Ronald “Khalis” Bell, the singer, songwriter and saxophonist whose group Kool and the Gang became one of the most celebrated and musically eclectic funk bands in the 1970s and beyond, died Wednesday at his U.S. Virgin Islands home at the age of 68, a rep confirmed to Rolling Stone. The cause of death was unknown.
Over the course of 23 albums, starting with 1969’s Kool and the Gang through the 2013 Christmas album Kool for the Holidays, the band morphed from upstart jazz unit to leading funk ensemble to smooth pop-soul group with the addition of vocalist James “J.T.” Taylor in 1979. Bell, who adapted the name Khalis Bayyaan later in life, co-wrote many of the group’s perpetual life-event earworms — including “Ladies Night,” “Jungle Boogie” and “Celebration” — that have become embedded into the national consciousness.
In 1964, Bell and his teenage brother Robert “Kool” Bell, unable to afford drums, would collect old paint cans in their Youngstown, Ohio neighborhood and use them as makeshift percussion instruments. It was a crude way to learn music — the brothers would figure out different tones depending on how much paint was in each can — but it launched a musical career that lasted more than 50 years.
After moving to Jersey City, New Jersey, the duo set up shop in front of the subway in New York’s Greenwich Village, adding cheap drums to their paint-can ensemble. “We’d make about five dollars in three weeks,” Ronald Bell told Rolling Stone in 2015.
The Bell brothers went on to form the Jazziacs with high school friends, eventually transforming into Kool & the Flames and, finally, Kool & the Gang. The group released their eponymous debut in 1970, which laid the groundwork for their groundbreaking fusion of jazz and funk. “We were very street percussive [on that album], so we blended that element with listening to jazz,” Ronald told Rolling Stone. “You could hear the jazz element. You could hear the Motown element.”
The group hit their breakthrough, though, with 1973’s aptly titled fourth studio album Wild and Peaceful, a mix of raucous, brassy funk and mellifluous soul. The album would spawn three Top 10 hits — “Funky Stuff,” “Hollywood Swinging” and “Jungle Boogie” — all co-written by Bell and establish the group as both a preeminent pop chart force and funk powerhouse alongside Earth, Wind and Fire, the Isley Brothers and Sly & the Family Stone.
The revered funk-pop group has sold more than 70 million albums worldwide.
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