Ronald ‘Khalis’ Bell of Kool & the Gang fame, dead at 68; ‘Celebrate’ his life with playlist

Photo art by Louie Bowling/Lariat, photo by Vanessajg via WikiCommons

Ronald Bell, singer/songwriter and co-founder of Kool & the Gang, has died at 68

Ronald “Khalis” Bell, co-founder of the Grammy Award winning pop/soul/funk group Kool & the Gang, died Sept. 9 in his home in the U.S.Virgin Islands. He was 68 years old. His death was confirmed in a tweet by the music publishing company Warner Chappell.

Bell, who also went by his Muslim name Khalis Bayyan, started the group in 1969 with his brother, Robert “Kool” Bell. The group released more than 20 full-length albums since their self-titled first record, released in 1970 on the De-Lite record label.

The group managed to find prolonged commercial success through the 1970s and 1980s with chart-topping tracks like “Jungle Boogie,” “Celebration” and “Summer Madness.” Transcending their style as the years went on, they found more and more success as they continued with their commercial peak in the 1980s after the addition of singer James “JT” Taylor and producer Eumir Deodato.

Bell was born in Youngstown, Ohio on Nov. 1, 1951, but grew up in New Jersey. His father, a professional boxer, had become friends with jazz legends Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk while training in New York. Jazz music was in Bell’s blood, and the influence can be heard in their earlier releases, most notably in the song “I Remember John W. Coltrane,” released in 1973.

The song features their fusion of soulful and funky strong synth leads and Bell’s virtuosity skill. Bell, a self-taught saxophonist, pays homage to the jazz giant, Coltrane, with vibrant improvisation and soloing. Their sound represented the new path that New York jazz artists were paving.

Mixing the raw sound of funk with mid-century modal jazz became the key to their early success.

“We were die-hard jazz musicians,” Bell said in a 1969 interview with Rolling Stone.

Commercial success started in 1973 with hit songs like “Jungle Boogie,” which would show their steps toward a funkier, hotter sound. Their sound continued to grow with the times, slowly becoming poppier towards the 1980s with tracks like “Celebration.” Their success would carry on through the decades and their evolving sound would come to define the times. 

Kool & the Gang’s ever-adapting music and abundant output of quality records is something not often seen in life, it is few and far between do we get to see such greatness. Their music can be found throughout pop culture in notable cult classics like “Pulp Fiction.”

Their music has continued to live thanks to hip-hop and electronic producers like Boards of Canada, Pete Rock & CL Smooth and J Dilla. Being sampled at least 1,714 times, their tracks have dug deep roots in music with branches of influence and sound always extending abundantly. 

Bell is survived by his wife, Tia Sinclair Bell, 10 children and four siblings, including his brother Robert.

To celebrate his achievements and contributions to our world, enjoy a playlist of some of Kool & the Gang’s best tracks and some of the best songs that flipped their work into something fresh and new entirely.

Please note that some of the songs in the playlist may have explicit content.