Bell brothers make a Kool return to area
The “Gang” returns to its old stomping grounds the weekend.
Brothers Robert “Kool” and Ronald “Khalis” Bell lived in in New Jersey when Kool & the Gang formed more than 50 years ago, but the brothers were born in Youngstown and returned to the area regularly as children after the family moved east.
The band that has two Grammy Awards, seven American Music Awards and 25 top 10 R&B hits will return to Youngstown for a concert Friday at Stambaugh Auditorium.
Ronald Bell agreed to answer some questions via email about his Youngstown roots, his recent induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the enduring popularity of the band’s song “Celebration.”
Ticket: You moved from Youngstown when you still were a child, but were there any experiences you had in Ohio that helped shape your love of music and eventual career?
Bell: When I was 6 years old, my dad brought home “Round About Midnight” (by Miles Davis). I was transfixed and mesmerized. I sat for hours listening to that album over and over. That was it for me. The other thing is that my brother and I lived with my grandmother in Youngstown, and so our aunts and uncles were always at the house playing music. My Aunt Mae was always playing Ray Charles and my uncles played records all the time.
Ticket: Did the family come back to Ohio much after moving to New Jersey and, if so, what are some of your most fond memories of the area?
Bell: My brothers and I came back in the summers to visit our grandmother. At the end of Oak Street, Lincoln Park had a community pool we used to go swimming in. We used to run around the park catching tadpoles in the creeks. We really looked forward to those visits, getting ice cream at Isaly’s, the Watermelon Man coming through the neighborhood and helping our grandmother in her garden. We have so many memories of Youngstown back then. Very good memories.
Ticket: You have a show in Indiana the night before the concert at Stambaugh Auditorium and Nevada the night after, but is there anything you look forward to or try to do when you get back to the Youngstown area for a gig?
Bell: We used to go by to look at my grandmother’s house, but it was torn down long ago when the highway came through Prospect. But in any case, it’s always nice to come back to Youngstown.
Ticket: Rock music has no shortage of stories about battling brothers in bands. To what do you attribute the longevity of your working relationship with your brother Robert?
Bell: My mother is the cause of our longevity. She constantly reminded us to “always stick together” and we have and always will.
Ticket: How do you think you’ve evolved as a musician and songwriter of the years?
Ticket: What did you enjoy most about being inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame?
Bell: The room was filled with people we truly admire and respect. We could not think of a higher honor than to be included on any roster with them.
Ticket: You’ve had no shortage of hits in your career, but is there any one song in the Kool & the Gang catalog that you think could have been as big as “Celebration” or “Jungle Boogie” that, for one reason or another, never got the attention it deserved?
Bell: Not that I can think of. People like what they like.
Ticket: The group has released a couple of singles, but it’s been more than a decade since the band released an album of new music (not counting “Kool for the Holidays”). Do you continue to write and record new songs even though the marketplace doesn’t encourage it from veteran acts these days?
Bell: Yes, we do continue to write and record. We had a song or two on the charts, the latest was “Sexy.”
Ticket: The band still maintains a busy touring schedule. How do you approach life on the road today compared to when you were younger?
Bell: We approach it the same way — we show up for the gig. We call ourselves “road dogs.” The joy is we get to perform for people who love our music.
Ticket: When someone in the Bell family gets married, do they play “Celebration” at the reception? And how does it feel to have written a song that so many people associate with the joyous occasions in their lives?
Bell: My eldest daughter used it as the recessional at her wedding. In most cases, if there is a DJ at the wedding, a few Kool & the Gang songs make it onto the playlist. And if there is a wedding singer or band, they will cover a few of our tunes as well. It feels wonderful to be part of the celebration. It’s the best we could have asked for as musicians and writers.