Special Interview with Ronald “Khalis” Bell, Main Songwriter and Co-Founder of Kool & The Gang

Ronald "Khalis" Bell
Ronald “Khalis” Bell

Kool & The Gang, which was one of the most popular groups of the ’70s and ’80s and remains a strong touring act today, created many memorable hit songs. Perhaps best known for their joyful hit, “Celebration,” they created other classic hits such as “Cherish,” “Get Down On It,” “Too Hot,” “Hollywood Swinging,” “Fresh” and “Joanna.” They’ve also had four platinum and five gold albums, and they’ve won two Grammy awards

Although songwriting was a group effort where each band member contributed, Ronald “Khalis” Bell is known to be the main songwriter in Kool & The Gang. He co-wrote all of the group’s hits except for “Too Hot” (written by George Brown). Bell was a creative force behind-the-scenes, more so in the studio than as an onstage performer. He plays multiple instuments, including saxophone, piano, bass, drums and guitar. He was also arranger and producer for many of the band’s albums.

We are pleased to do a new interview with Ronald “Khalis” Bell, about how he co-wrote Kool & The Gang’s hit songs. But before we start the interview, here’s some background information on the group, and a list of their impressive hit credits.

Kool & The Gang is based in New Jersey, and four of its original members are still with the group: Robert “Kool” Bell, Ronald “Khalis” Bell, George Brown and Dennis Thomas. The group’s current lead singer is Walter Anderson.

The group has had 12 Top 10 pop hit singles: “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging,” “Ladies’ Night,” “Too Hot,” “Celebration,” “Get Down On It,” “Joanna,” “Fresh,” “Misled,” “Cherish,” “Victory” and “Stone Love.” Their additional Top 40 singles are: “Funky Stuff,” “Higher Plane,” “Spirit Of The Boogie,” “Jones Vs. Jones,” “Take My Heart (You Can Have It If You Want It),” “Big Fun,” “Let’s Go Dancin’ (Ooh La, La, La),” “Tonight,” and “Emergency.”

Kool & the Gang has had a double platinum album (Emergency) plus three platinum albums (Ladies’ Night, Celebrate! and Something Special). In addition, they’re had five gold albums (Wild and Peaceful, Light of Worlds, As One, In the Heart and Forever).

Notably, Kool & The Gang was recently honored with a BET Soul Train Lifetime Achievement Award. They’ve also won six American Music Awards. And this summer they’ll be on tour, headlining the Keepin’ The Funk Alive tour which also features Bootsy Collins, Morris Day and Doug E. Fresh.

Here is our Q&A interview with Ronald “Khalis” Bell:

DK: Nice to speak with you. Would you say that you’re the main songwriter in Kool & The Gang?

Ronald “Khalis”Bell: Yes I co-wrote all of the (hit) songs, except for “Too Hot,” which was written by George Brown.

DK: What instruments do you play?

Bell: I play saxophone onstage now. I can also play piano, bass, drums and a little guitar. Just about anything…I can make some music on it.

DK: In the 1970s, the group first had hits with “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging.” How did you create those songs?

Kool & The Gang: George Brown, Ronald Bell, Robert "Kool" Bell and Dennis Thomas.
Kool & The Gang performing live. Pictured (l-r): George Brown, Ronald Bell, Robert “Kool” Bell and Dennis Thomas.

 

Bell: We had three (main) songs from the Wild and Peaceful album (in 1973): “Funky Stuff,” “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging.” The first song that came to life was “Funky Stuff.” At the time, the record company needed a hit [from us]. We had just come off the Good Times album which was a creative record—it didn’t really have any commercial value to it…very little. So we were almost forced into doing a remake of “Soul Makossa” (by African artist Manu Dibango). The label wanted to bring back our original producer, Mr. Gene Redd, and he suggested that if we recorded “Soul Makossa,” it would have been a hit. 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 also decided that we were going to go commercial…full steam. We were going into the studio to make some commercial music.

On “Funky Stuff,” Charles (Claydes Smith) walked in and started playing this guitar riff. It was also played on “More Funky Stuff” which was Part 2 of this record. This riff was the first thing we heard, and then we just chimed in. Things went fast, and I just started singing “Can’t get enough of that funky stuff,” I said, “Whoa Whoa Whoa Yeah!” And the horn lines came spontaneously—usually I was the one to start that off. And we put the beginning on it, and then “Funky” Stuff was born. This all happened on the same day.

