David Lee Roth was cool with Kool’s big party sound
AT first glance, Kool & the Gang opening for Van Halen is a head-scratching choice or a brilliant celebration of musical diversity.
For David Lee Roth, it was about girls and partying.
The frontman saw Kool & the Gang play the Glastonbury Festival last year and figured the funk-pop band would be the perfect opening act for Van Halen’s 2012 North American tour since they were both party bands cut from different musical cloths.
“I was talking to him at rehearsals that started in February and he said, ‘In the ’80s Van Halen was the rock party band and Kool & the Gang was the pop party band. Did you know 60 per cent of our fans are ladies, and you wrote the song Ladies Night? So let’s party,’” Robert (Kool) Bell says with a laugh over the phone from Cleveland.
What at first glance appears to be an odd combination has been proving to be a popular move with fans. Many reviews from the first 27 shows note how the rock-oriented Van Halen crowd was singing and dancing along with Kool & the Gang, which has endured in various incarnations since forming in Jersey City, N.J., in 1964.
The first version of the band was a jazz group, the Jazziacs, Bell formed with his sax-playing brother Ronald, which became Kool & the Flames and finally morphed into Kool & the Gang in 1969.
“You had James Brown and the Famous Flames. We didn’t want to have any problem with the Godfather Sunday, 7:30 p.m., MTS Centre Opening for Van Halen Tickets: $41.75 to $165.50 at Ticketmaster with Flames, so we thought, why not change it to Gang? It has a street sound,” says Bell, the band’s bassist, who became Kool with a K to avoid confusion with another person known as Cool.
“Everyone in the neighbourhood had to have a nickname,” he says.
The band’s sound evolved from jazz to soul and into heavy funk in the 1970s. Singles like Jungle Boogie, Hollywood Swinging, Higher Plane and Spirit of the Boogie hit both the R&B and pop charts and the band became known for its incendiary live shows. In the early 1980s they would incorporate more pop into their sound and score hits like Celebration, Get Down On It, Fresh and Cherish.
The group’s 1970s material would receive a second life when it became a source of numerous samples for rappers and pop artists in the 1980s and ’90s with DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, N.W.A., Deee-lite, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Ice-t, Janet Jackson and Madonna cribbing beats, bass lines and horn sections for their material.
The website whosampled.com lists 437 songs that use samples of Kool & the Gang’s music with the instrumental N.T., Funky Stuff, Jungle Boogie, Summer Madness and Jungle Jazz used the most.
“In the ’70s we didn’t have a lead singer sort of thing happening — we were more jazz, funk sing-along stuff. The drums had an edgy sound. With hip-hop, that’s the type of thing they were looking for to do their raps on. Some of the more popular songs, people like Madonna and Janet Jackson used,” Bell says.
The band’s popularity remains high internationally and the group plays festivals all over the world. They were even given rare permission by the United States government to travel to Cuba in 2009 to perform a one-off show for a crowd estimated between 100,000 and 250,000 people.
“My father used to box in Cuba back in the day. He was in the top five of featherweight boxers and would box Cuban fighters and hang out with Cuban musicians. It was a great experience to go where my father used to hang out,” Bell says.
With that experience under their collective belts and the Van Halen tour going “phenomenal,” the band is looking for new challenges and has been in talks with British comedian/playwright Ben Elton to develop a musical using the band’s music along the lines of Elton’s hit We Will Rock You, based on the music of Queen.
“It would be called It’s a Celebration, so that’s something we’re working on. It would be great if we could come in and out (of the show). We can’t lock ourselves in,” Bell says.