And so we read the sad news this morning that Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner, frontman for the Ohio Players who inspired three generations of House, Hip Hop and Soul musicians, passed away over the weekend. An official family announcement indicates that Sugarfoot died peacefully in Trotwood-Dayton, Ohio.
The Ohio Players have a long and somewhat tortured history. The core of the band originally formed way back in 1959 as the Ohio Untouchables. During a decade of hard gigging, a number of vocalists left the band, eventually leading Sugarfoot (who joined in 1964) to take over as frontman.
But while vocals were a strong point with the band, they were never THE point: the Ohio Players were all about the groove, the bottom-heavy funk with brass flourishes best recognized on their Westbound label releases from the early ’70s, including the albums Pain, Pleasure and Ecstasy. Nearly everyone who sang with the band also played an instrument – group vocals gave the Players their jam-band vibe. They were, as Sugarfoot once said, the Ohio PLAYERS: divas need not apply.
The Players were gobbled up by major label Mercury in 1974, though Walter “Junie” Morrison (later to become music director for Parliament/Funkadelic during their heyday of 1978 to 1980, with his influence most notably felt on “(Not Just) Knee Deep”) left the band to stick with Westbound. It’s a testament to the skill behind the early Players’ line-up that so many of their many alumni made their mark in totally unrelated bands. Add the collective work of these musicians together and consider how often they’ve been sampled, and you can get an idea of how deep the Ohio Players’ DNA is buried in modern music.
As the one time backing band for The Falcons (best remembered for the 1959 hit “You’re So Fine” before legendary vocalist Wilson Pickett became their frontman), the band’s size grew with their chart success. At one time the Ohio Players had in excess of 20 working members, from additional guitarists to conga players and keyboardists. And more than your average R&B band, the Ohio Players had a mythology to them – like the urban legend that “Love Rollercoaster” contained the scream of a murdered woman (you can hear it at 2:33 below; it’s actually keyboardist Billy Beck. Jimmy “Diamond” Williams explained that “the band took a vow of silence” over the matter, “because that makes you sell more records.”)
The Ohio Players disbanded and reformed repeatedly over the years (even more so in their early days), and it’s difficult to say when the glorious funk bands of the ’70s officially “disbanded”. There usually wasn’t an announcement, or even a thought-out decision: record labels dropped the bands as hair metal and a more polished R&B sound took over the charts and tours fell apart as an audience dwindled. Sugarfoot remained a working musician, leading a touring spinoff called “Sugarfoot’s Ohio Players” until his death.
Sugarfoot was 69 years of age. The family has invited fans to post comments, reflections and testimonials on Sugarfoot’s Ohio Players Facebook page