DK: How did you write “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging”?

Bell: “Hollywood Swinging” came next. Charles (Claydes Smith) walks in, and he starts playing that guitar riff that’s inside “Hollywood Swinging.” So we all just chimed in again (he laughs). I came up with the bass line, and then we started singing (the hook) “Hey, Hey, Hey.” At the time, DJ Frankie (“Hollywood”) Crocker was hot on the radio. He called himself “chief rocker Hollywood swinging.”

The hook just came, “Hey Hey Hey, Whatcha Got To Say…Hollywood…Hollywood Swinging!” (he sings). We all chimed in, and I put that (horn) intro on there, and Dennis (Thomas, who plays alto saxophone) put that bridge on the horn part. Then Ricky (Westfield, who played keyboards) said, “I’m gonna write the lyrics to this!” And Ricky wrote the story—”I remember…not too long ago…” So that was “Hollywood Swinging.” The original version was 18 minutes long.


Here’s Kool & the Gang performing their hit “Celebration” on the
TV show, Live At The Apollo.

DK: And how did you come up with “Jungle Boogie”?

Bell: “Jungle Boogie” was something that I was working on. I was listening to Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein” record. I thought, Wow…that riff is interesting…how he’s doing that. Then I just took a structure from the rhythm and I came up with [the horn riff]. Then I went home and I said, Wow…this is an interesting track. At the time, we needed to do this “jungle” record. I started singing “Jungle Boogie boogie woogie, Jungle Boogie boogie woogie.” But when I got to the studio, I thought I’ll take all of that middle part out and just go “Jungle Boogie…Jungle Boogie.” And that’s how we came up with “Jungle Boogie.” [It was] just pure rhythm.

DK: Then a few years passed, and when singer James “J.T.” Taylor joined the group, the songs seemed to have a more melodic and pop sound.

Bell: Yes, before James (J.T. Taylor) joined us, we had decided to head in a more pop direction. Then we decided to get a singer, and we brought James in. He’s the only one we auditioned. James had a deep voice—a baritone voice like Nat King Cole—so he had a sound to his voice that worked with the group.

DK: How did you write the hit “Ladies’ Night”?

Bell: At the time, disco was burnin’ up. We tried our hand at disco after the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. We had just done an in-store (appearance at a record store), and it was at a low point in our career. Nobody showed up for our in-store, except for this one girl, who said, “Kool & The Gang—they’re old hat!” I took that personally—it was personal for me. I said, “No no no…this is not happening.” So we had to figure this out.

So after that, we’re in the studio—Kool walks in, and I was at the keyboard playing. Kool had been hanging out at places like Studio 54 (club). He says, “I got two things for you—’Hangin’ out’ and ‘Ladies’ night’.” When he said ‘Ladies’ night’, my head just expanded (he laughs). I said, “Whoa, there’s a ladies’ night everywhere in the world. We gotta write a song about that.” And so George Smith came up with the track, I came up with the hook, and we all collaborated on the lyrics. (He sings) “Oh yes it’s Ladies’ Night and the feelin’s right! This is Ladies’ Night, oh what a night!” So all of that worked—that’s the story behind “Ladies’ Night.”

DK: Then two years later, you had the huge hit, “Celebration.” How did you write this song?

Bell: I was reading the (Bible) Scripture. I remember exactly where I was when this happened. I was in the Sheraton Hotel on Seventh Ave. in Manhattan. I was reading the scripture about where God called the angels together, and made an announcement that he was going to create this human—the human being. 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, Wow…That’s Big! (laughs) We’re talking about the origin of human beings…from this particular scripture. This was Big. That’s where I got the song “Celebration” from. I thought, I’m going to write a song about that, (with the line) “And Everyone around the world…Come on!” That’s the intent [of this song]…that it was actually written for mankind.


Here’s the video of Kool & the Gang’s hit single, “Cherish.”

That was the initial idea behind it. Of course, it became a collaboration and everyone joined in.

DK: I loved the great horn part in “Celebration.” Who wrote that?

Bell: That was (producer) Deodato—that was his contribution to the song. And Earl Toon wrote the melody in the chorus. I wrote the bridge. It was a collected effort.

DK: “Celebration” has become such a popular song. When I’m at the Hallmark store buying a birthday card, I’ll open a music card and I’ll hear “Celebration.” Did you think the song would become so popular?

