Kool and the Gang's Robert "Kool" Bell on the unlikely pairing with Van Halen

This Thursday, May 24, Kool & the Gang is due at the Pepsi Center with Van Halen. While this might seem like an unlikely pairing, the legendary funk/R&B act opening for the equally iconic rock band, Robert "Kool" Bell, Kool & the Gang's founding member, tells us it's working out great. We recently spoke with Bell about how the tour came together, the band's history, the new music that's in the works, a reality-TV show the band is shopping and the musical based on Kool & the Gang songs.

Westword: I heard that David Lee Roth saw you guys last year at the Glastonbury Festival, and he was so impressed that he asked you to go on tour with them. Is that what happened?

Robert "Kool" Bell: That's what happened. Eddie and Alex were getting together for their fortieth-anniversary tour, and he said, "I got the right group to open up for us." They said, "Who?" He said, "Kool and the Gang." He told the Live Nation people, "I saw these guys in London last year at the Glastonbury Festival." We did the last day; we closed it out. And he said, "Yeah, man, those guys rocked it. So, hey, let's get them over on our reunion tour."

When we were rehearsing out in L.A., about two weeks before the tour started back in February, he said, "Sixty percent of our audience, Kool, is ladies," which I didn't know. He said, "You guys wrote the song 'Ladies' Night.' Well, let's go out and have a party." I said, "Well, let's go out and have a party, then -- and we've been partying ever since."

I'd imagine that some folks might think it's a strange lineup, but it seems like the Van Halen fans are digging you guys.

Yeah. In the beginning, everyone had concerns. You know, okay, Van Halen is rock. Kool & the Gang is funk/pop/dance/whatever. How is that pairing going to work, especially when you've got hard-core rock fans out there? But it's been great. I mean, because we have a couple of songs that, I would say, from the albums, that are like they are, like "Misled" and "Tonight" and "Emergency." So we got that in the set. We're also going to do "Too Hot" and "Fresh" and "Get Down on It." When we get to "Ladies' Night" it's definitely a party. We do "Jungle Boogie," "Hollywood Swinging."

You guys have sold quite a few albums, and your songs are almost embedded in American culture. It seems like no matter what kind of music you listen to, people have heard your songs.

That's kind of like what we're seeing out there, because as we're doing our set, some of the people are like, "Oh, I didn't know they did that song." So they might have heard the song, but they didn't know it was Kool & the Gang.

I heard you guys are going to be working on a new record, right?

Yeah. We're working on two concept records, actually. One's another Kool & the Gang record, and I'm also doing a project with my brother, and it's with guests. We've spoken to Bootsy Collins. We reached out to Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire and Jason Scheff, the bass player and lead singer from Chicago, and Nile Rodgers. If we could get Eddie on there, that would be great. So we're working on that and then another regular Kool & the Gang record.

I know you guys have switched it up over the years going back to the '60s, but how is the new material going to sound compared to more recent efforts?

Like you said, we started in the in the mid-'60s, and the first record came out in 1969. All that funk stuff in the '70s -- "Hollywood Swinging and "Jungle Boogie" and "Funky Stuff." Then we did that "Summer Madness" record, which surprised a lot of people. That came from our earlier jazz roots. And then all that stuff in the '70s and '80s. We're going to kind of mix it up and just kind of get a flow on. A lot of times, in the earlier days, we just kind of went for the feel and just let it flow and just record whatever we came up with. Then we would figure out later what we got.

With you playing bass, did some of your songs start with bass lines?

We built around the drums and the bass lines, and our late guitarist, Charles Smith, would put his licks in there. Then our keyboard player would fill in. So it was like drums, bass and then the keyboards and then guitars and then start adding the horns. But in the early days, the horns were more like our lead singer. We didn't have a lead singer in the early days, so the horns were like what was happening for us until the late '70s, when the lead singer became James "J.T." Taylor. And that's when we went on and started doing "Ladies' Night" and "Celebration" and all the songs that we did in the '80s. The '70s were more like funk chant kinds of songs like "Jungle Boogie" and "Funky Stuff."

I heard you're shopping around your reality-TV show, Makin' It Kool.

My son and his company came to me about that. The concept of the show is guys who started back like in my day or after that, who are musicians, who didn't quite make it, and they went on to become doctors and lawyers. They were from all sorts of walks of life. But they still pick up that guitar or drums or what have you, and they play on the weekends. So I got a little team together to go and out find these groups across the country that are still kind of doing their thing. I give them a little pep talk and say, "Hey, you can make it cool again. Keep doing what you're doing and try to work into the show." Maybe in a couple of cities they can open for us -- that kind of thing.

There's also another project that I'm doing. We've met with Ben Elton, the one who did We Will Rock You, a couple of times. He's been working on a treatment for a musical called It's a Celebration, and it will use our music. That's something else we've been working on. He's been very successful with the sequel to The Phantom of the Opera with Andrew Lloyd Webber, and he had the big one with the whole story about Queen, We Will Rock You. He's been into our music for years, and he feels that he can come up with an approach because of our different genres and styles of music since the '60s. So we've been talking with him, as well.

Kool & the Gang, with Van Halen, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 24, Pepsi Center, 1000 Chopper Circle, $49.50-$149.50, 303-830-8497.

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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon