Ronald “Khalis” Bell, the singer, songwriter and saxophonist whose group Kool & the Gang became one of the most celebrated and musically eclectic funk bands in the 1970s and beyond, died Wednesday at his U.S. Virgin Islands home at the age of 68, a rep confirmed to Rolling Stone. A cause of death was not disclosed.
Over the course of 23 albums, starting with 1969’s Kool and the Gang through the 2013 Christmas album Kool for the Holidays, the band morphed from upstart jazz unit to chart-topping funk-soul ensemble to smooth pop group with the addition of vocalist James “J.T.” Taylor in 1979. Bell, who adapted the name Khalis Bayyan later in life, co-wrote many of the group’s perpetual life-event earworms – including “Ladies’ Night,” “Jungle Boogie” and “Celebration” – that have become embedded into the national consciousness.
In 1964, Bell and his teenage brother Robert “Kool” Bell, unable to afford drums, would collect old paint cans in their Youngstown, Ohio neighborhood and use them as makeshift percussion instruments. It was a crude way to learn music — the brothers would figure out different tones depending on how much paint was in each can — but it launched a musical career that lasted more than 50 years.