One of the funkiest groups in the funkiest decade, the Ohio Players became the template for a generation of Midwest jamming groups.
Formed in music hotbed of Dayton in 1959 as the Ohio Untouchables, the group initially included members Robert Ward (vocals/guitar), Marshall "Rock" Jones (bass), Clarence "Satch" Satchell (saxophone/guitar), Cornelius Johnson (drums), and Ralph "Pee Wee" Middlebrooks (trumpet/trombone). When Ward, the group leader, broke the act up in the early 60s, the remaining members reformed with additions Gary Webster (drums) and the auspicious young guitarist, Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner, and later added trumpeter Bruce Napier, trombonist Marvin Pierce, and keyboardist Walter "Junie" Morrison.
The Ohio Players signed with the Detroit-based Westbound label in 1971 and began a string of three successful albums, each punctuated by a loose, funky sound and erotic album covers that brought added attention. They hit with the single "Pain," and became an R&B staple. However, upon their signing with with Mercury Records in 1974 and the addition of keyboardist Billy Beck and drummer James “Diamond” Williams, they reached new heights.
This lineup created a series of memorable songs and albums over the remainder of the decade, including "Funky Worm," "Fire," “Skin Tight,” "Who'd She Coo," and their biggest hit, "Love Rollercoaster." The Ohio Players were perhaps the biggest R&B band in the world by 1976; but their fall was quick. Drug usage among the group members gutted the creativity and work ethic of the members, and charges of tax evasion robbed them of the wealth they had created over the decade -- and they never fully recovered.
The group fired leader Satchell (who ended up spending time in prison for his role in the tax case) and signed with Boardwalk Records for the minor 1980 hit "Try a Little Tenderness" (a cover of the Otis Redding classic), but they never again achieved the heights of their earlier years. The group split in the 80s and reunited several times in various forms., and both Satchell and Middleton died in the mid-90s. Williams and Bonner led a revised version of the group, but after Bonner suffered illness in the late 90s, his spot in band was no longer available. He went on to form an alternate version of the Ohio Players.
Williams’ Ohio Players released the album Trespassin' early in the new century, their last full studio album. For several years after, two versions of the Ohio Players tour the nation, one led by Bonner and one by Williams, always playing the basketful of memorable hits from the group's heyday.
Death has taken members of the group over the years. Satchell and Middlebrooks died in the 90s, Sugarfoot Bonner passed of cancer in 2013, and Jones, the last of the original Ohio Untouchables, died in 2016.
The current version of the Ohio Players, led by Diamond Williams, returned in 2017 with the excellent single, "Reset," sounding great and going strong well into the 21st Century.
By Chris Rizik