40 Years Ago: The Ohio Players Start a ‘Fire’
Some groups make it look easy. Join up, record a record, score a big hit: hello, overnight success. The Ohio Players are not one of those groups.
By the time these funkmeisters from Dayton, Ohio, had scored their first No. 1 single and album, the Ohio Players had been together (in one form or another) for more than 15 years. The R&B combo began life in 1959, as the Ohio Untouchables, which featured long-timers Marshall "Rock" Jones on bass, Clarence "Satch" Satchell on sax and Ralph "Pee Wee" Middlebrooks on trumpet. The boys earned a reputation for being a solid backing band (they backed Detroit vocal group the Falcons), but not an attraction worthy of the spotlight.
By the mid-'60s, the Untouchables renamed themselves the Players (due to their talents both on and off the stage), and added energetic guitarist Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner to their ranks. In the meantime, the group went through lead vocalists like James Brown went through girlfriends. By the end of the decade, the Ohio Players couldn't seem to break out of being a backing band and broke up.
However, the split didn't hold and the core members soon reformed (with future Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Walter "Junie" Morrison for a spell). After failing to keep lead singers around for very long, the Players finally decided to let Sugarfoot Bonner take over on vocals. It was a decision that coincided perfectly with the current trend in R&B. Funk was often more about groove and less about technically remarkable vocals. And it resulted in the group's first Top 40 hit: 1973's 'Funky Worm.' The band's newfound success also landed them on a major label, Mercury Records.
The Players struck while the groove was hot, releasing two LPs in 1974: 'Skin Tight' and 'Fire.' Although the former continued the group's forward momentum, 'Fire' (released in November 1974) was the one that put the Ohio Players over the top.
The album's lead single, also named 'Fire,' conquered the dance floors with its irresistible, bouncy rhythm, shout-along chorus and scorching, guitar-fueled break. It proved not only to be a high point in the Players' career but in all of funk. By early '75, the song had zoomed to the top of the Billboard charts, taking the album to No. 1 in the process.
But this wasn't the case of a great single dragging an album full of filler behind. The 'Fire' LP -- featuring a scantily-clad woman on the front, like most of the band's pinup-worthy album covers -- was packed with some of the best material the Players would record in their entire run. The tracks included the restless, horn-spiked funk of 'Runnin' From the Devil' alongside the epic slow jam 'I Want to Be Free.' Who needs a jaw-dropping lead singer when you can create endlessly invigorating grooves like these?
The band would top the charts once more (with 1975's 'Love Rollercoaster'), and hold steadfast to their brand of supple funk to diminishing returns through the rest of the '70s. But 'Fire,' whether heard at the club or at the top of a reality show (it became the theme song to 'Hell's Kitchen') remains one of the funkiest songs -- and on one of the funkiest albums -- ever recorded.
Listen to the Ohio Players' 'Runnin' from the Devil'