Reviewed on this page:
First Impressions - Observations In Time - Pain - Pleasure - Ecstasy - Skin Tight - Fire - Honey - Contradiction - Angel - Mr. Mean - Jass-Ay-Lay-Dee - Ouch - Tenderness - Graduation - Evacuate Your Seats
- Sugar Kiss - Back - Ol' School - When The City
The Ohio Players started life as a generic-sounding backup band for
various 60s soul singers, including Wilson Pickett. They made a couple of records in the late 60s that didn't make much of a splash. Then Junie
Morrison came on the scene, leading them through several bizarre,
darkly humorous albums before he continued on his inevitable
trajectory towards George Clinton's Funk
Mob. The rest of the Players regrouped, and promptly headed to the
top of the charts. Their trademarks were their uncluttered, doom-laden sound, the naked women on their album covers, and their no-star approach: all the tunes were listed as written and produced by
the whole band. Sugarfoot's yowling vocal delivery is also
instantly recognizable. As disco supplanted funk towards the end of
the 70s, the Players tried to adapt once again, with limited
success. Nowadays they're back on the road, and occasionally
release a reunion record.
There's a very informative fan site with biographical data, interviews, and scans of those famous covers. (DBW)
Clarence "Satch" Satchell, flute, sax, vocals (left 1979, died 1996 of brain aneurism); Leroy
"Sugarfoot" Bonner, guitar, lead vocals; Marshall "Rock" Jones,
bass; Ralph "Pee Wee" Middlebrook, trumpet; Jimmy
"Diamond" Williams, drums, vocals (left 1978); Billy Beck,
keyboards (joined 1974, left 1978, rejoined 1984); Marvin "Merv" Pierce, horns; Walter "Junie"
Morrison, keyboards, vocals, etc., left 1974.
First Impressions (1968)
This is a standard Wilson Pickett/Stax-style soul album of the period, poorly recorded and not too well performed. The tunes are all originals, more or less,
and only the single "Trespassin'" hints at the band's future accomplishments. There is a couple of examples of their weird sense of humour ("My Neighbors"), and an amusing tribute to James Brown. The album didn't make any impact at the time, but now it's been rereleased combined with Observations In Time on one CD, titled Summertime. (DBW)
Observations In Time (1968)
A major step forward, with the freaked-out ballad "Here Today And Gone Tomorrow" and a jazzy, echoey version of George Gershwin's "Summertime"
with twisted vocals by Fears. The rest of the album is better recorded and a little more interesting than First Impressions, but still basically
derivative of James Brown, Pickett and Otis Redding ("Stop Lying To Yourself," "Street Party").
The album ends on a jarring note with a screeching, Over The Top version of the Judy Garland hit "Over The Rainbow."
(According to the liner notes this was the version played at her funeral, but a reader who attended the event assures me that's untrue.) (DBW)
The first recording to feature Morrison and the band is trying to figure out its new laid-back funk style. Too often the grooves just aren't lively enough to hold your attention (title track), and with only six tracks there's not much music to begin with. Plus, one tune ("Never Had A Dream") is a ripoff of a similarly-named Stevie Wonder song from the same period. Overall, Pleasure is a much better introduction to their Westbound sound. The cover photograph by Joel Brodsky, of a shaved-head woman in bondage gear, set the pattern for their releases on the label. (DBW)
Acid-soul funk, not far from what Westbound labelmates Funkadelic were cranking out during this
period, only with horns instead of Hendrix-style guitars. Diffuse and sloppy
but fun ("Walt's First Trip"); the title track has a huge,
irresistable riff. But the icing on the cake is "Funky Worm," a
bizarre showcase for "the funkiest worm in the world" and his
greedy manager - the two-minute track somehow became a hit single.
The Players started their move to the mainstream here: "You And Me" is a smooth ballad with a falsetto lead, and
the funk is less trippy (title track, a single; "Black Cat," which sounds like a cross between War and Sly Stone). But it's an uneasy mix, as there are still some of the forgettable jams that cluttered up Pain and Pleasure ("Food Stamps Y'All"), and none of the brilliantly offhand compositions that would define their Mercury period.
