Despite the loss of two key members, the celebrated Jersey City funk icons remain a Perfect Union on first new album in over a decade
It was already going to be a momentous occasion when celebrated R&B band Kool & the Gang released Perfect Union (via Ru-Jac Records / Omnivore) in August.
After all, it is their first album of original material in more than a decade. Band leader Robert “Kool” Bell explains that there is even more poignancy with this release because it was the final project for his brother and bandmate, Ronald Bell, who passed away last year.
“The album is special to me because it was special to my brother,” Kool says during a call from his New Jersey home. Ronald Bell had served as Kool & the Gang’s main songwriter for five decades, and while he had retired from touring with the band years ago, Kool says his brother retained a key role: “He had a studio in St. Thomas and he spent a lot of time down there writing. He would send me tracks and then bounce things off me.”
Adding to the emotionality surrounding Perfect Union’s release, another original band member, Dennis Thomas, also passed away – only a week before this interview. “He was very involved in this project, as well,” Kool says of Thomas.
But Kool & the Gang have always been known for their uplifting music – and Perfect Union is no exception. In that way, the album seems more like a celebration of Bell and Thomas, and Kool says this optimism was embedded in these new songs right from the start.
VIDEO: Kool & The Gang “Pursuit of Happiness (Rap Version)”
“When [Joe] Biden was nominated [for the Presidency]. he quoted from the Constitution: ‘The pursuit of happiness.’ That’s when my brother came up with this idea and concept of the album called Perfect Union, and the single ‘Pursuit of Happiness,’ so I’m very excited about it because it was his vision to do this,” Kool says.
“The Pursuit of Happiness,” the album’s first single, fits right in with “Celebration,” “Get Down on It,” “Ladies Night,” and the many other hits that have made Kool & the Gang beloved around the world (and earned them two Grammy awards). “The Pursuit of Happiness” and the rest of the album’s tracks are, Kool says, the band’s way to push back against these dark times. “So much is going on right now with COVID and all the other problems we’ve been having,” he says, “so an album like this, I feel good about it.”
The band are also intent on continuing performing now that pandemic restrictions are lifting, getting back to the kind of high-energy shows they’ve been doing for decades. In fact, Kool says they just returned from playing jazz and pop festivals in France, Spain, Belgium and Finland. Earlier in the summer, they demonstrated their versatility when they played with philharmonic orchestras in California and Utah.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Kool & the Gang are still thriving despite such deep personal losses and the COVID pandemic: after all, this band have endured for more than five decades now. Kool says this ability to persevere through tough times comes down to advice that he and his brother received: “My mother always told us to stick together, regardless of our differences,” he says, adding that it’s a philosophy that the band as a whole have adopted. “That’s why we’ve been able to survive for so many years. If we have a problem, we try to work it out, and it’s helped us to be successful for over 50 years.”
That’s not to say it’s always been an easy road for them, though. “We started young in the [music] business, so we went through our trials and tribulations,” Kool says, “but we wanted to continue to be successful, so we pushed on even when things were a little tough for us. You live and learn and you learn to live – so you’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to do things that you might regret, but that was a part of the experience. We didn’t give up. So that is an accomplishment.
AUDIO: Kool & The Gang “Raw Hamburger”
It’s a career that Kool started in the mid-1960s in Jersey City, N.J., when he and his brother formed the band The Jazziacs – a name they chose “because of our love for jazz at a young age. We were listening to John Coltrane and all those guys,” he says. From there, they became The Soul Town Band, playing classic Motown songs. When they started blending these jazz and R&B influences, they realized they’d hit upon their own unique style, so they changed their band name again, briefly calling themselves Kool & the Flames before finally becoming Kool & the Gang.
“By the time we came up with our first record [1969’s Kool & the Gang], we had developed the Kool & the Gang sound, and we have been able to maintain that,” Kool says. “We’re thankful that we have been able to create so much music over the years.”
And they’re still not done–Kool and his bandmates are currently working on a documentary, a book, and a Las Vegas musical, each telling the Kool & the Gang story in a different way. As Kool says, “We’ve still got a lot to do!”