The mid-1970s saw a massive change in the structure of the US record industry. One-stop independent distribution started to break down as the major record labels consolidated their own distribution systems, taking valuable inventory lines away from the indies. This also meant fewer outlets for the independent record labels. This had a dramatic effect on pop music, but for R&B it was revolutionary. In 1973 14 of the 22 R&B #1 singles were on independent labels. A mere three years on and the figure was only eight out of 29. Majors signed up the big labels and producers. For example, CBS had done deals to distribute Stax and Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International. In addition the majors had done deals with some of the independent sector’s biggest acts. The Ohio Players were one of the first in the exodus from indie to major record company.
By the time that the Ohio Players had scored their first #1 on the R&B chart they had been going, in one form or another, for almost a decade and a half. They released their first record as the Ohio Players in 1967, and had issued records on four different labels before they had signed to Westbound Records. There they scored their first Top 40 single, ‘Pain’. ‘Funky Worm’s chart-topping status in 1973 was the beginning of a period of three years, during which time they topped the chart five times. Eventually they crossed over and achieved a Pop #1 with the timeless ‘Love Rollercoaster’.
When Robert Ward, something of a guitar hero in his hometown of Dayton in the South-West of Ohio, put together a band in 1958 called the Ohio Untouchables no one was thinking quite in those terms. The original line-up comprised drummer Cornelius Johnson with three others who became the core of the Ohio Players: Marshall “Rock” Jones, bass; Clarence “Satch” Satchell, sax & guitar; and Ralph “Pee Wee” Middlebrooks, trombone and trumpet. The Ohio Untouchables were typical of many touring bands on the chitlin’ circuit: hard-working while looking for a break. That came when they acted as the backing band on live dates for the Detroit-based vocal group the Falcons, who featured Wilson Pickett as their lead vocalist at that point. They also backed the Falcons on their big hit ‘I Found A Love’. In the wake of this success the Ohio Untouchables recorded their own single, ‘Love Is Amazing’, with Robert Ward singing lead. That success quickly led to Ward going solo.
The core group had added Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner on guitar. On their return to Dayton, Andrew Noland was recruited on bass and a new drummer, Gary Webster, joined the line-up. Various vocalists were tried. Joe Harris, later of the Undisputed Truth, fronted the group for a while, but eventually the front line solidified around Bobby Lee Fears and “Dutch” Robinson. The final changes saw the band with a new name, and a new manager. Their name changed to the Ohio Players, and the manager was a New York record producer called Johnny Brantley.
Through Brantley the band released their first single ‘A Thing Called Love’ b/w ‘Neighbors’ on Ray Charles’ Tangerine label. Next they moved to the New York-based Compass label where they backed some of the other artists on the label such as Helena Ferguson. They also released two singles of their own ‘Trespassin’’ b/w ‘You Don’t Mean It’ and ‘It’s A Cryin’ Shame’ b/w ‘I’ve Got To Hold On’. Good though these records are, they were pretty standard fare for the era. Brantley then took the band to Capitol where they released the “Observations In Time” album and a single ‘Here Today And Gone Tomorrow’ b/w ‘Bad Bargain’. Both were well received but significant sales didn’t materialise. The band headed back to Dayton once more to gather their thoughts.
While back home the line-up was consolidated around long time members Marshall Jones, Greg Webster, Ralph Middlebrooks, Clarence Satchell, and Leroy Bonner, augmented by Bruce Napier, trumpet; Marvin Pierce, trombone; and Walter “Junie” Morrison, whose vocals and keyboards added a whole new dimension to the band’s sound. “When we formed the Ohio Players we wanted to stretch out and become more of a jazz-orientated group so we needed a keyboard player. At that particular time Walter Morrison was still in school, and he was really a nice keyboard player, doing TV shows and things. We went to do a show and he was there rehearsing. We found that he was not only doing keyboards, he played drums, guitar and a bunch of other things. It fit right in with what we were doing ‘cause we were really the most progressive group around Ohio. We needed somebody that was really progressive too and he was the baddest player”, Leroy Bonner told Swedish journalist Maria Granditsky.
The band signed a deal with the local Top Hit label who funded the recording of an album’s worth of material in Nashville in early 1971. A new direction to the band’s sound was immediately noticeable on several of the tracks from this session such as ‘Pain’ and ‘Theme From 69’ and a cover of ‘Proud Mary’. ‘Pain’ was released as a 45 on Top Hit, and started picking up radio play. This led to the major Detroit indie label Westbound signing the band. Westbound’s re-release of ‘Pain’ became a Top 40 R&B hit and the album of the same name that followed spent 25 weeks in the R&B chart. It also established a distinctly risqué identity for the Ohio Players via the distinctive bondage-inspired cover photograph by Joel Brodsky.
A further Brodsky image housed the Ohio Player’s second Westbound album “Pleasure” which provided the group with their first R&B #1, ‘Funky Worm’. It also meant that they caught the eyes of the major labels that were now beginning to hungrily circle the independent R&B sector looking for hits.
Before they signed to Mercury they released their third album for Westbound. “Ecstasy” was also packaged in a sleeve adorned by a Joel Brodsky picture of the bald bondage woman, this time chained to two scantily dressed men. The music was brilliant. The mix of funk, soul and sheer joyous invention found its outlet in what is probably the strongest overall set by the band. ‘Sleep Talk’, ‘Food Stamps Y’All’ and the title track all pack a mighty punch, while songs such as ‘You And Me’ show the band’s deft touch with the more soulful material.
However the band’s minds were elsewhere, and within months of the release of the LP they were recording for their new label, Mercury. This probably had an effect on the chart positions achieved by the “Ecstasy” LP and its two singles, ‘Ecstasy’ b/w ‘Not So Sad and Lonely’ and ‘Food Stamps Y’All’ b/w ‘Sleep Talk’. Their split with Westbound also saw them shed drummer Gary Webster and “Junie” Morrison. Junie went on to record three albums under his own name for Westbound, before joining Funkadelic. He collaborated in the writing of that band’s biggest hit ‘One Nation Under A Groove’.
There was enough Ohio Players’ material in the can for two more albums on Westbound after the release of “Ecstasy”. We have spread this material as the bonus tracks across our reissues of the original studio albums. The material we have included here are the four tracks that appeared on “Rattlesnake” that have significant amounts of overdubbing. Over the years it has been rumoured that these tracks were overdubbed by members of Funkadelic. We have found no ultimate proof of this but the guitar solos certainly sound unlike anything on any other Ohio Players records. They sound much more like Ron Bykowski’s work with George Clinton’s crew. We also have a undated, previously unreleased cut called ‘Trans-Maximus’ which we thought would be a shame to leave lying in the box.
Post-Westbound the Ohio Players went on to score a further four #1 R&B hits in the following couple of years. They remain one of the most fondly remembered bands of the funk era.
By Dean Rudland