Still kooler than Van Halen

Koll & The Gang

Life has its enduring mysteries. 

Kool and the Gang opens for Van Halen on Saturday, March 17.


Kool and the Gang opens for Van Halen on Saturday, March 17.

Nick Krewen
Special to the Star
Published on Fri Mar 16 2012


Life has its enduring mysteries.

There are the Seven Wonders of the World; the secret of getting caramel into the Caramilk bar and . . . Kool & The Gang opening for Van Halen?

“That’s a bit of a head scratcher for sure,” chuckles Robert “Kool” Bell, founder and leader of the horn-heavy, 11-piece jazz funk and R&B band that has borne his name for the past 46 years.

The band is opening 52 dates for Van Halen on its reunion tour (they play the ACC on Saturday) and while the L.A. quartet is known for sometimes hiring unusual acts to warm up the crowd (one of Bob Marley‘s multitude of sons, Ky-mani Marley, did the honours back in ’98), Kool & The Gang certainly qualifies as a left-field choice.

According to Bell, it was David Lee Roth‘s idea. Diamond Dave saw the band perform this past summer in front of 60,000 fans at Glastonbury and that sealed the deal.

“He told me when we were rehearsing out in L.A. for the show, that Van Halen was the party rock band of the ’80s and Kool & The Gang was the party pop funk band of the ’80s, and he said 60 per cent of his audience — which I didn’t know — is female, and he said, ‘You guys wrote “Ladies’ Night”’ and he says, ‘Why not, let’s have a party.’”

While Kool reports that no projectiles have come the 10-piece band’s way since they launched the tour eight concerts ago, he admits some of the crowd has been standoffish.

Initially, at least.

“You have the people who stand there, waiting to see what we’re going to do,” Bell admits. “The top of the set is … ‘Emergency’ and ‘Misled’ and ‘Tonight,’ and that kind of gets the crowd going. Then we go into the ’70s with ‘Hollywood Swinging’ and ‘Jungle Boogie,’ and then we close it out with ‘Ladies’ Night,’ ‘Get Down on It’ and ‘Celebration.’ By that time, everybody’s up on their feet, having a good time.

“Now, you still got some diehards that are just going to look, but I see where Dave was coming from as far as the lady followers, because by the time we hit ‘Ladies’ Night,’ they’re partying. They’re looking at the guy next to them, or whoever came with them, and saying, ‘What’s the matter with you?’

“And they say, ‘I’m a Van Halen diehard!’ And she says, ‘Well, you better get down on it, because you’re now here with me!’”

Bell utters a hearty laugh.

One of the more amusing facts about Kool & The Gang, rumoured to boast global sales of approximately 70 million albums, is that they’ve never taken a break.

“We started around 1964,” says Bell. “We’re getting up there.”

With 50 years of Kool & The Gang around the corner, Bell reveals there are a few things planned to help “Celebrate” the band’s golden anniversary.

Mike Dunn and I are working on a project called Kool & Friends with guest artists,” Kool says.

“We’ve been talking to people like Bootsy Collins, Nile Rodgers. We’d even love to get Eddie (Van Halen) to be a part of this project. We’re looking to do a solo project, which my brother Kalish will be producing.

“We’ve also been in meetings going back and forth with Ben Elton, who did the musical We Will Rock You, and with Andrew Lloyd Webber and been talking about the possibility of doing a musical.”

Adds Bell, “We’ve been blessed to survive four decades, the ’60s all the way up to this new millennium, and we’ve just been evolving our music over the years, starting off as a jazzy act and playing our own style of jazz. I guess you could call it ‘Kool Jazz.’ The name changed from the Jazzy Acts to the Soultown Band, and then Kool & The Flames, and then Kool & The Gang, and we came out with our first record in ’69, and that took us into the ’70s. . . .

“We made it through the ’70s and went into the disco style. (They were part of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, the biggest selling album until Michael Jackson’s Thriller.)

“Our music, you could always dance to it, although it wasn’t quite disco. I think that’s how we slipped through the ’80s, when we decided to get a lead singer. Then we came up with ‘Ladies’ Night’ and ‘Too Hot,’ ‘Celebration,’ of course, and ‘Cherish.’”

One more word for Toronto concert-goers: “Let them know that Van Halen, Kool & The Gang, we’re coming to party. Rock, funk, whatever you like, we’re going to give it to you.”

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