Ohio Players - Biography

By Lee Hildebrand


The raw, syncopated street funk that placed The Ohio Players on the top of Billboard’s R&B chart five times during the mid-1970s—and twice at #1 on the pop charts—had its roots in an earlier era of rhythm and blues. The Dayton-based band was formed in 1960 by Georgia-born singer/guitarist Robert Ward, whose distinctive style was influenced by gospel artists Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Howard Carroll of The Dixie Hummingbirds. Originally a trio that called itself The Ohio Untouchables, a name drawn from the popular series The Untouchables starring Robert Stack, the band began taking on additional members immediately. Ralph “Pee Wee” Middlebrooks, a trumpeter, trombonist, and saxophonist who had played with Ward in a pre-Untouchables band called The Brassettes, was soon added, along with and saxophonist/flutist Clarence “Satch” Satchell and bassist Marshall “Rock” Jones.


The Ohio Untouchables had little luck with their own singles on the Thelma and Lupine labels, but they backed The Falcons, a band that featured lead singer Wilson Pickett. In 1962, The Untouchables appeared on the The Falcon’s #6 R&B hit “I Found a Love.” Ward left The Untouchables two years later to record as a solo artist for Lupine and Groove City. He ended up touring with Pickett and doing session work at Motown with acts like Undisputed Truth and The Temptations before drifting into relative obscurity. He did re-emerge as a blues guitar hero in 1991 with the acclaimed album Fear No Evil (Black Top). He recorded four additional solo CDs prior to suffering a stroke in 2001. He died on Christmas Day, 2008, at age 70.


Ward was replaced in The Untouchables by stylistic disciple Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner, although the Mack-influenced guitarist wouldn’t become the primary focus of the band until a decade later. Born in Henderson, Ohio in 1944, Bonner started out playing as a teenager in roadhouses around Dayton with a group led by another Ward-inspired guitarist, Lonnie Mack. Bonner at first blew harmonica with Mack but decided to switch to guitar after noticing all the groupies Mack was attracting.


By 1967, The Ohio Untouchables had become The Ohio Players and included Bonner, Middlebrooks, Satchell, Jones, and drummer Greg Webster. Joe Harris, later of Undisputed Truth, was this incarnation of the band’s first vocalist. The Ohio Players’ debut single, “Trespassin’,” appeared in 1968 on Dayton’s own Compass label and became a minor national hit, peaking at #50 on the R&B charts. An album of the same title was issued on Compass and later reissued on the Trip label as First Impressions.


Observations in Time (1968), released later that year on Capitol, featured a lineup that included Bonner, Middlebrooks, Satchell, Jones, Webster, Harris, keyboardist/vocalist Dutch Robinson, and singer Bobby Lee Fears, but the album, though it contained a rendition of “Over the Rainbow” that was played at Judy Garland’s funeral, yielded no hits. Trumpeter/trombonist Marvin “Merv” Pierce joined not long thereafter, and the singers were dropped.


“Pain,” a 1971 single on the local Top Hits label, was picked up for national distribution by Westbound Records in Detroit and went to #35 on the Billboard R&B chart. Westbound subsequently put out Pain later that year, an album with a cover sporting a bald-headed, scantily clad, whip-wielding dominatrix. The image was the brainchild of bandleader Satchell, and the concept continued through the albums Pleasure (1972), Ecstasy (1973), Climax (1974)—all on Westbound—and Skin Tight (1974), the band’s first record for Mercury.


Many of the band’s recordings for Westbound had a pronounced jazz flavor and reflected the influences of Miles Davis and The Crusaders, as well as the funk of Sly Stone and their Westbound label-mates, Funkadelic. Only one major hit emerged from The Ohio Players’ two-year association with the label, 1973’s #1 R&B hit “Funky Worm,” which also climaxed at #15 on the pop chart. “Funky Worm” featured the wacky, cartoonish vocals and Moog synthesizer of Walter “Junie” Morrison, who had joined the band around 1970.


When The Ohio Players left Westbound in 1974, Morrison remained on with the company as a solo artist, recording three albums. He was a member of George Clinton’s Parliament/Funkadelic from 1977 to 1980, and co-wrote the #1 R&B 1978 Funkadelic hit, “One Nation Under a Groove.”


