The Ohio Players combine funk, disco, country, jazz, soul, and rock to create a uniquely danceable, multilayered, and memorable sound. The band reached an apex of popularity in the 1970s during the funk and disco era and with the advent of rap and hip-hop, has enjoyed an enthusiastic renaissance since the mid-1990s.
The brainchild of guitarist Robert Ward, the group began as the Ohio Untouchables in Dayton, Ohio, in 1959. Bassist Marshall Jones, saxophonist and flutist Clarence "Satch" Satchell, and trumpeter Ralph "Pee Wee" Middlebrook comprised the unchanging core of the group over the decades. Apart from this trio, the band's membership changed countless times over the course of almost four decades. Guitarist and vocalist Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner, keyboardist and percussionist William "Billy" Beck, conga player Robert "Kuumba" Jones, trumpeter Marvin "Merv" Pierce, percussionist James "Diamond" Williams, and rhythm guitarist and vocalist Clarence "Chet" Willis completed the band in the 1990s.
As the Ohio Untouchables, the group worked backup in Detroit for the Falcons--whose lead singer was the young and incomparable Wilson Pickett--on their 1962 hit single "I Found a Love." Five years later, in 1967, the Untouchables changed their name to the Ohio Players, moved back to Dayton, and performed as a funky, soulful octet.
The group then moved to Los Angeles and remained there until the end of the 1960s before relocating once again back to their home state of Ohio. The funk and rhythm and blues music of the early 1970s was heavily influenced by bands like Sly & the Family Stone-- bands that fused rock with funk and soul. The Ohio Players were eager to experiment as well, and their funky sound grew more progressive and distinctive. "Sugarfoot" Bonner added a nasal, almost comical quality to the band's vocal sound, rendering their singles danceable and catchy.
The Ohio Players released their debut album, Pain, in 1971 on Detroit's Westbound Records, a label shared by George Clinton's Funkadelic band. They followed their debut with Pleasure a year later, then Ecstasy in 1973. The albums were only moderately successful, but the recording experience was invaluable for the band to hone its signature trademarks: large horn-powered tracks, odd background sounds such as whistles and alarms, and absurd, salacious lyrics. In 1974 the Ohio Players signed with Mercury Records; by then the band's fluctuating membership had finally stabilized.
The Ohio Players' southern Ohio environment shaped their diverse tastes and the breadth of their musical knowledge. James Brown recorded many of his greatest hits in Cincinnati's King Records studio in the 1950s and 1960s, the soulful Isley Brothers and funk superstar Bootsy Collins were both products of the Cincinnati music scene, and during the 1970s and 1980s dance groups such as Lakeside, the Deele, Midnight Star, and Slave also emerged from the southern Ohio region.
There were no radio stations in southern Ohio that played strictly black music in the early and mid-1970s, so the Ohio Players would cover whatever was on the radio, which was usually an eclectic mix such as Peter, Paul & Mary, Grand Funk Railroad, Tower of Power, and the Jazz Crusaders. To attract the attention of record store browsers, the band became known for its racy album jackets, usually featuring an undressed woman in a suggestive pose. When they switched over to Mercury Records, the risque cover tradition continued; for example, one album pictured a nude woman covered in honey. In time, even people who did not purchase the Ohio Players' albums began to look forward to the band's next album jacket.
In 1974 the Ohio Players released their first album for Mercury, Skin Tight, and ushered in a three-year run at the top of the R&B and dance music charts. The singles "Skin Tight" and "Jive Turkey" were both Top Ten R&B hits. The Ohio Players were adding more and more sound effects with each album, and when Fire was released in 1974, it pushed the envelope even further with sirens, high-pitched squeals, and space bleeps.
Fire is arguably the crown jewel in the Ohio Players' collection of albums. The bandmembers listened to the LP's tracks--without the vocals--in Los Angeles with Stevie Wonder, and they each knew even then that the album was going to be a tremendous hit. The title track was created out of a high-octane instrumental jam session, fusing funk, rock, and fiery drums. It became the band's first Number One single on the pop charts.
Fire also included a rare stab at social commentary with the single "I Want to Be Free." Aside from this album, the Ohio Players avoided heavy or moralistic lyrics, preferring a lighthearted, silly, almost nonsensical approach to their music. The band's next Number One single was "Love Rollercoaster" on the Honey album in 1975, followed by "Who'd She Coo?" in 1976 on Contradiction; then the string of hit singles ended. "O-H-I-O," released on Angel in 1977, was the band's last major single to become a hit, but the Ohio Players continued to tour well into the 1990s.
The influence of the Ohio Players is obvious in the music of the 1990s. Their songs have been heavily sampled by West Coast rap and hip-hop groups, most notably Dr. Dre and his "G-Funk" sound. Primus, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Soundgarden have all borrowed stylistically from the Ohio Players, and Soundgarden covered their single "Fopp" note for note.
With an extensive touring schedule and the 1995 release of the Mercury/Chronicles "Funk Essentials" collection--a seven-album overview of 1970s funk-rock-soul music that includes a compilation of the Ohio Players' material called Funk on Fire!--the band remained in the musical limelight two decades after the release of their best-known songs.