Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner, founder and frontman of funk pioneers The Ohio Players, has died at age 69. The group’s catchy hooks and infectious sound catapulted funk to the top of the pop music charts. Their hits included “Love Rollercoaster,” “Funky Worm,” and of course, one of the all time great party jams, “Fire.”
The music was a gigantic part of the soundtrack of the 70s. Unlike a lot of artists who got locked into that 70s time capsule, their sound kept going, revered and reinvented by musicians in other genres. The Red Hot Chili Peppers were such admirers they did their own cover of Players’ hit “Love Rollercoaster.” Rappers also made regular use of The Ohio Players’ funky beats. SPIN puts the number of rap songs sampling the funk supergroup at over 200.
The band got its beginnings in the short-lived Dayton, Ohio R & B group the Ohio Untouchables. Its evolution wasn’t just musical, but promotional. They learned that the marketing of the music is as important as the sound itself. Bonner was described by friends as quite humble off stage. But he knew the band’s lead man had to be as in your face and attention grabbing as the music. “Sugarfoot” was born, complete with fur coat, hat and elaborately decorated cane. These guys had “swagger” before anybody had a term for it.
Ohio Players album covers were designed to court controversy, none more so than the provocative “Honey.” It featured a Playboy model dripping honey onto herself from a ladel. The cover itself had people talking, and that was before an urban legend surrounded “Love Rollercoaster.” All sorts of crazy rumors came out about the scream in the song. They ranged from the model having a disfiguring accident to an actual murder taking place in or near the studio.
The real story was nowhere near as sinister. A band member did the scream as part of a vocal exercise, and it sounded so different they left it in. “The scream” took on a life of its own. The Ohio Players didn’t tell anyone the truth until years later. Player Jimmy “Diamond” Williams explained that the controversy sold more records, so the band agreed to keep quiet and let people keep gossiping. They were ahead of their time in so many ways.