Kool &?the Gang adds some funk to Kid’s rock

Over the years, Kool & the Gang has played some of the biggest stages in the world.

For Robert “Kool” Bell, it all started sitting on the hill at Immaculate Conception School on Youngstown’s East Side.

“My brother, Ronald Bell, and I would sit on that little hill and take paint cans and empty them out. What was left in them created a certain sound, like a steel drum, and we’d play them. My first instrument was paint cans,” he said.

The family moved to New Jersey when Bell was 10, and it was there that he formed his first band, The Jazziacs, 49 years ago. Kool & the Gang made its debut 1969. The band dropped the name Kool & the Flames after hearing from attorneys for James Brown, whose band in the ’60s was known as the Famous Flames.

“There was a little problem with ‘The Godfather.’ We don’t want to mess with that.”

Bell, who moved from paint cans to bass; his brother Ronald, tenor saxophone; George Brown, drums; and Dennis Thomas, alto saxophone, have been with the Gang from the beginning.

Soul / funk hits followed (“Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swingin’,” “Ladies Night”) along with one song that probably has been played at 99 percent of the wedding receptions held since 1980 – “Celebration.”

But the Gang isn’t resting on its laurels. Bell said the group plans to release its first Christmas album this year, and its management has suggested celebrating the 50th anniversary of the group that evolved into Kool & the Gang with an album featuring new material recorded with some high-profile collaborators (Alicia Keys, R. Kelly and Tim McGraw also are represented by Red Light Management, Bell said).

“We’re trying to figure out who we can get to party with us for this 50th anniversary,” he said.

There even have been some meetings with Ben Elton, who wrote the book for the Queen musical “We Will Rock You,” about building a similar Broadway show around the Gang’s body of work. With everything else happening, Bell doesn’t see that as a possibility before 2015.

And while the band continues to tour as a headlining act, it has been booked as a support act on some interesting tours. Kool & the Gang played nearly 50 shows with Van Halen in 2012, and it will support Kid Rock on the opening dates of his “$20 Best Night Ever Tour,” including a 7:30 p.m. show Tuesday at Blossom Music Center.

Bell said the Kid Rock offer is a direct result of the success of the tour with Van Halen.

“It was a little strange in the beginning,” he said. “We wondered how it was going to work out. We met with David Lee Roth and he said he saw us in London at this big rock festival (Glastonbury). He went back to his partners, Eddie and Alex (Van Halen) and said, ‘I’ve got the perfect support act’.”

While the two bands are perceived to have different audiences, both acts spent a lot of time alongside each other on the Billboard charts in the ’80s, and Roth suspected that Van Halen’s audience, which is 60 percent female, would go crazy for songs like “Ladies Night.”

“He said, ‘We were the party rock band of the ’80s and you guys were the party pop funk band of the ’80s’.”

Bell said the band front-loaded its set with some of the more rock-oriented songs in its repertoire before closing with “Ladies Night,” “Get Down On It” and “Celebration.”

“They got up and started partying, and it was nothing but a party after that.”

Kid Rock wanted Kool and the Gang for the entire tour, but the group already had some European dates booked, so it will play about 10 dates with the rapper, rocker and occasional country artist (ZZ Top fills the middle slot on the tour when it plays First Niagara Pavilion in Burgettstown, Pa., on Sept. 7).

Bell said he believes the gigs have helped broaden the Gang’s audience. He regularly talks to fans at their headlining shows, particularly the ones at casinos, who say they first saw the band with Van Halen. And he’s happy to have them.

When asked what it takes to be initiated into Kool’s gang, he answer, “You gotta be funky. And now you gotta rock a little bit too.”