As usual, most tunes are by the band, apart from the hard funk "Not So Sad And Lonely" by Louis Crane and Belda Baine.
The last record with Junie Morrison, who stayed with Westbound for
several solo albums (none of which I've heard yet). (DBW)
Skin Tight (1974)
Upon splitting from Westbound and parting company with Morrison,
the remaining Players mapped out a strategy that would prove highly
successful: long, spacious funk jams based on uncomplicated but
effective riffs, and long slow jams with spiritual lyrics and
female backing vocals. (They also traded in the leather-clad bald woman for Playboy-style soft-focus cover photography.) The title track was a hit, and there's also
the amusing "Jive Turkey." Although they'd gone more commercial
they still weren't perfectionists: in a time when most bands
rehearsed and recorded to death, "Skin Tight" includes fluffed bass
notes and misfired drum hits - nobody seemed to mind, and you
won't either. On the down side, the group's ballads sound generic
and dull at this point: "It's Your Night" and "Heaven Must Be Like
This" sound like Isaac Hayes on a bad day. (DBW)
One of two outtakes collections released by Westbound.
Many of the tunes are covers ("Proud Mary"; "What's Goin' On") and the rest are credited to Crane and Baine.
The title track is perhaps their most recognizable song: a heavy
guitar riff, and simple, ominous lyrics (both the song and the
album went to #1). A concept album focused on hellfire and the
Devil, it manages to be quite entertaining: "Smoke" is a witty
meditation on nicotine addiction, and "What The Hell" is angry and
brutally uncompromising. The brief instrumental "Together/Feelings"
ends things on a more positive note. Again, though, the ballads are
uninteresting and overlong ("I Want To Be Free," "It's All Over").
Westbound's second and final outtakes compilation. It repeats a
couple of tracks from earlier records ("Laid It," "Varee Is Love" from Pleasure); everything else is credited to Crane/Baine.
I have five of these tunes as Ecstasy bonus tracks, and they're intermittently interesting, mostly instrumental jams (title track).
Freeze (Junie: 1975)
All self-penned, arranged and produced.
The best place to start with the band: it includes their biggest
hit, the bubblegum "Love Rollercoaster," plus the seriously funky
"Fopp" and the magnificently deranged ballad "Sweet Sticky Thing." The
title track is a pleasant ballad with melodic falsetto backups, in the
style of Earth, Wind & Fire, and "Alone" is
moving and unsettling, a slow meditation on loneliness. The only
problems are the amazingly corny "Let's Love/Let's Do It" and the
extremely short running time, just over half an hour.
Also in 1975, the Players released a Christmas single, "Happy Holidays," which is hard to find and not worth the effort - just a minimal,
slow-moving groove. (DBW)
When We Do (Junie: 1975)
Morrison had some help here: Motown vet David Van De Pitte is one of three arrangers.
The bald album cover model is back.
For whatever reason, the band shifted to shorter tunes this time
(no track is over five minutes), and the funk is nastier than ever
on tunes like "Tell The Truth," the guitar-powered title track, and
the eerie "Far East Mississippi." "Who'd She Coo?" is pop-funk in
the style of "Love Rollercoaster," and "Little Lady Maria" is a
funk-ballad with Latin-inflected horns. "Bi-Centennial" is slow and
gorgeous; I guess the lyrics are patriotic, or something. (DBW)
Suzie Super Groupie (Junie: 1976)
With a cover of Ashford & Simpson's "Surrender."
