By the time that the Ohio Players released their 1972 breakthrough album “Pleasure” the nucleus of the band had been together since the late 50s, and had been recording as the Ohio Players since 1967. Their signing to Westbound Records in 1971 had precipitated their first major hit with ‘Pain’ and the album of the same name had lodged itself in the R&B album charts for 25 weeks. This success was consolidated when the second single from “Pleasure”, ‘Funky Worm’, would earn the band the first of their five R&B number ones and start them on a three year run of chart success that saw them become one of the USA’s premier acts.
Hailing from Dayton in the South-western corner of Ohio, they were originally called the Ohio Untouchables and were led by local guitar hero Robert Ward. He was joined in the line up by drummer Cornelius Johnson and three players who would later become the mainstay of the Ohio Players: Marshall “Rock” Jones on bass, Clarence “Satch” Satchell playing sax & guitar, and Ralph “Pee Wee” Middlebrooks on trombone and trumpet. As the Ohio Untouchables their most notable achievement was as the backing band for the Wilson Pickett-led group the Falcons, and appeared on the Falcons’ hit for Lupine, ‘I Found A Love’. In the wake of this success the band recorded their own single ‘Love Is Amazing’ with Robert Ward as lead before he left the group for a solo career.
By this time the band had recruited Leroy “Sugarbear” Bonner on guitar and after returning to Dayton the line up was boosted by the addition of Andrew Noland on bass and new drummer Gregory Webster. Joe Harris – later of the Undisputed Truth – fronted the group for a while, but by the time the band was ready to record under the new name of the Ohio Players he had been replaced by Bobby Lee Fears and Dutch Robinson. With a new, steady line-up the band acquired a manager in the form of New York record producer Johnny Brantley. With Brantley’s connections the band were soon recording.
Their first appearance on vinyl was for Ray Charles’ LA-based Tangerine label with ‘A Thing Called Love’ b/w ‘Neighbors’. Through Brantley’s connections they then became a sort of house band for the New York-based Compass label where, according to UK-based soul writer Clive Anderson, they appeared on the US R&B Top 30 hit by Helena Ferguson ‘Where Is The Party’. For their own releases they put out two 45s for the label ‘Trespassin’ b/w ‘You Don’t Mean It’ (Compass 7015) and ‘It’s A Crying Shame’ b/w ‘I’ve Got To Hold On’ (Compass 7018). Good though these records are, they are pretty standard fare for the era and were yet to show quite what the band could do. With the label not being in the healthiest of positions Brantley and the band then took the tapes for an almost completed album and licensed them to Capitol who released them in 1968 as “Observations In Time”. Both the album and the single lifted from it, ‘Here Today and Gone Tomorrow’ b/w ‘Bad Bargain’, never really saw the sales that were hoped for. When both of the vocalists left the group the remaining members headed back to Dayton bereft of a manager.
Three new members were added to the long-term line up of Marshall Jones, Greg Webster, Ralph Middlebrooks, Clarence Satchell and Leroy Bonner. Bruce Napier came in on trumpet, whilst Marvin Peirce added a funky trombone growl to the band. The third new member was Walter “Junie” Morrison whose vocals and keyboards added a 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, and we needed somebody that was really progressive too. And he was the baddest player!”, remembered Leroy Bonner in an interview with Swedish journalist Maria Granditsky
A couple of the funkier tracks, recorded in a Nashville session for a local Dayton label called Top Hit in early 1971, ‘Pain’ and ‘Theme From 69’ and a cover of ‘Proud Mary’ demonstrated their new sound immediately. The session itself mixed fairly straight covers of recent soul hits with the band’s new direction, but when ‘Pain’ was released as a 45 it gained attention straight away. Detroit indie label Westbound, who had started to make a name for themselves not just with that city’s sweet soul, but also with the twisted funk of George Clinton’s legendary Funkadelic, heard it and wanted to sign the band. Westbound’s re-release of the single propelled it into becoming a Top 40 R&B hit. The album that followed spent 25 weeks in the R&B chart as the band worked to establish themselves.
The first album for Westbound, “Pain”, began what became an Ohio Players tradition, featuring as a statuesque bald model in leather. It was photographed by Joel Brodsky and showed the model administering pain to a prostrate man, bent over on the floor. This imagery must have helped enormously to publicise the band. As Leroy Bonner noted, “sex is an immediate eyecatcher for all people, especially a beautiful woman is sure enough an eyecatcher...And that it happens to be a record inside makes it even better, especially if it's a good record.”
Their second Westbound album was preceded by the release of its title track, ‘Pleasure’, in August 1972. Based around a bouncing piano groove, tight horns, exciting flute and ecstatic vocals, it should have marked the band’s breakthrough, but it only just scraped into the R&B charts at #45. The single was stretched out to over 6 minutes and, as it opened the album, Junie’s organ solo becoming the highlight of the whole enterprise. The album snuck into the charts on the very last week of 1972, and like its predecessor, “Pain”, was a mixture of furious funk grooves and smooth soul ballads such as ‘Varee Is Love’. The photographer Joel Brodsky excelled himself once more, as the bald lady is this time depicted locked in chains.
The album was dwarfed by one track: the second single, an absurd piece of funk based around a conversation between a funky granny and a graveyard worm called ‘Funky Worm’, fuelled by an awesome distinctive synth line by Junie Morrison. It entered the charts on the 10 March 1973, topping the R&B charts and went to Top 20 in the Pop charts. The single’s success propelled the album to number four in the R&B charts.
The Ohio Players were now stars with a distinctive look and sound. They went on to record one more album for Westbound before being signed to Mercury, where they continued their string of hits with two Pop number ones. In the aftermath of the band’s defection Westbound released two albums: “Climax” and “Rattlesnake”, made up of tracks that had been left in the can. We have spread these tracks around our three reissues of the original albums as bonus cuts. “Pain” includes the band’s demo session for Top Hit, while “Ecstasy” includes the tracks that were used on “Rattlesnake” that were overdubbed by non-band members.
On this issue of “Pleasure” we have rounded up the prime slices of funk that seem to have been pretty much finished and ready to go, several of which are released for the first time on CD. If you haven’t heard ‘Ruffell Foot’ or ‘Rooster Poot’ before you are in for a treat. ‘Satan’s Boogie’, which had been in line to be on “Climax” when that album had been planned to be a double LP is also included, having only previously been included on our CD Best Of., “Orgasm”, released back in 1993.
By Dean Rudland