Ronald Nathan Bell, who founded Kool & The Gang with his brother Robert “Kool” Bell has died in the US Virgin Islands.
The singer, songwriter, musician, arranger and producer who adopted the name “Khalis Bayyan” after his conversion to Islam in the 1970s was 68 years old.
Ronald Bell played a crucial role in creating the sound of Kool & The Gang, which evolved from a dirty blend of jazz, funk and pop into disco and finally the polished R&B hooks of the band’s most popular era in the early 1980s.
Every obituary of Bell has mentioned “Celebration” in the lede and so will this one. It’s one of those songs that was played so often when other cultural milestones happened that it’s burrowed itself into the DNA script of American culture itself. But Kool & The Gang had a much longer career than casual listeners realize, and their catalog is loaded with tracks ripping up the roots of R&B. Prior to the 1980s, Kool & The Gang repeatedly scored chart hits with purely instrumental tracks or songs with hardly any vocals all – itself a testament to Ronald Bell’s musicianship and songwriting.
Bell started the group with his brother Robert “Kool” Bell (later Muhammad Bayyan) and Dennis “DT” Thomas, Robert “Spike” Mickens, Charles Smith, George Brown and Ricky West. The Bell brothers had grown up in desperate poverty moving between cities such as Elmira and Youngstown, Ohio – Ronald Bell reportedly missed a year of schooling because he lacked shoes. Originally named the Jazziacs, the band was signed to Gene Redd’s Redd Coach Records as “Kool & The Flames” but changed it to avoid confusion with James Brown’s backup band, The Famous Flames.
Kool & The Gang released three studio albums before achieving breakthrough success in 1973 with Wild and Peaceful, which spawned the Top 10 hit “Hollywood Swinging” and the seminal “Jungle Boogie.”
After 46 years, none of these tracks on Wild and Peaceful are what you’d call “deep cuts” – except in the sense of how many times they’ve been cut up, spliced, covered, used to sell cookies or to provide a hard backbone for new grooves.
WhoSampled counts 78 tracks that sampled the lead cut “Funky Stuff” and there certainly must be more:
Or “Summer Madness” from the following album Light of Worlds, which was sampled even more frequently (most famously by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince in “Summertime”) and with the most anticipated synth-scream in the history of recorded music. We present it here as it probably always should have been presented, in an hour-long extended mix. Wait for the Arp:
Like many funk bands Kool & The Gang rode the disco wave in the late 1970s, though none of the albums released in this period were terribly successful (though “Open Sesame” won a Grammy after appearing on probably the most played disco album ever, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack.) The band re-engineered their sound yet again and emerged with a smooth pop and R&B hybrid (with just enough disco swing to keep the hips flexed) delivered by a new singer with a bright and direct voice, James “J.T.” Taylor. This was important as none of the early members felt terribly confident as a vocalist, and during their early hard funk period the band specialized in dynamic instrumentals or near-instrumentals as on their early album Music Is The Message:
With Taylor’s aid, “Too Hot” and “Ladies Night” reinvented Kool & The Gang and returned the band to the pop charts in 1979, and a year later “Celebration” from the follow-up album Celebrate hit #1 and became a staple of weddings and coliseums for the next 30 years.
Since his death media reports have frequently referred to Bell as “Ronald ‘Khalis’ Bell” as if it were a nickname. In reality, the Bell Brothers converted to Islam in the 1970s with the support of Imam Warith Deen Mohammed, son of Nation of Islam founder Elijah Mohammed. Ronald Bell first adopted the name “Ronald Five X” and was later given the name “Khalis” and the family name Bayyan. Robert Bell converted as well, becoming “Robert Nine X” and then Muhammed Bayyan. In later years, media and interviews as well as the band’s official website and social media refer to the brothers as Ronald Bell and Robert Bell, a practice we’ve followed here.
Rising from poverty and teaching himself how to play, Ronald Bell wrote many of the most popular tracks of his time, including “Celebration,” “Jungle Boogie” and “Cherish.” Kool & The Gang sold 7.5 million albums in their time, across 23 studio albums and 70 singles.
Ronald Bell is survived by 10 children. Services will be private.