By John Benson
Playing music to dance the night away is nothing new to Kool & the Gang.
For decades the funk-based act has been celebrating its popular catalog with show after show; however, last year the legendary band received an unlikely offer to open for hard-rock act Van Halen.
“People were scratching their heads and saying, ‘What kind of pairing is that with Van Halen?’” said Youngstown native Robert “Kool” Bell, calling from his Florida home. “When I met David Lee Roth, he said we were the perfect opening act. He said they used to play ‘Jungle Boogie’ and ‘Hollywood Swinging’ years ago. So the tour surprised everybody. The reviews were great.”
What’s amazing is Kool & the Gang, which released its self-titled debut in 1969, was actually finding new audiences who simply enjoyed the group’s mixture of dance, R&B, pop, funk and jazz. That’s why Bell said he jumped at the chance to spend this summer touring a few dates with Kid Rock. He met the “Bawitdaba” singer years ago.
“Kid Rock fans should be similar to Van Halen,” Bell said. “In fact, they might be a little more of a Kool & the Gang crowd because Kid Rock started off as a rapper. This could lead to an interesting combination.”
The tour is scheduled to play Tuesday at the Blossom Music Center, and in September at First Niagara Pavilion.
Bell said he looks forward to returning to his native Northeast Ohio. Kool & the Gang co-founder Bell and his brother Ronald grew up in 1950s Youngstown.
He remembers living on Prospect Street, attending Lincoln Elementary School and swimming in local pools.
“My grandfather was a mechanic,” Bell said. “I was told by my mother that my grandpops would keep me under the car with him. They thought I was going to be a little grease monkey. I built my first motorbike when I was 10. I took a lawnmower motor and put it on a bicycle frame. I was riding around the North Side and East Side of Youngstown. That’s why I thought I was going to be a mechanic. Right after that, we moved to Jersey City, N.J., but we had music around the house in Youngstown. My family played, but nothing professionally.”
Apparently that role went to Bell and his brother with the Grammy Award-winning Kool & the Gang, which sold more than 70 mil- lion albums based on hit singles such as “Celebration,” “Cherish,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Summer Madness” and “Open Sesame.”
Despite the outfit’s success, there’s one thing missing.
Bell said indirectly all of this crossover touring has acted as Kool & the Gang’s silent campaign for consideration into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
“We’ve been trying to do that for the last 10 years,” Bell said.
“People have told us they vote for us every year but you have to have a certain amount of votes. Hopefully we’ll get in because of what we’ve contributed to the music industry. It’s time for us.”
Invariably, if Bell finally gets the call, that will be one big-time “Celebration.”
He laughed, “Oh yeah.”