By José Oliveira and Rosine Alleva, Journalist/Photographers, Rock At Night France, Switzerland
In the latest news, KOOL & THE GANG had unfortunately to cancel the New Year’s Eve concert in Richmond due to Siberian temperatures, leaving their fans in dismay. We hope to warm up their hearts…We had the privilege of interviewing one of the four original members of KOOL & THE GANG a few weeks after their concert at the Baloise Session. ROBERT “KOOL” BELL gave us the reasons of the band longevity and elucidated us about his action in favor of young American musicians. It was 3.30 pm in New Jersey and 10.30 pm in France when the phone rang! Please see this exclusive telephone interview below:
RAN– It’s an honor to talk with you after your great concert at the Baloise Session!
True to your reputation as a stage group, you continue to perform world-wide, sold-out concerts, as it was the case here in Basel. How do you explain that?
RB– Well, it’s something we’ve been doing now all these years and we love travelling to the different foundations around the world. Basel festival was a very exciting and prestigious venue. We hope our fans enjoyed the show. The sound was really great! We’re looking forward to coming back!
RAN– You’re right! It was really a big gift for your Swiss fans! Everyone was delighted!
RB– Thank you! Oh! You were there then?
RAN – Of course, Robert! We even took a picture with all the Band backstage!
RB-Oh! I see! That’s right! Just after the show.
RAN– Your concert was broadcast live by TV Chanel! Is this currently a less common procedure in the US?
RB– No, it was only for Switzerland and possibly for Europe but the concert was not streamed in US.
RAN– You are an inspiring reference for the world’s major musical trends such as RAP and especially R&B. How do you see the evolution that these movements have taken?
RB – Well, R&B back its the seventies was what we were going on, of course around our tracks we have more like jazz sounds and funk sounds, like funky stuff, “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging,”We only started in the eighties to have vocals in our music, when James JT TAYLOR joined the band. That’s when we said “it sounds like that’s our first choice”, with Celebrate and all the big hits. But about rap, a lot of people sampled our music over the years. RAP became very strong and Hip Hop I guess in the last 10 years and I think funk possibly too. That’s how I see it.
RAN– You have invested time with the Sweet Relief Musician Found, which provides financial assistance to career musicians. Can you tell us more about it ?
RB– Oh yeah! We are supporting musicians and trying to make it a business, we support this Organization. That’s working and we try to make it like we did, many years ago. We worked, we had ups and downs in our career, we just stayed in over the years, we hung in there, so we’re still have success following that now. So we tell other musicians and the music business not to give up, to stay serious and keep working towards their goals!
RAN – You know I met JAMES BROWN five times in my career and in all the interviews we had, he always showed his will to help the young black American generation! Are you also concerned about young kids education?
RB– Oh! Its very important. He has always been not only a huge source of musical inspiration but also very listened too, by his stances towards young Americans. Sakinah, my wife and I, have created a Foundation, called KOOL KIDS FOUNDATION, devoted to bringing music to children through music scholarships, free instruments, and music boot camps. For inner city children to celebrate music.
RAN– You are still 4 founding members and you hold the record for longevity of the R & B groups still active for more than 50 years! So classy !! What is your feeling?
RB– Oh! Yeah! We feel good and blessed to be still around for 50 years, you know. It’s not easy. Some groups can’t stay together for 50 days!!! (laughs). We’re still 4 of the 7 members, the former members who’ve passed. We’re still 4 of us here and doing what we do.
RAN– It’s not hard for you to be On the Road?
RB– Yeah! Of course! It’s been a long time. OK I’m 67 years old but we have younger guys in the Band, you know. The older guys, we’ve got our age but I’m still loving what I’m doing. Sometimes my brother comes out, sometimes he doesn’t, a couple of the others don’t come out all the time. I have to be there all the time, I have to stay in good health, to keep it strong in mind to be able to do what I do.
RAN– What were the most memorable moments of your career?
RB – Well, I mean some of the best memories, I would say when we get a Grammy with The BEE GEES, for “Saturday Night Fever”, that was a great time. Another great moment was when we played with ELTON JOHN, earlier in our career, we just did 48 shows with VAN HALEN in America,10 concerts with Kid Rock talking about KOOL & THE GANG with rock groups. Those are all highlights for us.
RAN– What about the worst memories?
