Ohio Players

The Ohio Players were one of the most popular funk groups in the mid-’70s thanks to their smooth, horn-powered grooves and impeccable musicianship. Emerging from the musical hotbed of Dayton in 1959, the group was originally dubbed the Ohio Untouchables, and initially comprised singer/guitarist Robert Ward, bassist Marshall “Rock” Jones, saxophonist/guitarist Clarence “Satch” Satchell, drummer Cornelius Johnson, and trumpeter/trombonist Ralph “Pee Wee” Middlebrooks. A relative of Ward founded Detroit-based Lupine Records in late 1961. The group then traveled north to Detroit to support the Falcons’ hit “I Found a Love”. However, the Ohio Untouchables quickly made their headline debut with “Love Is Amazing” but Ward left to pursue a solo career.
The core group of Jones, Middlebrooks and Jones returned to Dayton. They recruited saxophonist Andrew Noland as well as drummer Gary Webster. Webster is a mysterious figure whose role in the band’s complicated history is not clear. Some sources claim he was a founding Untouchable while others credit him with being the band’s first leader. The new name was Ohio Players. They were signed by Compass Records in New York. By 1967, the band had added singers Bobby Lee Fears, and Dutch Robinson. Before releasing their solo album, Trespassin’, Helena Ferguson, the Ohio Players were backing singer on her single hit, “Where Is the Party.”

The Players’ signature sound of a horn-driven, bottom-heavy sound was already thriving. However, their second album, “It’s a Shame,” failed to chart and Compass found itself on the brink bankruptcy. Their early Compass sides were later repackaged as First Impressions. The Players then landed at Capitol where 1969’s “Here Today Gone Tomorrow” was a minor success. An LP, Observations in Time soon followed with covers of “Summertime”, “Over the Rainbow”, and other songs that hint at the stylistic detours that would follow. The group broke up in 1970. Robinson and Fears both went on solo careers while Robinson and Walter “Junie”, the keyboardist and songwriter, moved to Dayton and formed a new band with Marvin Pierce, trumpeter Bruce Napier and trombonist Marvin Pierce.

The new Ohio Players lineup was inspired by the pioneering funk of Sly & the Family Stone. Bonner, a nasal and cartoon-voiced singer, took over vocal duties. They released “Pain” on the local Rubber Town Sounds label. It was quickly picked up by the Detroit-based Westbound label for distribution. It reached the R&B Top 40 in late 1972. The same year saw the release of Pain’s LP. Pleasure followed suit in 1972 with “Funky Worm”, which was an absurdist hit. In 1973 Ecstacy was released. After 1974’s Climax, Players signed to Mercury. The label change also brought about more lineup changes with Billy Beck replacing Morrison (who later signed with Parliament) as well as Jimmy “Diamond” Williams replacing Webster.

The Ohio Players were at Mercury their most successful. Not only did they have a unique sound, but their LP covers were sexually explicit, a tradition that began during their Westbound tenure. Their 1974 Mercury debut, Skin Tight was an undisputed classic. It launched the title track and “Jive Turkey” as well. Fire, the Players’ follow-up album, is still their masterpiece. It topped the pop charts due to its bone-rattling title track. “I Want to Be Free,” which was one of the few attempts at social commentary by the band, was also a huge hit. 1975’s Honey, which included perhaps the Players’ most controversially erotic cover to-date — was another monster. It produced the chart-topping “Love Rollercoaster”, as well as the hit singles “Sweet Sticky Thing”, and “Fopp.”

The persistent “Who’d She Coo?” The Players’ final number one R&B hit, 1976’s Contradiction, was “O-H-I-O” from 1977’s Angel. As the ’70s ended, the band’s fortunes declined. 1979’s Jass–Ay-Lay­Dee was their last Mercury album. After signing to Arista, they returned with Everybody Up. Then came a pair of disappointing releases on Boardwalk and 1981’s Tenderness. 1982’s Ouch was their last Mercury release. Four years passed before their next album, Back, was released after 1984’s Graduation. Although no new material was released, various groups continued to perform live well into the next decade. Despite the deaths in December 1995, Middlebrooks (November 1997), Ward (December 2008), Johnson and Bonner (January 2013, respectively), the band continued to record and tour extensively.

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