As ‘Celebration’ turns 40, a chat with ‘Kool and the Gang’ band leader Robert ‘Kool’ Bell

Kool and the Gang’s iconic anthem, “Celebration,” turns 40 years old this summer. It’s been played at weddings, graduations, and even a campaign rally for presidential hopeful Joe Biden. 

Bandleader and co-founder Robert “Kool” Bell says the idea for the anthem came from his brother, Ronald Bell: “We were out in L.A., and we had just won two American Music Awards for ‘Ladies’ Night.’ At the end of ‘Ladies Night,’ we speak about ‘this is your night to celebrate.’ ... It had that kind of down-home groove to it, like you’re down south, sitting on the porch in your grandmother's rocking chair. And then you’re, ‘Yahoo! How are you feeling today?!’ ” 

“Ladies’ Night” had a disco vibe to it. The song was released in 1979 -- the time of Studio 54, a disco nightclub in Manhattan. 

“My wife and I, we used to hang out in New York. And then on the weekends, there was always a ladies night. So I thought it was a great idea. And we take that back to the guys,” Bell says.  

The birth of the band -- and name changes

Bell says he and his brother grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, then they moved to Jersey City and formed the group in 1964, when he was 14 years old (all the members were young).  

“We called ourselves the Jazziacs. And then we changed the name to the Soul Town Band because Jersey City was trying to be like Motown. 

One of the masters of ceremony for Soul Town came up with this idea, and he had a picture of a big block of ice and fire on top melting ice. He said, ‘How do you guys like that?’ … So we became Kool and the Flames,’ ” Bell says. 

But that name didn’t work. James Brown and the Famous Flames already existed. “We didn't want to have any problem with the godfather. So he said, ‘We’ll just change the name to ‘Gang.’ The music is R&B, funk. So that’s how we became ‘Kool and the Gang.’ ”

How did Robert Bell become known as “Kool?” He says guys in his Youngstown neighborhood had nicknames, and when he left, he was an “old country boy” going to New York, Newark, and other big cities. “So I had to try to fit in. I think being ‘Kool’ might work,” he says. 

Robert “Kool” Bell. Courtesy of Robert “Kool” Bell. 

The MTV effect 

Bell’s band appeared on Soul Train, but then came MTV in the 1980s. 

“It took a little while to get on MTV. But I mean, MTV was different. You’re talking video -- a whole different approach to the music scene. Soul Train and American Bandstand, you [were] actually doing your thing. Videos were videos. That's a whole other part of the industry at that time. But MTV was very strong, very powerful at making things happen,” he says. 

How does he feel about politicians using his music?

“That's a hard one to control because of the song ‘Celebration.’ I remember one time, I think it was [George W.] Bush and [Al] Gore. And we got a call from the Democrats, we got a call for the Republicans to play for the inauguration.” 

Did he say yes to both sides, or no? “We just waited to see what was going to happen,” Bell says. 

-- Written by Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin