Ohio Players, pioneering mid-1970s funk band. Membership: Leroy “Sugar” Bonner, gtr., voc; James “Diamond” Williams, drm., pere. (b. Brooklyn, N.Y.); Marvin Pierce, trpt; Billy Beck, kybd.; Clarence “Satch” Satchell, sax. (d. Dayton, Ohio, Dec. 30, 1995); Marshall “Rock” Jones, bs. (Natchitoches, La., Oct. 4, 1942; d. St. Louis, Mo., Aug. 18, 1984); Ralph “Pee Wee” Middle-brooks, trmb., trpt., Walter “Junie” Morrison, kybd.; Greg Webster, drm., Clarence “Chet” Willis, gtr., voc; Robert “Kuumba” Jones, perc; Darwin Dortch, bs., voc.
The group began its life in the early 1960s as the Ohio Untouchables, eventually by fusing midwestern soul, rocking southern funk, and jazzy horns, they helped pioneer the self-contained funk band. The Untouchable’s biggest moment came after they were signed to Lupine Records (Ward was related to one of the company’s principles). In addition to cutting their own (largely ignored) sides, they backed the Falcons (featuring a very young Wilson Pickett on lead vocals) on the 1962 Top Ten R&B hit “I Found a Love.” However, in 1964, Ward went solo, and the rest of the group—bassist Marshall “Rock” Jones, Clarence Satchell on saxophone, and guitarist and trumpeter Ralph Middlebrook—returned to Dayton to regroup. They added singing guitarist Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner, a new drummer, and a sax player, and went through a series of lead singers, including pianist Dutch Robinson and Bobby Lee Frears. By 1967, calling themselves the Ohio Players, they became the house band for Compass Records in N.Y. They had their first minor hit that year, “Tres-passin’,” which reached the R&B Top 50. By 1972, however, Compass had begun to fade, Frears and Robinson left, and the group again retreated to Dayton.
At this time, Sugarfoot Bonner took over lead vocals. While not a classic soul vocalist, his eccentric sound helped give the group a distinguishing presence. With the addition of keyboardist Walter “Junie” Morrision, and a couple of more horns, the group recorded the single “Pain” for a local label. Emerging Midwest funk powerhouse Westbound records, which also released records by Funkadelic, picked the single up. The Westbound version of the single “Pain” climbed to Top 40 R&B. This set the stage for the group’s first stab at the Top 40, a novelty song called “Funky Worm,” from the Pleasure album. This single topped the R&B charts, hit #15 pop, and went gold. The Players followed this with the title track from the Ecstacy album, which went to #31 pop. Morrison left the band, landing with label mates Funkadelic.
Flush with this success, the Players signed with major label Mercury in 1974 to take their music to the next step commercially. Jim Williams joined the band on drums and vocals and Billy Beck replaced Morrison on keyboards and vocals. Together, they added a sweet, high counterpoint to Bonner’s playfully nasal voice. With their distinctive sound and look—including Bon-ner’s drooping moustache and giant afro and Marshall’s turban—they were ripe to hit. With their Mercury debut, Skin Tight, they did. Led by the gold, #13 pop title track along with the #6 R&B hit “Jive Turkey,” a jazzy workout for the horns, and the syrupy ballad “Heaven Must Be Like This,” the album went gold and hit #11.
This set the stage for the band’s 1975 epochal album, Fire. The title track, a throw-down piece of funk propelled by Jones and Williams’s lock groove and Bonner’s chopped chords, bluesy lead break, and distinctive vocals, topped the pop and R&B charts, going gold. It took the album to the top of the LP charts. The group started headlining tours and playing on various TV shows. That same year, they followed Fire with Honey. The ballad “Sweet Sticky Thing” topped the R&B charts, hitting #33 pop. The funky “Fopp” went to #30 pop. But the big hit off the album was “Love Rollercoaster.” With Bonner’s trebly repeating chords, distinctive voice, and a controversy about a scream toward the end of the song (rumors spread that it was the sound of a woman being murdered), the tune topped the pop and R&B charts, going gold. It helped propel Honey to gold and #2 on the album charts. Capitalizing on the group’s newfound success, Westbound put out Rattlesnake, an album of outtakes from the band’s early years.
The year 1975 was the apex of the Ohio Players, both commercially and creatively. Their next album, Contradiction, featured the #1 R&B hit “Who’d She Coo?” (#18 pop), but lacked the immediacy and fire of the previous two albums. The album rose to #12 and went gold. They followed this just a few months later with the Ohio Players Gold compilation, which also went gold and hit #31. From this point forward, the quality of their work began to decline. They recorded the soundtrack for the blaxploitation film Mr. Mean and in 1977 released the album Angel with the #9 R&B hit, “O-H-I-O,” an extension of the chant they used to end their live show. By 1979, they had split into two groups, one retaining the Ohio Players’ name, the other going by the name Shadow. By the mid-1980s, both bands sank without a trace. Bonner released a solo album in 1975 and also did session work, lending his distinctive vocals to projects by Herbie Hancock and fellow Ohio funkster Roger Troutman. The Players reunited for a 1988 album, Back, but the fire had gone. They continued recording and playing on and off into the new millennium.
Observations in Time (1968); Pain (1972); Pleasure (1973); Ecstacy (1973); Climax (1974); Pain + Pleasure = Ecstacy (1974); Skin Tight (1974); Rattlesnake (1975); Fire (1975); Honey (1975); Ohio Players Gold (1976); Contradiction (1976); Angel (1977); Mr. Mean (1977); Jass-Ay-La-Dee (1978); Everybody Up (1979); Tenderness (1981); Ouch (1982); Graduation Century (1984); O-H-I-0 (1989); Lonely Street (1995); Jam (1996).