by Phil Freeman
What happened to the Ohio Players? I don’t mean in terms of their actual careers. They had the same arc as their peers: gradual rise, phenomenal commercial success, gradual decline. But what happened to their reputation? This is a band with a body of work every bit the equal of Parliament/Funkadelic, Kool & the Gang, or Earth, Wind and Fire, but in the broader public mind they are reduced to a song or two—”Fire,” “Love Rollercoaster”—and a bunch of sexually provocative album covers. It’s depressing.
Fortunately, the new 3CD set The Definitive Collection Plus… (get it from Amazon) offers all the evidence any listener could require, and more, of the Ohio Players‘ excellence. And by compiling work from the late ’60s all the way through the mid ’80s, from Capitol, Westbound, Mercury, Boardwalk, and Warner Bros. Records, it portrays the full spectrum of their career in a way no previous set has done. It cuts off with 1981’s Ouch!, omitting anything from their drum machine-driven 1988 reunion album, Back, but also includes singles by keyboardist Walter “Junie” Morrison, guitarist Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner, and Shadow, an offshoot group formed by the band’s rhythm guitarist, keyboardist, and drummer.
The first two tracks on Disc One, “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow” and “Find Someone to Love,” come from the band’s debut album, 1969’s Observations in Time. At that time, the band were operating in a Southern soul vein; “Here Today…” could be a lost Sam & Dave hit, and “Find Someone…” is an instrumental in the vein of the Bar-Kays or Booker T. & the MGs. Though the album went nowhere commercially, and they were quickly dropped by Capitol, David Bowie later covered “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow” during his “plastic soul” phase; his version can be heard on David Live.
The group’s profile rose when they signed to Westbound; they released two albums, Pain and Pleasure, in February and December 1972, with Ecstasy following in September 1973. All three albums featured cover model Pat Evans, a black woman with a shaved head wearing black leather, spikes and chains. The songs “Pain” and “Funky Worm” were hit singles, but it wasn’t until they left for Mercury in 1974 that the band truly broke through. Once again, they released two albums in a single year: Skin Tight in April and Fire in November. Their sound seemed to grow slicker and more complex with each album. The bandmembers were ferociously talented, and songs like “Skin Tight” and “Sweet Sticky Thing” frequently featured long instrumental passages that verged on jazz fusion, with a thrilling rhythmic intricacy and subtlety—what other band, then or now, would kick off a ballad (“I Want to Be Free”) with a drum solo, then go into the bridge with another one? For every dancefloor-friendly hit like “Fopp” or “Love Rollercoaster,” there was an unclassifiable journey into weirdness like “Far East Mississippi” or “Good Luck Charm,” which extends a quiet storm-ish ballad to nearly 10 minutes with keyboard and saxophone solos.
As the ’70s dragged on, the band’s commercial fortunes declined, and they began to capitulate to trends…kinda. “Feel the Beat (Everybody Disco)” would seem to give the game away with its title, but it’s a lot weirder and funkier than, say, Earth, Wind & Fire‘s “Boogie Wonderland.” And while “Everybody Up” rides a straightforward disco rhythm, the transparently fake crowd noise, not to mention its 9:35 running time, make it unlikely that it was an actual hit. The covers of Otis Redding‘s “Try a Little Tenderness” and “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay,” from Ouch!, are harder to justify. They also seemed to encroach on George Clinton‘s territory with “Take Da Funk Off, Fly.” Still, there’s so much amazing music on this three-CD sets that a few latter-day missteps are easy to forgive. No hot streak lasts forever, but when the Ohio Players were hot, they burned incredibly bright.
Watch them perform a 10-minute version of “Fire” (interpolating “O-H-I-O”) on the Midnight Special TV show: