For a period of just over three years between the summer of 1973 when ‘Funky Worm’ rose to #1 on the US R&B charts, until the Bicentennial summer of 1976, the Ohio Players were hot, possibly the hottest R&B act in the US. Their combination of sensual soul, sleazy funk and X-rated album covers meant that gold records and number one hits were the order of the day. When the late 1975 hit ‘Love Rollercoaster’ crossed over to the pop charts they had become a chart phenomenon. If their Mercury albums were the pinnacle of their success, it was elsewhere that they had put down the roots that allowed them to achieve it. A decade on the chitlin’ circuit and then the three albums that they released for the Detroit-based Westbound label ensured that they had the chops when fame came calling.
The band had come together in the south-western edge of the State in Dayton in the late 50s. Originally called the Ohio Untouchables, they were led by local guitar hero Robert Ward in a line-up that included Marshall “Rock” Jones on bass, Clarence “Satch” Satchell playing sax and guitar, drummer Cornelius Johnson, and Ralph “Pee Wee” Middlebrook on trombone and trumpet. Middlebrook, Satchell and Jones would stay for the duration. Their most notable achievement as the Ohio Untouchables was as the backing band for the Wilson Pickett-led Falcons, playing on the Falcons big hit on Lupine, ‘I Found A Love’. After this success the band recorded their own single, ‘Love Is Amazing’, with Ward as lead singer before he left to go solo.
The band, now with Leroy “Sugarbear” Bonner on guitar, repaired to Dayton where they took on various new members, including Andrew Noland on bass, and drummer Gary Webster. For a while Joe Harris - later of the Undisputed Truth - was the singer, but by the time the band was ready to record under their new name, the Ohio Players, he had been replaced by Bobby Lee Fears and “Dutch” Robinson. The new name came about, in the words of Leroy Bonner, because “In Ohio they sort of got a thing about, you know, players, sort of like playboy, and I guess the name stuck with us cause we were always considered to be the playboys around the area. And we were some of the best musicians that there were in the area - we were the best players.”
They were now managed by Johnny Brantley, a jobbing New York producer / manager who started recording them. He first arranged for them to release ‘A Thing Called Love’ b/w ‘Neighbors’ for Ray Charles’ Tangerine label in Los Angeles. Brantley then hooked them up as some sort of house band for the New York-based Compass label where, according to UK-based soul writer Clive Anderson, they appeared on Helena Ferguson’s ‘Where Is The Party’, a US R&B Top 30 hit. The band also released two 45s of their own for the label, ‘Trespassin’’ b/w ‘You Don’t Mean It’ (Compass 7015) and ‘It’s A Cryin’ Shame’ b/w ‘I’ve Got To Hold On’. However the label was not in the healthiest of positions and Brantley took the tapes for an almost completed album and licensed them to Capitol, who released them in 1968 as “Observations In Time”.
The single from the album coupled ‘Here Today And Gone Tomorrow’ with ‘Bad Bargain’ and was even released in the UK. However the album never really saw the hoped-for sales. Both the vocalists then left the group and the remaining members headed back to Dayton.
With a line-up of long-time members Marshall Jones, Greg Webster, Ralph Middlebrook, Clarence Satchell, and Leroy Bonner alongside three new members, Walter “Junie” Morrison on keyboards and vocals, Bruce Napier on trumpet, and Marvin Pierce on trombone, the band worked on a new set. As Bonner remembered in an interview with Swedish journalist Maria Granditsky, Morrison’s addition helped to create something of a different 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, I think, and he was really a nice keyboard player, doing TV shows and things. We went to do a show and he was there rehearsing and 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 and we needed somebody that was really progressive too, and he was the baddest player.”
With the new sound in place the band hooked up with local label Top Hit who sent them down to Nashville to record an 8-track album. The tracks laid down at Music City Recorders were a mixture of cover versions and originals that showcased the new funk-filled and, at times, slightly jazzy style that was now being pioneered by the group. The cover versions were varied: an impassioned version of Johnnie Taylor’s ‘Ain’t That Loving You’, a similar style was employed on Gladys Knight’s wonderful ‘If I Were Your Woman’, (retitled as ‘If You Were My Woman’). ‘What’s Going On?’ and Traffic’s ‘Feelin’ Alright’ are driven by a band that is now truly coming into its own, whilst ‘Proud Mary’ is twisted around a sinuous funk groove. Of the originals ‘Time And Space’ is a short, transitional track while ‘Climax’ (originally called ‘Theme From 69’) is an almost perfect blueprint for the sound that the band would nail in the ensuing couple of years. However the final track of the eight was the band’s finest moment to date, a slamming funk instrumental called ‘Pain’ that left no one in any doubt as to what the first single should be.
Released on Top Hit, backed with ‘Proud Mary’, ‘Pain’ started picking up local airplay that attracted the attention of the large Detroit independent label Westbound Records, home to the most outrageous funk group of the period, Funkadelic. Re-released on Westbound the single went to #35 in the R&B charts and the band were on their way.
The previously-recorded Nashville sessions could have made a fairly immediate album but none of the other tracks were considered for “Pain”, their Westbound LP debut. They were later dusted down for the Ohio Players album released by Westbound after the Ohio Players had signed to Mercury. ‘Theme From 69’ was retitled ‘Climax’ and became the title track of that fourth Westbound album, where it was joined by ‘What’s Going On?’. The other tracks were lined up to be included on the album as it had been planned as a double LP. When that idea was scrapped they were returned to the vault.
Although at thirty years distance these tracks are undeniably good, it is easy to see why they were left in the can at the time. The majority of them seemed to hark back to the previous decade, of a hard-working soul band on the road doing chart covers, rather than an all-new funk outfit. Taken against the grooves, and indeed, the songs that made up the finished “Pain” album there was clearly only one way forward. The new album offers a very distinctive sound, dominated by the extra colour that is given by Junie’s keyboard playing. ‘Players Balling’ follows the example set by ‘Pain’; ‘Never Had A Dream’ is a fantastic soul ballad, while ‘I Wanna Hear From You’ starts off as a soul-stomper before transforming into a something completely different. ‘Singing In The Morning’ closes the album in glorious jazzy, spaced feel.
The album’s sleeve delved in areas of sexual fetishism that would soon be as much a trademark for the Ohio Players as their music. Leroy Bonner saw it as an obvious marketing tool: “sex is an immediate eye catcher for all people, ..a beautiful woman is sure enough an eye-catcher..And that it happens to be a record inside makes it even better, especially if it’s a good record.” However Joel Brodsky’s shot of a beautiful statuesque bald woman in leather underwear dominating a prostrate man is just a simple step on from the shots that the photographer had employed on the cover of Funkadelic’s “Free Your Mind…” LP about six months previously. However, whereas Funkadelic’s imagery was more about a hippy idealism, the Players’ cover, and those that followed it, were hard, slick, and slightly dangerous.
The album charted relatively modestly at #21, but it was the half a year that it spent on the charts that was the surest indicator of what was to come. The band was touring heavily and was just a hit away from a breakthrough. This would come with their next Westbound album “Pleasure” and the hit, ‘Funky Worm’.