Ronald “Khalis” Bell, the singer, songwriter and saxophonist whose group Kool & the Gang became one of the most celebrated and musically eclectic funk bands in the 1970s and beyond, died Wednesday at his U.S. Virgin Islands home at the age of 68. A cause of death was not disclosed.
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 morphed from upstart jazz unit to chart-topping funk-soul ensemble to smooth pop group with the addition of vocalist James “J.T.” Taylor in 1979. Bell, who adapted the name Khalis Bayyan later in life, co-wrote many of the group’s perpetual life-event earworms – including “Ladies’ Night,” “Jungle Boogie” and “Celebration” – that have become embedded into the national consciousness.
In 1964, Bell and his teenage brother Robert “Kool” 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 lasted more than 50 years.
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,” Ronald Bell said in 2015.
The Bell brothers went on to form the Jazziacs with high school friends Spike Mickens, Dennis Thomas, Ricky Westfield, George Brown, and Charles Smith, eventually transforming into Kool & the Flames, the Jazz Birds and, finally, Kool & the Gang. As the Jazz Birds, they won the Apollo Theater’s famed Amateur Night while still gigging local clubs in high school.
The group released their eponymous debut in 1970, which laid the groundwork for their groundbreaking fusion of jazz and funk. “You had a hard time trying to get us to play R&B,” Ronald told Rolling Stone. “We were diehard jazz musicians. We’re not stooping to that. We didn’t really try to do that until now.
“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 … We were very street percussive [on that album], so we blended that element with listening to jazz,” he added. “You could hear the jazz element. You could hear the Motown element.”
In 1972, the group released their first self-produced album Music Is the Message — Bell called it their “maiden voyage” album — featuring the wah wah-driven hard funk of “Love the Life You Live.” “We were experimenting with synthesizers,” Bell told Rolling Stone, citing James Brown, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock as major influences. “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.”
The group hit their breakthrough, though, with 1973’s aptly titled fourth studio album Wild and Peaceful, a mix of raucous, brassy funk and mellifluous soul. The album would spawn three Top 10 hits — “Funky Stuff,” “Hollywood Swinging” and “Jungle Boogie” (the latter recorded in one take) — all co-written by Bell and establish the group as both a preeminent pop chart force and funk powerhouse alongside Earth, Wind and Fire, the Isley Brothers and Sly & the Family Stone.
The band dominated much of the 1970s with funk-pop classics Light of the Worlds (1974), Spirit of the Boogie (1975) and Open Sesame (1976). With 1979’s Ladies’ Night, the group added vocalist James “J.T.” Taylor and incorporated a smoother pop sound with hits like “Too Hot” and the title track.
As many of their funk contemporaries found difficulty adjusting from the Seventies funk peak to the 1980s, Bell’s songs for Kool & the Gang would go on to become some of the band’s biggest hits. 1980’s Celebrate! featured the band’s standout “Celebration,” which remains a perennial wedding staple 40 years later.
“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,” Bell told Rolling Stone of the song’s inspiration. “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.”
The hits, all co-written by Bell, continued: 1981’s “Get Down On It” emphasized the group’s stronghold on horn-driven funk, 1983’s “Joanna” channeled the group’s love of doo-wop into a romantic ode to the titular character, and 1984’s Emergency became the group’s biggest-selling album on the back of hits “Fresh,” “Misled” and “Cherish.”
The group found a new generation of fans starting in the late 1980s as sample fodder for countless hip-hop producers. “After Public Enemy, I was all in [with hip-hop],” Bell told Rolling Stone in 2015. “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.”
Bell spent most of the 1990s and 2000s touring as a legacy group with the band, entertaining multiple generations with their string of hits. The group has sold more than 70 million albums worldwide, with 31 of their albums going either gold or platinum. Shortly before his death, Bell was working on a solo album titled Kool Baby Brotha Band alongside a series of animated shorts called “Kool TV.”
Bell remained humble as he looked back on his legacy, insisting that his indispensable contributions were part of a greater whole. “A lot of the songs, I may have spearheaded ’em,” Bell told The New Yorker in 2018. “But it’s really, with a ‘K,’ the [collective] genius of a band called Kool & the Gang.”