The Kool and the Gang an them “Celebration” blared over the speakers at the first Famously Hot New Year concert two years ago while George Clinton’s crew set up for his headlining set.
This year, revelers in Columbia get Kool and the Gang in person, so that probably rules out “Celebration” during the band’s set-up period. “Maybe they can play some George Clinton,” joked Robert “Kool” Bell.
Robert Bell started playing a blend of jazz, funk and soul in 1964 along with his brother Ronald Bell and Jersey City, N.J., buddies Robert “Spike” Mickens, Dennis “Dee Tee” Thomas, Ricky Westfield, George Brown and Charles Smith. Forty-nine years later, Kool and the Gang has racked up 31 gold or platinum albums and enough top 10 songs to fill their entire Famously Hot set.
But they’re more than an oldies act. Much of their music seems fresh because they never quit recording or touring. Also, ever since their peak years for hits, their music has been sampled by hundreds of artists. Bell’s favorite is Will Smith’s melding of Kool’s “Summer Madness” into his hit “Summertime.”
“We definitely are thankful for that, not only the sampling but them giving recognition that they’re sampling our songs,” Bell said.
The band’s music translates well to international audiences. Bell had to do his round of interviews with Columbia media in early December because the band was off for an Asian tour with stops in China (a high-end casino in Macau) and Japan. That’s going to make it hard to do a lot of promo work for their first Christmas season album “Kool for the Holidays.”
The band’s busy schedule this year also has featured 48 shows with Van Halen, 10 shows with Kid Rock and a couple of shows with Dave Matthews Band.
“Seems like we’re moving into rock,” Bell said with a laugh.
But aren’t you getting a little old for rocking out?
“Look at Mick Jagger, he’s 70,” said Bell, a relatively chipper 63. “Paul Simon, Rod Stewart, all those guys – we’re all around the same age.”
But while Stewart has gone from “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” to Irving Berlin and Cole Porter standards on his “The Great American Songbook” albums, Kool and the Gang still turns up the bass and horns and churns out a funky “Get Down On It.” Makes you wonder if “Jungle Boogie” will be considered for the 2050 version of “The Great American Songbook.”
There’s little doubt “Celebration” ranks as one of the most-played songs ever. It works at birthday parties, graduations, weddings and, especially, New Year’s Eve parties. (Every time it’s played on televised New Year’s Eve events or after sports championship games on broadcast stations, Kool and the Gang get royalties.)
“Celebration” certainly will be in the Famously Hot set list. “It’s such an energizing record,” Bell said. “If we do a show and don’t play it, we hear about it.”
Bell thinks it’ll be fun to play a free, outdoor show on New Year’s Eve, even with the possibility of frigid temperatures.
“I remember one time we played for the Orange Bowl,” he recalled. “That night it dropped down to 35 in Miami and we froze our butts off.”
He pledged the band will be more prepared for cold even in Famously Hot Columbia.