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Kool & the Gang almost too hot on Van Halen bill

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KTG press photo by Silvia Mautner.jpg

Kool & the Gang's original members are Dennis Thomas (from left),
George Brown, Robert "Kool" Bell and Ronald Bell.


Trust me on this one: Don't dilly-dally on your way to the next Van Halen show. Get there on time, get your beer, get your seats and don't miss the opening act.

It looks weird on paper, I know: silky-smooth R&B pros Kool & the Gang opening for full-throttle rock goons Van Halen. But it works -- at least it did when the tour first stopped in Chicago in February -- the musicianship is superb and, hey, Diamond Dave knew it would be a heckuva party.

"When I met with David Lee [Roth] at a rehearsal, he mentioned to me that in the early days they used to play Kool & the Gang in the clubs, and he loved it," bassist and co-founder Robert "Kool" Bell told the Sun-Times this week. "We talked about doing this tour, and he said, 'Sixty percent of the audience is ladies, and you guys wrote "Ladies Night." Let's just go out and have a party.' That's how he ran it by me. I said, 'Yeah, let's get down on it!'"

VAN HALEN
with Kool & the Gang
7:30 p.m. April 1
Allstate Arena, 6920 N. Mannheim Rd. in Rosemont
Tickets: $49.50-$149.50; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com

Back in the Chicago area this weekend -- another date among the 52 booked this spring in front of Van Halen's reunion tour with Roth -- Kool & the Gang is riding a wave of accolades for its smooth, funky, adrenaline-juicing set that includes such hits as "Jungle Boogie," "Too Hot," "Ladies Night," "Get Down On It" and, of course, "Celebration."

In addition to Bell, the current 11-member Gang includes his younger brother and co-founder Ronald (saxophone, keyboards), plus original drummer George Brown and horn player-percussionist Dennis Thomas.

Kool & the Gang began life in 1964 as the Jazziacs, then Kool & the Flames. By the first record in 1969, they'd become Kool & the Gang.

"We grew up listening to jazz, and the Jazziacs, yeah, we were doing our little thing, trying to play straight-ahead jazz. Just young guys trying to swing," Bell recalled. "It evolved because after that we got involved with an organization called the Soul Town Revue. We'd do these Motown songs, backing up singers locally in Jersey City. We had to learn these big hits in the '60s -- the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, also James Brown. We started to create that sound that became the Kool & the Gang sound, a mix of jazz and R&B. The horn section was key. That took us into the '70s."

It also took them on a collision course with disco.

The music of Kool & the Gang has always been imminently danceable without veering into the pejorative side of disco. The group's only Grammy, however, was earned for its appearance on the soundtrack to 1977's "Saturday Night Fever." But the song there, "Open Sesame," is pure funk -- a nimble groove with that jumpy horn section, punctuated by hilarious exhortations ("I am the king of funk! Everybody get down!" and "Get on your camel and ride!")

"We survived disco," Bell said, laughing. "'Saturday Night Fever' hit right during the anti-disco movement, and right after that is when we decided to get a lead singer. A promoter working with the Jacksons tour said, 'You guys need a lead singer.' We said [hesitantly], 'OK.' Earth, Wind & Fire had Maurice White and the Commodores had Lionel Richie. The owners of the studio where we were working knew James 'J.T.' Taylor, and it was clear pretty quick he was the guy."

Then the hits really started happening. "Ladies Night" crossed over from the R&B chart to the pop chart in 1979. Taylor allowed the band to try real ballads, which also scored high ("Cherish," "Too Hot").

In 1980, the band released the album "Celebrate!" with its lead single, "Celebration."

"We'd been out at the [1979] American Music Awards and had just won three awards," Bell says, "and we were feeling pretty good. It was that night, my brother said, 'Why don't we do a song called "Celebration," 'cause that's what we're doing!' Sounded good to me. I didn't know we'd just decided to make our biggest record. That's just what the vibe was."

That celebratory Kool & the Gang vibe translates across genres. The band, which last released an album in 2007, has opened for rock acts before, including Meat Loaf and Def Leppard, and last year wound up on the bill at Glastonbury, one of England's biggest rock festivals.

That's where Roth was reminded of Kool's magic.

"That whole week you had people like U2, Paul Simon, Coldplay, and we played the closing night," Bell says. "[Roth] saw us on the BBC. We had 50,000 rock fans in front of our stage, and we rocked 'em. He apparently told his band, 'We've got to have them as part of our tour.'"

How familiar was Bell with Van Halen's music?

"Not too familiar," he says, "but, you know, Eddie [Van Halen] did that bit on 'Beat It' with Michael Jackson."

Going by the 1964 start date, Bell's band is approaching a 50th anniversary in pop music -- and he's busy. After the Van Halen tour winds down, Bell has three separate projects in the works:

-- He's working on a musical: Bell says he's been working with musical hitmaker Ben Elton ("We Will Rock You," "Love Never Dies") on a "Jersey Boys"-like jukebox musical about Kool & the Gang's history. The working title, of course, is "It's a Celebration!"

-- He's crafting a reality TV show: America is littered with wanna-be musicians, people who started a band when they were young but eventually acquiesced to a professional office career. Many still play in bands on the weekends, though -- and Bell wants to revive their abandoned dreams. His show, "Makin' It Kool," would find him "popping in on these people to say, 'Hey, you could make it Kool again!'"

-- He's planning a star-studded new album: "My brother and I are working on a project with guests, a concept album. We've been talking to Bootsy Collins and Nile Rodgers, and we've been reaching out to Verdine White [Earth, Wind & Fire] and Charlie Wilson [the GAP Band]. It'll be sort of a funk, I guess funk-pop record. ... It would be great if we could get Eddie to be on it."


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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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