Ronald Bell: Kool & The Gang founder dies aged 68

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Robert "Kool" Bell, Ronald "Khalis" Bell in a 2014 file picture
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Ronald Bell (right) with brother and fellow band member Robert in 2014

Ronald Bell, one of the founder members of 1970s and 1980s pop group Kool & the Gang, has died at the age of 68.

He started the band with his brother Robert "Kool" Bell in 1964.

They became one of the era's most popular and influential soul and funk bands, with hits including Celebration, Ladies' Night and Get Down On It.

Their music also featured in several films including Saturday Night Fever, for which they received a Grammy in 1978, and Pulp Fiction.

Bell died at his home in the US Virgin Islands with his wife by his side, his publicist said. The cause of death was not given.

A self-taught saxophonist and singer, he founded the group in New Jersey with Robert and five schoolfriends - Dennis Thomas, Robert Mickens, Charles Smith, George Brown and Ricky Westfield.

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The band released 23 albums across their career

Their career was split into two distinct halves. In the early 70s, they scored US hits with the foot-stomping funk of songs like Jungle Boogie and Hollywood Swinging. Then, with the addition of vocalist James "JT" Taylor in 1979, they morphed into a hit-making R&B band, scoring the biggest commercial success of their career as they reached their 20th anniversary.

As musical director, Bell co-wrote all of their biggest hits, including the wedding disco classic Celebration.

It was his "favourite song" from the band's extensive back catalogue, he told the Reuters news agency in 2008.

"I had no clue, you know," he said. "I was clueless, thinking that that was going to be a hit. I had no idea.

"But after all these years, there are times at the end of the show when I see all of these people singing a song, and after all of an hour and a half, you ask them to jump up and down and they still jump up and down. That's kind of overwhelming for me."

The group received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015 for their contribution to the world of entertainment, and were inducted into the Songwriters' Hall Of Fame in 2018.

Too poor for drums

Bell was born and raised in Ohio, and picked up the music bug from his father, a professional boxer who was a close friend of jazz musicians Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

Unable to afford drums, he and his brother taught themselves to play on makeshift instruments.

"I used to beat paint cans like bongos, and depending on how much paint was inside, this would determine the tone of the sounds we made," he later recalled.

After the family moved to New Jersey in his teens, Bell's mother bought him a real set of bongos and he began to teach himself bass guitar, borrowing an instrument from the brother of his future bandmate Robert "Spike" Mickens.

'Die-hard jazz musicians'

The first incarnation of Kool & The Gang formed in 1964, but they cycled through several names - including Jazziacs, The New Dimensions, The Soul Town Band, the Jazz Birds and Kool & the Flames before settling on their final moniker in 1969.

Along the way, they combined their love of jazz with the gritty rhythms of street funk, creating a sound that would lead to their success in the 1970s.

"We used to play a lot of percussion in the streets in the 60s, go to the park and start beating on drums and stuff in the street," Bell told Rolling Stone.

"You had a hard time trying to get us to play R&B," he added. "We were die-hard jazz musicians. We're not stooping to that."

Image source, Getty Images
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Robert (left) and Ronald Bell in the studio in the 1970s

As the Jazz Birds, they won the Apollo Theater's famed Amateur Night and landed a record deal with a small label called De-Lite Records.

Three singles from their self-titled debut album hit the pop charts, with the instrumental track Kool & The Gang showcasing their raucous, horn-driven sound.

Their mainstream breakthrough came with 1973's Wild and Peaceful album. Lead single Funky Stuff became their first top 40 hit in the US, followed by Jungle Boogie and Hollywood Swinging, which both reached the top 10.

Jungle Boogie went on to become one of their signature songs - used in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and sampled in Madonna's Erotica.

It was only written after the band's record label, in search of a top 10 single, pressured Kool & The Gang to record a cover of Soul Makossa by Manu Dibango.

"It would have been a hit," Bell later recalled. "But we decided we were not going to record Soul Makossa - we'll come up with our own 'jungle music', not to be derogatory.

"We made the song up in the rehearsal, went in and recorded it that night. Jungle Boogie is one take."

New frontman

As disco rose to prominence, the band struggled to replicate their early success - although they did win a Grammy for Open Sesame, their contribution to the multi-million-selling Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.

Things changed with the addition of Taylor, a former nightclub singer, and producer Eumir Deodato, which led to a cleaner, pop-driven sound and the crossover single Ladies' Night.

The decision was prompted when the band found themselves on tour with the Jacksons and were told by the promoter that they needed a frontman. Taylor, chosen for his deep baritone "like Nat King Cole", was the only singer they auditioned.

Unlike many of the funk bands of the 70s, Kool & The Gang thrived in the 1980s, scoring huge hits with sentimental ballads like Joanna and Cherish, as well as the party anthems Steppin' Out and Get Down On It, which is now their most-streamed song on Spotify.

Image source, PA Media
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The band won an outstanding contribution prize at the 2003 Mobo Awards

Possibly their most enduring hit is Celebration, which was inspired by Bell's Islamic faith.

"I was reading the scripture about where God called the angels together, and made an announcement that he was going to create this being," he told Songwriter Universe.

"He gathered the angels together and they said, 'We don't know nothin', but we just celebrate you, God - we celebrate and praise you.'"

"And I thought, I'm going to write a song about that, [with the line] 'Everyone around the world…Come on!'

"That's the intent... it was actually written for mankind."

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The group found a new generation of fans in the 80s and 90s as their music was sampled in a raft of pop and hip-hop songs.

Jungle Boogie's horn riff appears in Luniz's I Got 5 On It; Summer Madness formed the basis of Summertime by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince; and the syncopated rhythms of Jungle Jazz appear on dozens of tracks, from MARRS's Pump Up The Volume to Jade's Don't Walk Away.

When Public Enemy sampled three separate Kool & The Gang songs for Fear of a Black Planet, Bell voiced his approval.

"After Public Enemy, I was all in [with hip-hop]," he 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."

'Still relevant'

The rise of hip-hop and the departure of Taylor in 1989 effectively ended Kool & The Gang's presence on the charts, but Bell continued to record and tour with the group as a legacy act in the 1990s and 2000s.

At the time of his death, he was working on a solo album called Kool Baby Brotha Band, as well as a series of animations about the band's childhood and career.

In an interview with Billboard last year, he said he felt grateful to have had a career in music.

"And for it to be this long," he added. "For me, I'm most grateful for that, to still be relevant since [we were] 19."

The musician is survived by his wife Tia Sinclair Bell and 10 children; as well as his brother Robert and three other siblings. The family will hold a private funeral service, and have asked that fans donate to the children's charity the Boys and Girls Club of America.