RB – Oh! The worst memories (laughs)? I think it was when we had territorial hits like New York, Philadelphia, Washington, with songs like “Funky Granny” or “ Let the Music take your mind”…Our record company came to us and said “hey guys, you don’t have any big hit yet and we want our producer to work with you”. And the producer was the one who had the song “Soul Makossa” from Manu Dibango. And we met the guy, we wanted to show him. So we head into the studio like 8 o’clock in the morning and came out by midnight with “JUNGLE BOOGIE”, “HOLLYWOOD SWINGING”, “FUNKY STUFF”. So the record company had nothing to say about what we do! That was the worst shock, that kind of stuff, as a band! The best thing though was that we came out with three big hits! Laughs.
RAN– The new members of the band bring a new trend, you recorded a new single”Sexy” in 2016, how do you work on the new compositions ?
RB– Well, sometimes we came with our ideas ourselves and then my son is a DJ and he has another team he works with. Some young talent from California came out with the concept of the song “Sexy” and then the young get with that, did the song, it’s almost 2 years now. It brings a different flavor. We always keep our ear to the street, for what’s showing up. That’s why SEXY was a new approach KOOL & THE GANG. When the record first came out in America, they didn’t believe it was us! The music sounds like KOOL & THE GANG, that’s it! (Laughs).That’s the idea, we’ve got to keep our ear to the street.
RAN– The money destroys the world! Rich people became richer and the poor became poorer and poorer. What is your relation with money?
RB– (Laughs) Money? Well, sometimes we can be good, sometimes we can be bad when we have money, you know. You’ve got to do the right thing with it, try to invest it in the best kind of way. KOOL & THE GANG sold millions of records but also KOOL & THE GANG hasn’t had the greatest record deals. You can sell a record but all the money goes to the Record Company. It’s ripped out the back door. But on the other hand, we are blessed too, to have a great life in America and I guess around the world, with money you’ve got to make sure you pay your taxes!
RAN– How do you see the future of the record industry? Here in Europe, things seems to be better. LPs are selling very well….
RB– Well, we were talking about this in Berlin, with a private functional, about a new deal with Universal records. I know that in Germany right now it’s still alive! Not that they’re coming back heading but Vinyls and cd’s are slowly coming back around. So I think it’s a good thing cause for the young people that became KOOL & THE GANG fans by listening to the music of their parents, they’re nice folks, they’re not exposed to what the music was. You can buy vinyl albums where you have all the history of the group, all the pictures, or a cd. You can’t get that with all the streaming. It’s just not there, these kids didn’t see it, they didn’t live that. The music industry goes around and around like the 60’s or the 70’s. What’s been good I think it’s that groups who travel and do concerts live, there is more demand for live groups than it was before. I guess the younger kids, seeing what their parents listen to, want to see those bands live. So I think it’s coming back around again.
RAN– Are you touring now in United States?
RB– We’re going back and forward you know. We started off in Rome and then we went to Basel, then down to Holland, Germany. Just before that, we did a show with the Jacksons in Amsterdam. And then we went on to Japan, China, to Hawaï and back to New York. So, to answer your question we stay pretty busy. And then again back to Europe for a movie who just came out, STARS 80, released in France. And also a big concert at the new U Arena with all the casting of the movie, broadcast live on French television and sold out! It’s the new Arena in Nanterre, where the ROLLING Stones opened up the place few weeks ago!
RAN– Ok! Fantastic! We interviewed STACCO lately, the french company building famous stages and venues. They took care of the huge metallic structure for the U Arena.
Before ending this pleasant conversation, would you like to leave a message for your Florida fans?
RB– All I can say, I like to thank my fans in Florida cause Florida has always been a good choice, for many years back in the Disney days and the Grad nights at Disney. Again much thanks for supporting KOOL & THE GANG for many many years.
RAN– And we want to thank you for this interview and for your great music since many years! We hope to see you soon on stage again!
I was born in Portugal and lived the Sixties exploring the great UK Rock magazines: "The New Musical Express" and "Melody Maker". Ray Charles and Pat Boone were my father’s fav. I became “The Great Pretender”. Cliff Richard was our Elvis Presley. As a beach boy, with my first guitar, I met a beautiful French girl on the beach! It was the Summer of 69!! We got married and rock music was our dowry. In France, I became a Wine Genetic Research Scientist. One of my works contributed to the decoding of the genome of the vine! As a rock journalist, I’ve worked twenty years for the Portuguese and Brazilian Rock Press. I ‘ve interviewed so many great artists. Then, one day I met FRANK ZAPPA! I got into trouble for introducing my wife to "Uncle Meat"!