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One of the lingering musical images from the 1970s that people remember has to be the cover art of Ohio Players records. Always featuring black women in various sexualized poses, they were every male teen's dream and a lightning rod of criticism from feminists.
Fortunately, the Ohio Players' career was much more than their image, as they were one of the most popular bands of the era. Hits like "Fire" and "Love Rollercoaster" are still frequently aired on the radio and lead singer Sugar's bluesy vocal tone influenced people from Lionel Richie to Larry Blackmon, who wrote "Candy" as a fairly explicit tribute to the Players. Additionally, they raised the standard for funk musicianship with arrangements dazzling in their complexity, often dabbling in jazz flourishes.
Theirs is a story that is best divided according to the labels they recorded most of their work for: Westbound and Mercury. Formed in the 1950s as the Ohio Untouchables, the group backed Wilson Pickett and became the house band of the short-lived Compass label, where they were able to make their first recordings. Following a one-shot LP on Capitol, they returned home and reformed with the core lineup of Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner (guitar, vocals), Clarence "Satch" Satchell (sax), Ralph "Pee Wee" Middlebrooks (trumpet, trombone), Marvin Pierce (bass), Gary Webster (drums), and the keyboard genius of Walter "Junie" Morrison.
By 1971 they'd signed with avant-funk label Westbound and scored a hit with "Pain," from the similarly-titled LP. With cover art featuring a bald woman in bondage pose, they LP set the standard for their work of this period: flowing instrumental passages, heavy on the group interplay, sparse lyrics. At this point, Junie was the leader and his personality enfused their next LP, Pleasure, a minor funk classic best known for the oft-cited "Funky Worm." 1973's Ecstasy was the final proper Westbound release as Junie opted for a solo career and eventually became an integral member of the P-Funk mob.
The Players' rep was such that they got picked up by Mercury, where they would become international stars. During the transition period, James "Diamond" Williams came in on drums and Billy Beck replaced Junie.
Immediately, "Skin Tight" was a hit debuted the new OP sound. In contrast to the rough, sometimes experimental sound of Junie's Players, the Mercury Players were led by Sugar's vocals and a more accessible musical foundation that picked up on some of Sly Stone's innovations. The fundamental ingredients were still there -- the superb group interplay, simple lyrics, the insane album covers -- but smoothing the edges put them on the radio.
Fire was their acknowledged triumph, one of the top sellers of 1974 and a critic's favorite. Besides the #1 pop title track, the album boasted the sterling slow jams "Heaven Must Be Like This" and "I Want To Be Free," the latter being the closest they ever got to social commentary.
Honey brought more controversy to the band with its artwork spotlighting a Playboy model glistening in the sweet stuff. The band played on the image with "Sweet Sticky Thing," another of their classic downtempo burners. "Fopp" was a return to the harder, rock-influenced sound of the Westbound years. But the main attraction was "Love Rollercoaster," a song whose lyrics still don't make sense but was the subject of intense rumors that the cover model's death could be heard on the instrumental passage between verses. Of course this wasn't true, but they rode the interest it generated all the way to the bank and top of the charts.
The band wasn't quite the same group of Players after Honey. P-Funk and Earth Wind and Fire had come on strong to challenge their status, and disco was bubbling up from the underground. Things were looking down when Mercury dropped the dreaded greatest hits collection Gold in 1976. The Players continued with the solid Contradiction, scoring another #1 r&b single on "Who'd She Coo" and the straight blues tale "Far East Mississippi." "O-H-I-O" was to be their last major hit, reaching the top 10 in 1977.
Following this was a general down period for them. They couldn't keep up with the discomania sweeping the nation, as the underwhelming "Feel The Beat (Everybody Disco)" demonstrates. They produced a couple of records for proteges Faze-O, but their own LPs stiffed and they eventually moved to Arista records. That change of scenery didn't help and soon they were struggling to recapture the magic on a string of 1980s releases on Boardwalk.
As the 1980s rolled on, members came and went and the band generally faded into relative obscurity. But the funk revival brought them back in the 1990s and they even recorded Ol' School, a live disc.
Unfortunately, Satch and Pee Wee have both passed, but Sugar is keeping the OP name alive, performing at the occasional festival and show.
Ohio Players' Deepest Grooves
Observations in Time (Capitol, 1968)
Fire (Mercury, 1974)
Honey (Mercury, 1975)
Gold (Mercury, 1976)
Contradiction (Mercury, 1976)
Jass-A-Lay-Dee (Mercury, 1978)
Mr. Mean (Mercury, 1978)
Tenderness (Boardwalk, 1981)
Ouch! (Boardwalk, 1982)
Graduation (Boardwalk, 1984)
Funk on Fire: The Mercury Anthology (Chronicles, 1994)
Orgasm: The Very
Best of the Ohio Players (Ace, 1994)
Lonely Street (Prime Cuts, 1995)
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