Ronald Bell, also known as Khalis Bayyan, has died. As one of the founders—alongside his brother, Robert “Kool” Bell—of the influential, genre-spanning musical outfit Kool & The Gang, Bell contributed to and co-wrote some of the biggest, most danceable hits of the 20th century. A self-taught multi-instrumentalist (although his primary role in the band was on saxophone,), Bell spent 53 of his 68 years on the planet as a member of The Gang, winning Grammys, charting Top 10 singles, and refusing to ever settle into a single, easily defined groove. Bell died earlier today; although his death has been described as “sudden,” no cause of death has been released.
Bell and his brother got their start in music in the early ’60s, forming a jazz group with some of their high school friends that would, after a long line of name changes, eventually settle in 1969 into Kool & The Gang. Although he started on keyboards, Bell eventually gravitated over to the tenor sax, a position he would maintain for the rest of his life (barring one departure that ran from 1989 to 1992), through record deals, disco-induced slumps, and all the other ups and downs of the working musician’s life. More importantly, he established himself as one of the group’s primary musical arrangers; although songs like “Jungle Boogie” and “Hollywood Swinging” (off 1974's breakout album Wild And Peaceful) carry writing credits for all seven extant members of the group, Bell was the primary creative force on the tracks. (Ditto on 1980's “Celebration,” the band’s only No. 1 hit, and a career-defining track in its own right.)
Bell continued to perform with Kool & The Gang all the way up through 2013, when the group released its most recent album, Kool For The Holidays. Barring the aforementioned gap, he stuck with the group through it all: dalliances with rap and disco, appearances on “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” Wendy’s commercials, and even the group’s eventual embrace of its unexpected following among kids. He ultimately appeared on 23 of the band’s 24 studio albums. His death today reportedly occurred in his home in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Note: An earlier version of this story ran with an image of fellow Kool & The Gang member Dennis Thomas in place of Ronald Bell. The A.V. Club regrets the error.