Ronald Khalis Bell, who with his brother and some neighborhood friends formed the jazz-funk-R&B band that became Kool & the Gang, and who was the lead writer on its biggest hit, the omnipresent feel-good song “Celebration,” died Wednesday at his home in the Virgin Islands. He was 68.
His wife, Tia Sinclair Bell, announced his death through a spokeswoman. The cause was not given.
Mr. Khalis Bell, who was also a producer and was often credited under his Muslim name, Khalis Bayyan, began dabbling in music as a child, mastering saxophone and keyboards and playing with his brother Robert, a bassist who picked up the nickname Kool in elementary school. The Bell household in Jersey City, New Jersey, was steeped in jazz influence; the boys’ father, Bobby, was a professional boxer whose friends included jazz master Thelonious Monk. Miles Davis also sometimes visited.
The Bell brothers and friends — Spike Mickens, Dennis Thomas, Ricky Westfield, George Brown and Charles Smith — began playing together in 1964 and performed under several names, including the Jazziacs, before settling on Kool & the Gang in the late 1960s.
The band, its personnel changing over the years but the Bell brothers remaining at the core, had success in the 1970s, especially on the R&B charts, with “Jungle Boogie” (1973), “Ladies’ Night” (1979) and other songs. Then, after adding vocalist J.T. Taylor, it found a new level of fame with “Celebration,” which topped both the R&B and pop charts in 1980 and became a go-to crowd-pleaser at sporting events, fireworks displays and anywhere else that joy and enthusiasm were in order.
“What do you call a wedding DJ who doesn’t own a copy of ‘Celebration’ by Kool & the Gang?” The Sunday News of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, asked in 2002 when the group played there. “Doomed.”
Robert Bell said the song was born of euphoria after an appearance at the American Music Awards. “We were talking about the whole evening, and we said, ‘This is a time for celebration!,’ ” he told the Lancaster newspaper. “And that inspired my brother Ronald to come up with the song.”
Mr. Khalis Bell, though, gave Al-Jazeera a different explanation in 2014. “The initial idea came from the Quran,” he said. “I was reading the passage where God was creating Adam and the angels were celebrating and singing praises.”
Ronald Bell was born on Nov. 1, 1951, in Youngstown, Ohio, to Robert Bell Sr. and Mabel Butler (who later took the name Aminah Bayyan). The family later settled in Jersey City.
His father made a brief effort to interest him in boxing. “He put gloves on me and said, ‘Come on, boy,’ then he hit me in the nose,” he told the Star-Ledger of Newark in 2018. “I took the gloves off and said, ‘Don’t you hit me no more.’ ”
He started playing music in elementary school. “I played trombone and cello first but gravitated toward the sax because it looked sexy and had a lot of keys,” he said.
A performance a few years later sealed the deal. “In eighth grade, I played ‘Misty’ by Erroll Garner and all the girls in the audience screamed,” he recalled in the Star-Ledger interview. “I said, ‘All right, now I know what I’m going to do.’ ”
In addition to writing or co-writing numerous Kool & the Gang songs, Mr. Khalis Bell was the arranger and producer on many of them, and also produced other artists, including reggae singer Jimmy Cliff.
He and Sinclair Bell were married for 26 years. He was previously married to Nasim Bell and Yasin Bell. In addition to his wife and his brother Robert, he leaves two other brothers, Wahid Bayyan and Amir Bayyan; a sister, Sharifah Bayyan; two sons, Rachid Bell and Khalis Bell; six daughters, Kahdijah Bell-Taylor, Nadirah Bell, Liza Milagro, Maryam Bell, Aminah Colquhoun and Jennah Bell; a stepdaughter, Asia Robinson; a stepson, James Robinson; and three grandchildren.
Kool & the Gang had other hits after “Celebration,” including “Joanna” (1983) and “Cherish” (1985), but Mr. Khalis Bell said that signature song, a worldwide hit, always had a special place in his heart.
“I don’t think we’ll ever come up with another song as good as that,” he told the website Unlocking Connecticut in advance of an appearance at the Ridgefield Playhouse in 2019. “ ‘Everyone around the world, come on! Let’s celebrate.’ In every language, in every culture, to hear people who speak another language sing every word to that song, it wells me up a lot when I see that.”