The big hits from the four Mercury albums, plus two new tracks, "Feel The Beat (Everybody Disco)" and "Only A Child Can Love," both of
which are okay but not worth buying an album for. (DBW)
Although there aren't any huge hits here (the chant "O-H-I-O" was moderately successful), any OP fan will get a lot out of this: the title
track is another funky ballad, "Merry Go Round" is manic fun, "Faith" is another bizarre love song. They also prove on "Body Vibes" that
they still ran the loosest ship in the funk business: the tune starts off with one musician after another feeling for a riff, as if they
were making up the thing as they went along - it works nonetheless. But throughout you're uncomfortably aware that as much fun as you (and
they) are having, the band has fallen into a rut. (DBW)
Mr. Mean (1977)
For this album, the band dropped the loud guitars and added
prominent synthesizers, resulting in a more generic sound. The
lyrics are also generally bland ("Magic Trick"). The tunes are
okay, but - except for the instrumental "Speak Easy" - kind of
monotonous ("The Big Score," "Good Luck Charm," with an endless sax
solo). This year the Players also produced albums for Faze-O and Kitty and the Haywoods.
Jam (rec. 1978, released 1996)
A live-in-the-studio album that was shelved at the time, but with the Players experiencing something of a renaissance these days, the good
folks at Funk Essentials have finally released it. The track list consists of the predictable hits ("Fire"), welcome album tracks ("Alone"),
and a couple of lesser-known tunes ("Merry-Go-Round"). (DBW)
The Players are very close to the line separating funk from disco
here, and even the funk isn't very fresh: the opening "Funk-O-Nots"
cops an old P-Funk concept; "Nott Enuff" and "Dance (If Ya Wanta)"
are danceable but unoriginal. "Time Slips Away" sounds like a
conscious imitation of Earth Wind & Fire's
signature sound. The title track combines dull romance lyrics, a
corny chorus with half-whispered backup vocals, rote horn charts,
and a guitar lick that gets tired long before the 8-minute track
crosses the finish line. (DBW)
Everybody Up (1979)
Diamond, Billy and Chet had left the band to form Shadow, leaving Sugar and Satch at the reins. Some good comes of this - "Don't Say Goodbye" is a Sugarfoot guitar-and-voice showpiece with the spirit of the blues and the groove of hard funk - and some bad: the title track is utterly forgettable disco, and it spins on for nearly ten minutes. Most of the disc is somewhere in the middle, with wonderful Ohio-y moments buried in late 70s formulaity ("Say It") - the contrast is most obvious on "Take De Funk Off, Fly" which has squealing lead guitar and raunchy horns uncomfortably beside "Fly Robin Fly"-style strings and keyboard.
A commercial flop, causing Satch's abrupt departure from the music business.
Love Lite (Shadow: 1979)
Produced by Beck, Willis, Williams and Don Mizell.
Shadow (Shadow: 1980)
Produced by Leon Ware. (DBW)
Bread Alone (Junie: 1980)
Morrison returned to solo work after leaving the Funk Mob. (DBW)
Sugar carried on, without much success. He stripped out most of the horns, keyboards and lead guitar, apparently trying to decode the early 80s funk formula of Rick James or Prince, but falling short because the tunes are obvious and dull ("Do Your Thing," which inspired a much better EU number; "Everybody Dance"). Then again, the ballads are even weaker than the dance tracks ("Devoted"; "My Baby Gets The Best Of My Love"), so sticking to his guns might not have helped. There's one wonderful exception, though: "Just Me" is a slow, simmering funk opus with curiously percolating strings and a tortured Sugarfoot vocal.
Produced by Richard "Dimples" Fields.
The band was rapidly falling apart at this point: half of the original
members were gone, they'd lost their major label deal (this release is
on Boardwalk), and for the first time in ages, they included
two cover tunes, both associated with Otis
Redding. On "Try A Litle Tenderness" Sugar copies all of
Redding's mannerisms over a silly disco arrangement; "Sitting On The
Dock Of The Bay" is redone as funk, and it's rather amusing. Despite all
the danger signs, the group does pull off some nice stuff:
"Boardwalkin'" is a hot nearly instrumental jam; "It Takes A While" is a
memorable ballad; the album-closer "Hard To Love Your Brother" is a
lovely mid-tempo social awareness tune that would have been a worthy
addition to any earlier OP effort. But it's dragged down by sappy
stringfests ("Sometimes I Cry," "Try To Be A Man") and overall lack of
originality. Sugarfoot produced; Merv Pierce exec produced; new member
L. David Johnson played a zillion keyboards, cowrote much of the
material, and associate produced; Jimmy
Sampson drums and Vinnie Thomas adds percussion. (DBW)
Shadows In The Street (Shadow: 1981)
Again produced by Ware, the final Shadow release. (DBW)
5 (Junie: 1981)
The same year, Morrison released a 12" single - "Buckets O' Duckats" - under his pseudonym J.S. Theracon.
