Even though the group will play before Kid Rock tomorrow at the Toyota Pavilion at Montage Mountain, please don’t call Kool & The Gang an “opening act.”
How many “opening acts” have sold more than 70 million records worldwide and influenced the music of three generations? Or have earned two Grammys, seven American Music Awards, 25 Top Ten R&B hits, nine Top Ten Pop hits and 31 gold and platinum albums? Or have performed continuously for the past 35 years — longer than any other R&B group in history?
Kool & The Gang — still led by brothers Robert “Kool” Bell (bass guitar) and Khalis Bayyan (a.k.a. Ronald Bell, tenor saxophone) and sporting two other original members in George Brown (drums) and Dennis Thomas (alto saxophone) — has roots going back to 1964 and a group called the Jazziacs. They started performing under the more-famous moniker in 1969 and released their first album that same year.
Throughout the 1970s, the group was a rhythm-and-blues powerhouse with songs such as “Funky Stuff,” “Jungle Boogie,” “Hollywood Swinging,” “Higher Plane” and “Spirit of the Boogie” hitting the upper reaches of the R&B charts.
After lead singer James “J.T.” Taylor joined in 1979, Kool & The Gang started crossing over to the Pop charts with regularity and became one of the most-popular groups of the 1980s. The band’s Top Ten hits and most-famous numbers include: “Ladies’ Night” (1979), “Too Hot” (1979), “Celebration” (1980), “Get Down On It” (1981), “Joanna” (1983), “Fresh” (1984), and “Cherish” (1985).
According to Robert “Kool” Bell, who spoke with The Times Leader on his way to the group’s first of 10 gigs with Kid Rock, the Gang will bring all those songs and the memories that go with them to Scranton tomorrow.
And the band is no stranger to appearing on a bill that at first glance seems random and mismatched: It did 48 concerts with Van Halen last year and will appear July 13 with Dave Matthews Band at Hersheypark Stadium.
“Before the tour with Van Halen, we hadn’t played in the states in a long time,” Bell said. “We were still doing things like festivals in France and such, but we hadn’t played here. But I spoke with David Lee Roth after he saw us perform at the Glastonbury Festival (in the United Kingdom), and he was telling me he and Eddie and everybody used to play our songs in the clubs when they were coming up.
“So we thought it would be a good idea to get together and go have a party,” he said. “And that was a huge success. So when we found out that it was basically the same situation with Kid Rock, that he used to play our stuff when he was coming up in Detroit, we thought, let’s get out there and rock with the Kid.”
Bell said the hardest part of putting these shows together is making everything fit into the time allotted to a traditional opening act.
“Our regular show is two hours, but we design a show to hit all the highlights in 55 minutes when we go out with one of these artists,” Bell said. “In the early part, we do our AOR (Album Oriented Rock) side, songs like ‘Misled,’ ‘Emergency’ and ‘Tonite.’ Then we get into the stuff like ‘Jungle Boogie,’ and then we go into the ones that everybody remembers like ‘Celebration’ and ‘Ladies’ Night.’ ”
While the band may no longer hit the charts as it once did, exposure in commercials and movies — and opening itself up to new audiences on tours with Van Halen and Kid Rock — have kept Kool & The Gang’s music alive.
“It’s always a plus when you have that kind of exposure,” Bell said. “One time I was in Atlantic City, and a kid came up to me and told me he liked our new song. When I asked him what he was talking about, he said ‘Jungle Boogie.’ Now that song came out in 1973, but it was new to him because he saw it in ‘Pulp Fiction.’
“You just can’t buy that type of exposure.”