Ronald “Khalis” Bell was nothing if not an adaptable musician and songwriter. He began his career aged 13, playing jazz in New York’s famous Café Wha? alongside singer Richie Havens. A couple of years later, his group the Jazziacs shifted style and became the Motown and Stax-inspired Soul Town Band. By the time they signed a record deal in 1969, they were trading as Kool & the Gang – a name based on his elder brother Robert’s nickname – and playing an instrumental hybrid of jazz and funk. It was a sign of things to come: over their career, Kool & the Gang proved so adaptable that they frequently sounded like a completely different band to the one they had been a few years previously. It would have taken almost superhuman insight to recognise their easy-going, synth-heavy 1984 hit Cherish as the work of the musicians who had made 1973’s tough funk track Jungle Boogie, or 1980’s pop-disco anthem Celebration. Ronald Bell co-wrote all three.
Their eponymous debut was a minor success, but Kool & the Gang had their first big hit by dialling down their jazz influence. Their second album, Music Is the Message, had upped the vocal content of their music although they were still evidently finding their feet on its 1972 successor, Good Times, where lushly orchestrated ballads sat alongside brave attempts to fuse funk and country and western and instrumentals called I Remember John W Coltrane. Wild and Peaceful, released the following year, was more focused, home not just to Jungle Boogie, but a succession of equally strong tracks (Funky Stuff, Hollywood Swinging). It sold half a million copies, as did its follow-up, Light of Worlds. The latter’s key track was Summer Madness, a flatly brilliant instrumental evocation of a hot afternoon on which electric piano chords shimmered as if emerging through a heat haze and a synthesiser played languidly. The moment 40 seconds in, where the latter instrument hits a succession of long, ascending notes would later become one of the key inspirations for hip-hop producer Dr Dre’s G-funk sound.
The title track of Spirit of the Boogie (1975) was an R&B No 1 in the US, bucking the trend that saw funk being commercially displaced by the smoother sound minted by Philadelphia International Records. But the album itself seemed to suggest that Kool & the Gang were running out of juice. Two of its tracks were based on previous hits – Winter Sadness was actually rather lovely, a lush, melancholy riposte to Summer Madness, but an air of pointlessness clung to Jungle Jazz, which was Jungle Boogie rendered as a solo-heavy instrumental. The same was true of its follow-up, Love and Understanding, which was padded out with live versions of old songs, making it their third album in a row to feature Summer Madness or a variant thereof.
Its successor, Open Sesame, pragmatically shifted their sound closer to disco: they should have been thrown a commercial lifeline by the title track’s inclusion on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, but it didn’t work out that way. Kool & the Gang found themselves in the bizarre position of sharing the top spot on the US albums charts for 24 weeks – albeit as a supporting feature to the album’s Bee Gees-penned big hits – while their career appeared to be going down the toilet. Their first post-Saturday Night Fever album, Everybody’s Dancing, was an all-out flop. It was all slightly inexplicable: at the height of the disco gold rush, having contributed to the album that had caused the disco gold rush in the first place, they couldn’t get arrested with a solid disco single like Everybody’s Dancing.
More inexplicable still was what happened next. At the exact point that the American disco backlash began – three months after the notorious Disco Demolition Night in Chicago’s Kominskey Park – Kool & the Gang suddenly became a huge mainstream disco act. It helped that they had drafted in a dedicated lead singer, James JT Taylor, rather than sharing vocals between them, and it helped even more that their single Ladies’ Night – co-written by Bell and produced by Eumir Deodato, the Brazilian keyboardist behind the instrumental 1978 disco classic Whistle Bump – featured a nailed-on pop chorus and a hook-laden tune. Even so, it seems slightly odd: just as the giants of the disco era went into commercial decline, Kool & the Gang’s career went into commercial overdrive. Ladies’ Night set the tone for the next few years: superbly written, commercial disco singles that seemed less aimed at the dancefloor cognoscenti than a pop audience; a succession of platinum albums that mixed more of the same with soft soul ballads, a plethora of hits. Celebration was a No 1 hit in the US, a state of affairs lent a sense of unreality by the fact that it was inspired by the creation story in the Qur’an – Bell had converted to Islam in 1972 – an origin clearly lost on whoever made it the unofficial theme tune for the 1981 return of the US hostages held by students in Iran.
By the early 80s, their sound had begun to lean more heavily towards slick MOR pop. It led to another upswing in popularity. There are tougher tracks on 1984’s Emergency, most notably the guitar-heavy Misled, but it was the feather-soft Cherish that turned it into the biggest album of Kool & the Gang’s career. It was a commercial peak they would never reach again, which seemed odd: having navigated their way from jazz to funk to disco to the kind of music that Mellow Magic plays in the small hours of the morning, you wouldn’t have bet against them successfully riding whatever wave came next, but JT Taylor left in 1988 and Bell followed shortly afterwards. Both returned in due course – Bell would stay with the band for the rest of his life, as they variously tried their hand at hip-hop, Christmas songs and an appalling album called The Hits: Reloaded featuring Atomic Kitten singing Ladies Night and Blazin’ Squad’s take on Joanna. If nothing else, it made you appreciate the originals more.
None of it returned Kool & the Gang to anything approaching their commercial peak, but by then it didn’t matter. They played live constantly: 83 gigs last year alone, proof there’s always a ready audience for a band with that many hits in their back catalogue. They remained a continual presence in the charts, albeit at a remove, because their earlier work was sampled endlessly, presumably earning Bell a fortune in the process: at the last count, 213 different tracks – by Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Aaliyah, Nas, Mary J Blige, Schoolboy Q and Erykah Badu among others – have sampled Summer Madness alone. Jungle Boogie was given a new lease of life in the mid-90s, thanks to its use in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.
Their biggest disco hits didn’t need reanimating in that way, because they were the kind of songs that transcend their era and become immutable facts of life: were it not for coronavirus, you could more or less guarantee there would be a wedding or a birthday or a sports victory happening somewhere in the world as you read this, where they would be playing Celebration, Ladies’ Night or Get Down on It.