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Kool & The Gang lead an endless celebration

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- After nearly 50 years in music, Kool & The Gang are discounted by plenty of people.

Robert "Kool" Bell has heard it over and over.

The bassist and bandleader said, "We've had different challenges we've been confronted with over the years. It seems like every 10 years people seem to say, 'Can they make it to the next 10?'"

Although critics have been digging the band's grave almost from the very beginning, they've managed to survive. Bell performs with his gang Thursday at the Clay Center for FestivALL's Mayor's Concert.

The worst of it, the 62-year-old said, was probably back in the 1980s, after lead singer J.T. Taylor decided to leave the band and pursue a solo career. Taylor was the voice behind some of Kool & The Gang's best-known hits -- "Joanna," "Celebration" and "Ladies Night."

Bell laughed and said people were saying, "Oh, now I know they're dead.

"But every year we've been able to bounce back," he said.

Part of that, Bell said, is because of occasional infusions of new players.

"One of my singers, he's only been in the band seven years," Bell explained. "He's 32, but then I've got guys who've been with us for 20 years."

Despite the "new blood," nearly half the band has been with the group since the beginning or near the beginning.

Kool & The Gang was officially incorporated in 1967, though the core of the band, including Bell on bass, his brother Ronald on tenor sax, trumpet player Robert "Spike" Mickens, flutist Dennis "Dee Dee" Thomas, lead guitarist Claydes Smith, keyboard player Rick Westfield and percussionist George "Funky" Brown, had already been playing together for years under one name or another.

They started off in 1964 as the Jazziacs, then became Soultown. In those first couple of years, they were an instrumental group that performed on their own and as the backing band for various singers in New York and New Jersey.

Soultown became Kool and the Flames, then evolved into Kool & The Gang just before the group signed its first record deal.

Longevity has come at a price. Through the decades, players like Westfield and Taylor left to pursue solo careers while longtime members have exited because of declining health and illness.

From the original lineup, Thomas and Brown, along with the Bell brothers are still with the group.

"We're the old guys, but we're still hanging out," Bell laughed. "It's kind of funny: When you look at people like Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones or Rod Stewart, we're all the same age."

And Bell said they have no intention of retiring.

"What else are we going to do?"

In the past couple of years, Kool & The Gang have seen a resurgence. Last year, the group toured with rock band Van Halen, a group celebrating 40 years in music.

Van Halen vocalist David Lee Roth told Bell that touring together made perfect sense.

Bell said Roth told him, "In the '80s, you guys were the party pop/funk band, and we were the party rock band. So let's go out and have a party."

"And that's what we did in 48 cities," Bell said.

Following the June 27 performance, Kool & The Gang will be headed back out on the road -- this time with Kid Rock, which might raise a few eyebrows, but Bell is certain that it will be fine.

It's just another party tour.

"I've heard his fans are a little more hard core and can be a little rowdy," he said. "But I think it's going to be fun."

Bell said the band still performs the songs they're best known for, and they're working on new material. They've just finished up a Christmas record, their first, which he expected would be out sometime in November.

Kool & The Gang are also putting together a record for next year to celebrate their 50 years in music, which goes back to before there was a Kool or a Gang.

"We want to do a brand-new album, get some guest artists," he said.

It will be a celebration for a band that's a long way from dead.

Want to go?

WHAT: Kool & The Gang

WHERE: Clay Center

WHEN: 8 p.m. June 27

TICKETS: $43, $58 and $68

INFO: 304-561-3570 or www.theclaycenter.org

Reach Bill Lynch at lynch@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5195.


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