There is much to write about this week, from President Trump’s audiotaped admission that he intentionally misled the public about the severity of the coronavirus to the epic failure of the K12 distance learning platform in Miami-Dade, but I don’t intend to.
Instead, I want to write about something that stopped me in my tracks last week, resulting in much thought, reflection and trips down memory lane – the passing of Ronald “Khalis” Bell, the singer, songwriter and saxophonist of Kool & The Gang, at the age of 68.
There are things that awaken old memories, good and bad. It is often a taste, an aroma or a sound. Music is one of those things. Bell co-wrote many of Kool & The Gang’s major hits that have become embedded into the national consciousness, like “Ladies Night,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Get Down On It” and “Celebration.”
At the risk of dating myself, I will admit that Kool & The Gang, along with Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers and Sly & the Family Stone comprised the chart-topping, funk-soul music bed of my youth, from my tween years into my 20s and beyond. When this music plays, time stands still for me. The year “Get Down On It” hit the top ten of the U.S. pop and R&B charts I graduated from high school, put my belongings in a U-Haul truck, and moved to Philadelphia to live with my boyfriend and attend Temple University. Ronald Reagan was president, a rally against nuclear weapons drew 750,000 people to New York’s Central Park, commercial whaling was banned, EPCOT opened in Disney World and a major economic recession hit the country.
The year I was born, Bell and his brother Robert “Kool” Bell made percussion instruments out of old paint cans because they couldn’t afford drums. They figured out different tones depending on how much paint was in each can. A few years later, they moved from Ohio to New Jersey and played for tips in Greenwich Village, where they added cheap drums to their paint-can ensemble. They started gigging in high school with a band they formed with friends and even won the Apollo Theater’s famed Amateur Night. This is the band that later evolved into Kool & The Gang.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Bell said the group was clearly influenced by jazz and the Motown sound, but also by James Brown, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Whatever the inspiration, Kool & The Gang was magical, joyful and endearing.
The band sold more than 70 million albums worldwide, with 31 of their albums going gold or platinum. They won a Grammy in 1978 for their work on the soundtrack for “Saturday Night Fever” and a BET Soul Train Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014. They were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2018.
“Celebration” remains a wedding staple today decades after it was released. If I live to be 100, I’m sure nothing will get me up onto the dance floor faster than an old Kool & The Gang hit. But today, I leave you with the lyrics of one of their quieter but no less soulful tunes because we need to remember these right now more than ever.
“Cherish the love we have. We should cherish the life we live. Cherish the love. Cherish the life. Cherish the love we have.”
Rest in music, Ronald “Khalis” Bell. You are cherished.