head! I said, "Whaaat! There's one of those everywhere in the world." I said, "Yeah!" We ended up recording "Hanging Out" as a B side to "Ladies Night."
In one interview, Khalis predicted the song was gonna be an international anthem.
Khalis: I did? I did? Damn I must've been drunk! Well let me go back down.
Kool: So after "Ladies Night," we're at the American Music Awards, after the turnaround with J.T. and the band. We got two awards that night, and we said, "Man, wow, we're bad!" And there's a line on "Ladies Night" that says. . .
Khalis: "Come on, let's all celebrate." Kool was singing, "Come on, let's all celebrate," and then we started singing something like, "This here's a celebration happening, right?!" or something like that.
Kool: And then I remember you were working on a track when we came back.
Khalis: A lot of stuff was out like that [musically]. Dire Straits was out with that; that was smoking. So we took all the jazz out of the music, and I wrote "Celebration" and then we built upon it from there. The weirdest place we heard the song was on the moon. Well, not on the moon, but from the shuttle.
Kool: We woke up one morning and they were playing "Celebration" on the space shuttle! We were scientists of sound! [Laughs]
Khalis: I was reading Scripture where the creator's gonna create and made an announcement that he’s gonna create this human thing, to angels, and the angels were celebrating him for doing so, and that's also where the idea came from. Three Dog Night had songs about "Celebrate" but there was never a song about a cel-e-bra-tion. Everyone around the world, come on, there's a celebration every second of our lives. Somewhere, someone is always celebrating something.
“Get Down on It”
Something Special (1981)
Khalis: A friend of mine came to me and said, "Hey, you like reggae music?" I said, "Yeah, I like reggae, but I don’t listen to it a whole lot. He said, "You need to listen to Bob Marley." I had this track, — I knew that I had something — so I played it at rehearsal one day, and started playing [sings reggae melody] and J.T. said, "Hey! What's that ya playing?" He started singing on the top, and from there we wrote "Get Down on It."
Kool: It was poppy, but it was funky too. We crossed over because of "Ladies Night" and "Celebration," but "Get Down on It" had a nice groove to it as well as [both] a funk and pop side.
Khalis: Yeah, it had that Eighties sound.
Kool: Like, "Get down on it/get down, get down." Now we're back to "Jungle Boogie."
Khalis: We’re still gettin down. [Laughs] I think we had this stuff from the Seventies that we carried over [into the Eighties]. It's all a part of the get down series. [Sings] "Get your back up off the wall."
Khalis: It had a dark tone to it, but actually the song was written a year before that, in part, by [writer] Cleveland Brown. We were talking about "Misled," like trying to get something to sound like lead, heavy lead, so that element was lingering over us. "Heavy as a chevy" and all that stuff. It's about that girl who misled us! It comes from something else too but it was mostly some experience that I had with a girl!
Do you want to elaborate?
Kool: We know how they can mislead us now!