Bell: No, I didn’t think that. I had no idea these things would work (laughs). They sound like they would work…I guess. After being in the business so long, you think they’ll work. But in the second half of our career, when we focused on pop music, we took some of the jazz chords out. And when I was writing “Celebration,” I was actually listening to some of Prince’s music, Donna Summer and a couple other things—I got inspired by that.

I had no idea that the song would become big—like another Happy Birthday song. But I knew there was a celebration going on everywhere in the world, with the most celebration being The Man—the human being—was called into existence.

DK: Your next hit was “Get Down On It,” which was more funky, like your earlier hits. Is there a story behind this song?

Bell: Yes. We were at a rehearsal one day, and I was playing the OBX (Oberheim) synthesizer. A friend of mine said, “Do you like reggae?” I said yes…I guess I do. He said, “Do you listen to Bob Marley?” I said not a lot, but I’ll listen to it—I started listening more to reggae. So I made up that bass line, and I had the whole track. I started playing it at rehearsal to see what reaction I’d get. And James (J.T. Taylor) said, “What’s that you’re playing? That’s nice—what is that?” And we just chimed in as we normally do, and I started singing “Get down on it…Get down on it.”

DK: Kool & The Gang also had some big ballad hits, like “Cherish” and “Joanna.” How did you guys write the ballads?

Bell: For “Joanna,” Charles Smith had a track, which he initially called “Dear Mom.” He brought me the track and said, “Listen to this.” I said, “Well, that’s an interesting track, but you’ve got to take out all those other chords.” And then when he came back with the track, it (turned out to be) the track for “Joanna.” And we were all in there trying to figure out “Dear Mom,” but it didn’t work. At the time, there was [the Toto hit] “Rosanna.” So we just decided to do “Joanna” (laughs). And that’s what came out. That’s how “Joanna” was born.

DK: And what about your ballad, “Cherish”?


Here’s the video of Kool & the Gang’s hit song, “Fresh.”

Bell: “Cherish” was something I was working on for awhile. We were working at Compass Point (Studio in the Bahamas). That’s where “Cherish” was born. I wrote the melody and James (J.T. Taylor) added the words to it.

DK: Your hit song “Misled” was more in the rock vein, with its electric guitar riff. How did this song come together?

Bell: I had a track for “Misled.” I was listening to the hit “Somebody’s Watching You” (by Rockwell). I thought, Man, that’s got a nice feel to it. So I constructed the music for “Misled,” being inspired by that song. I was working on this song for our Emergency album. We were reaching for a rock sound on this album. The Emergency album was full of hits like “Fresh” and “Cherish.” That was our biggest album to date.

DK: I read that you’ve also been the producer for the group. Is that correct?

Bell: Yes, I was the main producer. We gave the credit to everyone, except for during the end, when I started taking more credit personally. Most of the production was me—in the studio, finishing the record, mastering it.

I do want to say that we all contributed to that sound. If Charles Smith didn’t come in with that guitar lick, there would be no “Funky Stuff.” On the very first Kool & The Gang album, Charles came in and played that awkward guitar part that sounds like two guitars! (laughs). And he was a great inspiration, as well as (former band members) Robert Mickens, Ricky Westfield, as well as everybody in the group. We had a synergy. We called ourselves The Magnificent Seven.

DK: Of all the Kool & The Gang songs you’ve done, which are your personal favorites?

Bell: All of them (laughs). I have a personal connection to all of them. One song I like, as an instrumentalist and a horn player, would be “Open Sesame,” because that was a spontaneous chart thing. And I like “Summer Madness,” sonically…with that synthesizer sound. And “Celebration” was a big surprise. I mean, all of the [hits] were a big surprise to me.

DK: Currently, what new projects are you working on?

Bell: I’m working on a big new project. I’ve taken the first 10 years of our recordings (from the 1970s), and I’ve re-recorded all of that music again, and I’ve modified it, recording it with today’s technology. It’s called Kool Baby Brotha Band. We’ll also be re-recording our ’80s songs and eventually our whole catalog.

Besides that, we’ve just released a new single called “Sexy (Where’d You Get Yours).” It’s being released on our own label, which is called K.T.F.A., which stands for Keep The Funk Alive. We’ll also be going on tour this summer, starting in July, with Bootsy Collins, Morris Day and Doug E. Fresh.