With new keyboardist Billy Beck and keyboardist Jimmy “Diamond” Williams, The Ohio Players signed to Mercury later that same year, and promptly launched a three-year assault on the singles charts. The hits over the next few years included 1974’s “Jive Turkey” (#6 R&B, #47 pop), 1974’s “Skin Tight” (#2 R&B, #13 R&B), 1974’s “Fire” (#1 R&B/#1 pop), 1975’s “I Want to Be Free” (#6 R&B, #44 pop), 1975’s “Sweet Sticky Thing” (#1 R&B, #33 pop), 1975’s “Love Rollercoaster” (#1 R&B, #1 pop), 1976’s “Fop” (#9 R&B, #30 pop), 1976’s “Who’d She Coo?” (#1 R&B, #18 pop) and 1977’s “O-H-I-O” (#9 R&B, #45 pop). All featured the singing and fast-fingered, blues-bitten guitar of Bonner, whose snarling vocal style had a huge influence on such others as Walter Orange of The Commodores, Michael Cooper of Con Funk Shun, and Larry Blackmon of Cameo. During his guitar solos, Bonner frequently scatted along, in a manner not unlike that of George Benson. Most of the group’s songs, according to Williams, grew out of in-studio instrumental jams. Five of The Players’ Mercury albums placed on Billboard’s pop album chart and went gold—1974’s #11 Skin Tight; 1974’s #1 Fire; 1975’s #2 Honey; 1976’s #12 Contradiction; and 1976’s #31 Ohio Players Gold.


A faint scream heard during instrumental break of “Love Rollercoaster” stirred controversy and boosted sales of the title track from the 1976 album Honey. A rumor that it was the sound of a woman being murdered in the next studio—apparently launched as a prank by a disc jockey—spread like wildfire. The Players remained silent on the matter, although it would later come out that the shriek was actually made by keyboardist, Beck.


The Ohio Players never again penetrated the R&B Top 10 after 1977. They cut an unsuccessful album for Arista Records the following year, then split into rival factions. Bonner, Middlebrooks, Jones, and Pierce remained with The Players, while Beck, Williams, and second guitarist Clarence “Chet” Willis formed a group called Shadow, which recorded three albums for Elektra.


For the 1981 album Ouch!, which came out on Boardwalk Records, the group shirked a trend by having it produced by Richard “Dimples” Fields (all previous albums had been group productions). The album spawned two minor Top 40 R&B hit.


Roger Troutman of Zapp, whose own guitar style was greatly influenced by Bonner, produced his mentor’s brilliant but little-noticed 1985 Warner Bros. album titled, Sugar Kisses. The album was issued under Nonner’s nickname, “Sugarfoot,” and it featured key Ohio Players of the period—Bonner, Beck, Williams, Willis, and bassist Darwin Dortch. For legal reasons, they were prevented from using the group identification.


Back, a group-produced 1988 album on the Track label, reclaimed The Ohio Players’ name but not their star status. That same year, Bonner contributed vocals to three tracks of the Herbie Hancock album, Perfect Machine.


Ol’ School, a live CD produced by Williams and Bonner, was recorded at the Fox Theater Atlanta on December 2, 1995. Neither Satch Satchell, who died four weeks later, nor Pee-Wee Middlebrooks, who died the following year, were band members at the time of the recording. Issued on Intersound label in 1996, the live set proved to be the Ohio Players’ final release, save for a live version of “Fire,” which was issued that year on the Intersound various-artists CD, Sinbad’s First Annual Summer Jam & 70’s Soul Music Festival The Funk Part 1.


As of 2003, the year Billboard ranked the Ohio Players at #78 in a poll of the top 200 R&B groups of all time, the band consisted of Bonner, Williams, Beck, Willis, Dortch, longtime percussionist Robert “Kuumba” Jones, keyboardist Ronald Nooks, and horn players Kenny Anderson, Johnny Cotton, and Joe Wesley Boston.


The Ohio Players’ influence has reached into the realms of rock and hip-hop and includes such artists as Primus, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Dr. Dre. The Seattle grunge band Soundgarden gave a heavy metal twist to “Fopp” in 1988, and rapper Too $hort used “I Want to Be Free” as a backdrop for a tale about drugs, violence, and police corruption in his 1992 song titled, “I Want to Be Free (That’s the Truth).”


The band’s Mercury hits can be found on several different collections, including the 28-song, double-disc Funk on Fire: The Mercury Anthology (1995 Mercury) and the 12-song, single-disc 20th Century Masters—The Millennium Collection: The Best of the Ohio Players (2000 Island/Mercury). “Pain,” “Pleasure,” “Ecstasy,” “Funky Worm,” and 11 other songs from the early ’70s are gathered on Orgasms: The Very Best of the Westbound Years (1988 Westbound). Nineteen 1961-67 singles by Robert Ward—with and without the Ohio Untouchables, including The Falcons’ “I Found a Love”—appear on the wonderful Robert Ward—Hot Stuff (1995 Relic).

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