The music world says goodbye to another legend as Ronald “Khalis” Bell, singer, songwriter, saxophonist and co-founder of the band Kool & the Gang died Wednesday at his U.S. Virgin Islands home. The cause of death is unknown.
Bell’s musical interest started early as he and his teenage brother Robert “Kool” Bell would gather paint cans to make percussion instruments that they jammed on in their Youngstown, OH home. Too poor to afford actual instruments, they would fill the cans with varying amounts of paint to determine the type of sound they would produce.
Eventually, the brothers moved to Jersey City, New Jersey. They would travel into New York to busk in front of Greenwich Village subways adding cheap drums to their paint can ensemble. “We’d make about five dollars in three weeks,” Bell told the media in 2015.
In time, the brothers found other musicians to jam with. They recruited high school friends Spike Mickens, Dennis Thomas, Ricky Westfield, George Brown and Charles Smith and formed Kool & the Flames which eventually became Kool & the Gang. The band had their first major breakthrough when they won the Apollo Theater’s Amateur Night while still gigging in high school.
The group released their debut LP in 1970 which featured an innovative fusion of jazz and funk. “You had a hard time trying to get us to play R&B,” Bell explained. “We were diehard jazz musicians. We’re not stooping to that. We didn’t really try to do that until now.”
“We used to play a lot of percussion in the streets in the Sixties, go to the park and start beating on drums and stuff in the street … We were very street percussive [on that album], so we blended that element with listening to jazz,” he added. “You could hear the jazz element. You could hear the Motown element.”
The band continued putting out music but really broke through when they released their fourth album “Wild and Peaceful”. The album included top 10 hits like “Funky Stuff”, “Hollywood Swinging” and “Jungle Boogie”. They continued to get more successful as time went on. “Ladies Night” was a huge hit in 1979 and “Celebrate” which came out in 1980 remains a cover band classic to this day.
All in all, the band enjoyed an illustrious career releasing countless albums between the years 1969 and 2013. All hits were co-written by Bell. They sold more than 70 million albums worldwide and 31 of the albums they released went gold or platinum.
Bell spent much of the 90’s and early 2000’s touring with the band as a legacy group. Shortly before his death, he was working on a solo album called “Kool Baby Brutha Band” alongside a series of animated shorts called “Kool TV”.
Although a driving force in the band, Bell managed to stay humble. “A lot of the songs, I may have spearheaded ’em,” Bell told the media in 2018. “But it’s really, with a ‘K,’ the [collective] genius of a band called Kool & the Gang.”