How Kool and the Gang Won Over Skeptical Van Halen Fans
Robert "Kool" Bell knows some people thought he and the rest of Kool & the Gang were nuts to sign on as the opener for Van Halen's 2012 tour.
Van Halen fans may be willing to celebrate good times with David Lee Roth, Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen and Wolfgang Van Halen, they reckoned, but to get down on it with a veteran R&B group?
Seemed like a stretch.
Nearly a decade later, however, Bell says it was all good. "Oh, we had a great time," he recalls of the multi-month run. "We had fun for all 48 shows." The key, he explains, was the ladies.
"It was a little rough around the edges with their audience at first," the bassist remembers. "But they had a lot of women in their crowd, and when we got to 'Ladies' Night' and 'Get Down On It' and 'Celebration,' the ladies that follow Van Halen got up out of their seats, and then whoever was still being stubborn it was like, 'Hey, rock head, you better get up and get down on it, too.' And they did. It worked out."
Bell admits he was "kind of surprised" Roth called with the invitation to have Kool & the Gang join the Van Halen tour. Roth had apparently caught Kool's set at the 2011 Glastonbury festival and liked it so much that he got his people in touch with their people. "Kool & the Gang and Van Halen are the sounds of an entire continent at recreation," Roth told Canada's Sun Media at the time. "We've come to represent that - although you're more likely to hear Kool & the Gang at a bar mitzvah than me."
Bell, meanwhile, thought the Van Halen-Kool pairing would be "an interesting combination, because Van Halen is more on the rock side and we do what we do. It really caught us by surprise. But the more people I mention it to, the more interesting they're saying it is."
Bell says Roth told him there was some resistance from Eddie and Alex Van Halen.
"He said they said, 'What? You been smokin', man?'" Bell says, but the Van Halen camp was ultimately supportive and friendly during the trek. "We only saw 'em in the dressing room, things like that, and not very much. It was mostly, 'I'm happy to work with you guys' - that kind of vibe. We didn't see them a while lot, but they were always nice when we did."
The Van Halen pairing also netted Kool & the Gang a subsequent stretch opening for Kid Rock. "We liked doing those tours," Bell says now. "They got us in front of a whole different audience. People knew the songs, the hits, but they didn't know the band behind them, so we got to show 'em."
Kool & the Gang just released Perfect Union, their first new album in a decade. It comes after the deaths of a pair of founding members - Bell's tenor saxophonist brother Ronald Bell, who coproduced the album, last year, and alto saxophonist Dennis Thomas earlier this month. That leaves Robert Bell and drummer George "Funky" Brown as the only members left from the original 1964 lineup.