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Kool & the Gang Sang ‘Celebration’ When They Learned They Entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Kool & the Gang bandleader Robert “Kool” Bell learned the group was entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Sunday night when Ryan Seacrest and Lionel Richie delivered the announcement live on American Idol. “We had a party,” says Bell. “I was here with friends at my house. When they said “Kool and the Gang,” we all sang ‘Celebration.’ It was like, ‘Celebrate good times, come on!’”

The afternoon after the celebration, Bell hopped on Zoom with Rolling Stone to talk about the overdue honor, the bittersweet feeling of celebrating right after the loss of many of his bandmates, including his brother Ronald, writing some of their biggest hits, memories of touring with Van Halen in 2012, and why they have no plans for a farewell tour.

Congratulations. Is this something you thought much about over the years?
First of all, I was born in Youngstown, Ohio. The Hall of Fame is right up there in Cleveland. We do have some of our instruments in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, including a saxophone. But we were never inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Why do you think it took so damn long?
That’s a good question. Every year, people would say, “You’re not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? I thought you was in there by now.” I said, “No. Maybe one day they’ll recognize us and give us some love. After all, I’m a Buckeye. I’m from Ohio. Give me a break.”

What does this mean to you on a personal level?
On a personal level, we have joined with a lot of greats to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And it’s called the “Rock and Roll” Hall of Fame. I did 48 shows with Van Halen. I did shows with Kid Rock. I played with the Dave Matthews Band, Elton John, Rod Stewart. That is rock and roll, isn’t it?

And now you’re in the same club as James Brown, the Beatles, Aretha Franklin…
It’s great company to be in.

Is it bittersweet since it comes right after losing George Brown, Dennis Thomas, and your brother Ronald?
It is. I was just talking about this to George’s wife. The thing is, we go all the way back. It started with Spike Mickens, Claydes Smith, Dennis Thomas, George Brown, and my brother Ronald. All my family is gone. I’m happy to be around though. We could have all been gone. [Laughs] [Singer] James “J.T.” Taylor is also a part of this [induction]. He joined us in the Eighties, and we had a lot of hits with him as well.

Are you in touch with him? Do you think he’ll come?
I just spoke to him the other day. He went, “I’ll see you in Cleveland!” We have no plans yet, but he sang “Celebration” with us when we won the Songwriters [Hall of Fame] Award [in 2018].

It’s a really good class this year with Cher, Dave Matthews, Ozzy Osbourne, Foreigner…
We did some shows with Foreigner a couple of years ago. I just called their agent and said, “Man, we should get together with Foreigner and go back to Europe again. We can do a ‘Rock the World’ tour. How about that?”

If this is overdue for Kool and the Gang, it’s really overdue for Dionne Warwick.
Yeah. We share a publicist. I was told she’s really happy. We played with her many years ago with the San Diego Philharmonic Orchestra. It was us and Dionne with a 62-piece orchestra. It was great.

You could do an amazing version of “Get Down On It” at the end of the night with everyone from the show.
Wouldn’t that be great?

How will you pick just three Kool & the Gang songs to perform?
That’s another thing I was just thinking about. That’s a hard thing. It all depends. At our show, we usually close with “Get Down On It,” “Ladies’ Night,” and “Celebration.” That gets them moving. In the middle of the show, we do “Hollywood Swinging,” “Jungle Boogie,” and “Funky Stuff.” That gets the crowd up also.

It’s very hard to think of a group with songs that get the crowd going quite like your stuff. It’s impossible to hear one of your songs and stay seated.
Oh yeah. It’s like “Open Sesame” in Saturday Night Fever. That got John Travolta on the dance floor. We should bring John Travolta out at the Hall of Fame when we play “Open Sesame.” Hey John, come out and do your step like you did all those years ago. [Laughs]

Some people refuse to understand why hip-hop acts are in the Hall of Fame. It’s always made perfect sense to me.
Me too. And on the hip-hop side, we’re celebrating 50 years of hip-hop right now. And we’re the most sampled band in hip-hop.

Cher is a little bitter since it took her so long to get in. Do you hope she comes?
I hope she does. I could be bitter too. It’s been 60 years. Come on, man! [Laughs] But we finally made it.

What was it like touring with Van Halen in 2012?
It was great. We were playing the Glastonbury Music Festival in England. We were on the show with Coldplay and several rock groups. David Lee Roth happened to see us on the BBC. He calls up Eddie and Alex and goes, “Hey, I have the perfect group to go out with us.” They said, “Who?” He goes, “Kool & the Gang.” They go, “Man, what you been smoking over there?”

He goes, “Yeah, Kool & the Gang. You forget that back in the day, we used to play ‘Jungle Boogie’ and stuff in the clubs. Sixty percent of our audience is ladies. They know ‘Ladies’ Night.’ We have ‘Jump.’ They have ‘Celebration.’ These were both hits in the Eighties. Let’s go out and have a party.” And man, 48 shows! It was something! It was a great combination.

Did the crowds welcome you guys?
Absolutely. The funny thing about it is that we only had 50 minutes. We opened the show with “Fresh” and then we went into “Tonight,” which was one of our rock-oriented songs. When we got to “Ladies’ Night,” “Get Down On It” and “Celebration,” those ladies were getting up, turning to the real Van Halen fans, and saying, “You better get your butt up and get down on it!” David Lee Roth knew exactly what was going to happen. It became a party.

And Kid Rock saw us play in Detroit. He said, “I want you to play 20 shows with me.” We went, “Kid, we can’t do 20 shows with you. We have to go to Europe.” He goes, “Then give me ten.” We did ten shows with Kid Rock. And then Dave Matthews Band, Elton John, Rod Stewart.

What was Eddie Van Halen like?
He was great. He said to me, “I feel a little nervous.” I said, “What do you mean you’re nervous? You’re one of the greatest guitarists out there.” He said, “Yeah, but it’s been a while, man.” [Laughs] But every night was great.

Are you guys working on any new music?
We did two albums in the last couple of years. Before my brother passed, we did an album called “Perfect Union.” It had “Pursuit of Happiness” on it. Las year, we did “People Just Wanna Have Fun.” That was with George Brown. And then he passed. Those were the last two albums we did.


Right now, we aren’t doing anything until the top of the year, 2025. We want to put out a cool jazz record. We want to do an album called The Jazzy Acts Are Back, and take everything full circle for us.

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a wedding or bar mitzvah where I didn’t hear “Celebration.” What’s it feel like to have written a song that’s going to outlive all of us?
It’s been a blessing. It started off with “Ladies’ Night.” J.T. had just joined the band. My wife and I were hanging out in New York at Studio 54. We realized there was a Ladies’ Night. I went back to George Brown, who did the music. I said, “I got a pretty good title for our first single with J.T. ‘Ladie’s Night.” My brother said, “‘Ladies’ Night?’ They have those all over the world.” The tag of “Ladies’ Night” is “Come on let’s all celebrate/Oh it’s ladies night and the feeling’s right.” We were at the American Music Awards and we went, “That’s going to be our next song!”

Lots of band are doing farewell tours these days. Do you ever think about that?
No. We aren’t ready to throw in the towel yet.

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