"Our music is like Ajax, or Ford Thunderbirds, or anything else. We want to sell it. And it's not easy making music that everyone will want to hear," said Robert (Kool) Bell, bassist and leader of the rhythm and blues group Kool and the Gang, before Friday night's concert at the Capital Centre. "Our whole approach has been commercial from the beginning."
After years of virtual anonymity in the pop-music market, Kool and the Gang are moving into superstar status. A steady if unspectacular seller in the rhythm and blues field throughout the '70s, the group adopted a cleaner, more sophisticated sound under the direction of producer Eumir Deodato in 1978.
Their last two albums, "Ladies Night" and "Celebrate," both have gone platinum (sold 1 million or more albums and tapes). The group's current hit single, "Celebration," has sold 2 million records in the United States alone, and the song was recently rerecorded in Spanish in order to hit the lucrative Latin market. There are Schlitz beer commercials, dabblings in real estate, walkathons for the March of Dimes. The group that for years opened for other acts now is the headliner, often before a capacity crowd like the one on Friday night.
The Schlitz television commercial features Kool and the Gang with the Platters: the Group of the '80s and the Group of the '50s, the listener is told. Commercial hype notwithstanding, the mere fact that the band -- formerly the definitive hard-working "funk" band know primarily to black listeners -- would merit such consideration is an affirmation of measured, deliberate steps to make its sound more palatable to the crossover (read "white") market while maintaining its appeal with blacks.
The crowd at the Capital Centre bore this out. The audience was overwhelmingly young and black, but there were significant pockets of white fans -- more so than at most concerts by black artists.
And whereas Bell admits to some reservations about doing a beer commercial, he says it was a "business decision" that ultimately may lead to more endorsements and exposure.
Cold and calculated as their approach may appear, Bell and James (J.T.) Taylor, the lead singer, offer no apologies.
"What we're doing is a little more commercial -- we're trying to reach the crossover market more," acknowledged Taylor, 27, who joined the group in 1977, just before the recording of "Ladies Night."
It is acceptance that has taken a long time, so long that the 30-year-old Bell thought of chucking it all before "Ladies Night" was recorded. He had little to show for it in 13 years of show business, nine as the leader of Kool and the Gang, except for hit singles ("Jungle Boogie," "Can't Get Enough of That Funky Stuff," "Hollywood Swinging") and considerable debts.
While he and the other members of the band contemplated their course, Bell began promoting discos in Jersey City, where the band had started in 1964 as a pickup jazz group. During this "low period," as he termed it, it was decided that refinement was the answer, not the group's dissolution.
"We were defintely at a crisis point," he said. "We had produced our albums, but they weren't selling. We needed someone outside, someone objective, to step in."
That "someone" initially was going to be singer Stevie Wonder, who told Bell he would produce the group's next album. But Wonder was caught up in making his own album, "The Secret Life of Plants," and Kool and the Gang had to look elsewhere.
They finally found a producer in Deodato, a Brazilian musician who had had a sizable hit with a disco version of Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathrusa." The group had earlier taken on Taylor as its first lead singer. Under the guidance of Deodato, Kool and the Gang moved away from a "hard" R&B sound, consisting of chants and heavy counterrhythms, toward a modified disco beat and a clean, cool sound with Taylor's voice in the fore. "Ladies Night" was an immediate smash with white markets as well as with black listeners.
Despite the Gang's current success, they have only recently begun to make money, Bell said
"We're not working as hard as we used to," he said. "But we can't sit out very long. That's why we're going back into the studio next month to do another album [the group's 19th]. In this business, people forget about you very quickly."
Is he afraid people will say, "Whatever happened to Kool and the Gang?"
His eyes flashed. "They already have -- three years ago," he said softly. "They already have."