Ronald Khalis Bell, singer, songwriter and saxophonist

Born: November 1, 1951;

Died: September 9, 2020.

MUSIC is often described using the terminology of colours. There are the blues, of course, and the Beatles’ White Album. The psychedelic period was perceived as a rainbow riot of vibrant shades, tints and hues. When the American funk band Kool & the Gang began their illustrious career, the colours didn’t explode in quite the same exuberant manner.

That was because they were, in a manner of speaking, sealed inside tins: the band, which at the time consisted of brothers Robert and Ronald, used old cans of paint in lieu of a drum kit. The makeshift instruments worked rather well, with the brothers managing to create different musical tones depending on how much paint was in each can.

It was a fairly inauspicious start to a career, but the brothers would later establish an outfit that has performed continuously longer than any R&B group in history, as well as being the most sampled R&B band of all time. Their many hits include ‘Celebration’, which has become a feel-good worldwide favourite.

Ronald Bell, who would change his name to Khalis Bayyan after converting to Islam, was born on November 1, 1951, the son of Robert ‘Bobby’ Bell and Aminah Bayyan. His father was a prominent boxer and jazz fan who counted legendary trumpeter Miles Davis and pianist Thelonious Monk amongst his friends. Davis once asked Bobby if he could spar with him in the ring. Bobby politely declined, explaining: “You’re gonna mess up your lips.”

Ronald and brother Robert grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, and shared their father’s love of jazz. They later moved to Jersey City and busked in front of the subway in New York’s Greenwich Village. Intent on becoming more musically sophisticated, they added a cheap drum kit to the initial paint-can percussion. Horns would follow, with Ronald blowing saxophone. “We’d make about five dollars in three weeks,” he would later recall.

By the mid-sixties the Bell brothers had joined up with old school friends George Brown, Charles Smith, Robert ‘Spike’ Mickens, Dennis ‘Dee Tee’ Thomas and Ricky Westfield. They were initially known as the Jazziacs before finally, in 1969, settling for Kool & the Gang, ‘Kool’ being Robert’s nickname.

The group’s eponymous debut album mixed their love of jazz with a more commercially viable Motown sound. This jazz-infused funk would become their signature sound. Later experimentation with synthesizers added to what was already a heady brew.

The breakthrough album was 1973’s Wild and Peaceful, which blended exuberant funk with smoother soul stylings. It produced three top ten American hits, ‘Funky Stuff’, ‘Hollywood Swinging’ and ‘Jungle Boogie’. The latter was famously included in the soundtrack of Quentin Tarantino’s classic 1994 movie, Pulp Fiction.

Another of their songs, ‘Open Sesame’, appeared on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, that paean to 1970s disco. Even so, Kool & the Gang struggled during the days of disco, never quite finding a comfortable fit with the genre.

The addition of club singer James ‘JT’ Taylor in 1978 was a canny decision, and the track Ladies’ Night, from the album of the same name, became their biggest hit yet, in 1979. It was also the song that first made an impact in the UK.

Even greater success followed with another single, Celebration, which was largely the work of Bell, although songwriting credits tended to be shared by the group. His Islamic faith helped him in the writing of the song, with the creation story in the Qur’an being particularly inspirational. “I was reading the Scripture, where angels were celebrating the Creator for creating man,” he told one interviewer.

Kool & the Gang’s popularity in the UK continued into the 1980s, when they were one of the few American bands to appear on Band Aid’s 1984 charity single Do They Know It’s Christmas? They were touring Britain at the time, which explains their inclusion.

Their single, Cherish, was another top five hit in both the UK and the US, but the band’s sound was becoming less gritty and their fanbase began to dwindle.

Bell continued to keep busy, combining band tours with work as a freelance record producer.

Kool & the Gang never had another big hit, though they remained popular on the live circuit and enjoyed a particularly rapturous reception at the Glastonbury festival of 2011.

Their early albums also found a second life when rappers started to mine them for samples. The band embraced the hip hop culture by releasing Gangland in 2001, in which they re-recorded early tracks with rappers reinterpreting them.

Over the course of their long career Kool & the Gang’s accomplishments have included two Grammy Awards, seven American Music Awards, 25 Top Ten R&B hits, nine Top Ten Pop hits and 31 gold and platinum albums.

Ronald Bell remained forever humble despite such accolades, and would always point out that he was an integral part of a greater whole.

“A lot of the songs, I may have spearheaded ‘em,” he once said. “But it’s really, with a ‘K’, the ‘kollective’ genius of a band called Kool & the Gang.”

He is survived by his third wife, Tia Sinclair Bell, ten children and his brother.