Sugarfoot left (replaced by Ronnie "Diamond" Hoard), but a post-Shadow Billy Beck returned: he cowrote nearly all the songs and sang most of the leads,
and of all the late albums it's the closest to the classic OP sound, high-pitched backing vocals, pounding riffs ("Fast Track," with only
slight intrusions of 80s keyboards) and all. Hoard gets in a fine rock guitar solo on the midtempo "Follow Me."
Once again, though, the ballads are below par ("Sight For Sore Eyes") and many of the tunes sound like knockoffs:
"Don't You Know You Care" reuses the main melody from "I Want To Be Free"; "All Night" is a Kool & The Gang
pastiche; "So Nice I Got My R&B" sounds strongly like EWF's version of "Got To Get
You Into My Life." And "School Girl," probably the single, is functional but forgettable.
Produced by "Rock" Jones.
Evacuate Your Seats (Junie: 1984)
About as strong an argument as I can think of against drum programming and sequencing, as Morrison uses technology as a crutch to crank out synth-dance tunes with no soul and stultifying repetition ("Break 6").
To raise the irritation factor to the max, he uses the most grinding, mechanical settings for every instrument ("Gyrate"), rarely plays anything live (there is a guitar solo on "Tease Me"), and complements the music with maddeningly banal bedroom banter ("Show Me Yours").
In fact, it's so horrific it plays like one long satire on the 80s quick-fix consumption culture ("Driving In A Porsche").
"Techno-Freqs" was the single; "Here With You Tonight" is the sole ballad.
Sugar "Kiss" (Sugarfoot: 1985)
Sugar's solo album, produced by Roger Troutman of Zapp and Roger fame. I suspect he was aiming for hipness, and to avoid the traditional OP sound, but what he ends up with is trivial, overprogrammed lite synth-funk, like an easy-listening version of Cameo. The only musical interest here is the Latin groove that begins the title track; it's all downhill from there. The nadir is a remake of "Fire" that should have been a huge red flag about the wisdom of the whole album's approach. The lyrics are syrupy romance, packed with clichés. Don't buy this unless you're a diehard collector. (DBW)
They really sound like Cameo this time: without the horn players or
Rock's bass, they're left relying on synthesizers; the compressed sound
aims for being harsh and uncompromising, but ends up just being
mechanical. The lyrics sound like a parody of their earlier sexual
preoccupation ("Sweat," "Show Off"), and some of the ballads are just
What saves the record from complete disaster is Sugar's snarling vocals,
and a couple of nice tunes: "Just A Minute" and the ballad "Just To Show
Short on material, they cover "Vibe Alive," which Sugar had just
recorded on a Herbie Hancock
album, and come up with an anti-drunk driving number that's totally
derived from Stevie Wonder's much better
take on the same subject ("I'm Madd"). This record was better promoted
and distributed than its predecessors, but still didn't make much of an
Ol' School (1996)
A live album by the 90s touring lineup; mostly monster hits ("Fire," "Skin Tight"), and the one new tune (title track) is just a
basic groove. It's nostalgia, but still a lot of fun for fans, because the band is really into it: Sugar's animated, bizarre voicovers
alone are worth the price of admission, and the musicians are serious about keeping the funk flowing. The ballads ("Heaven Must Be Like
This," "I Wanna Be Free") are shorter and punchier than the originals; the low points are overextended versions of "Love Rollercoaster" and
"Fire." Not a must-have, but the interplay with the audience makes this a better bet than Jam to hear the band live.
It's been released as an Enhanced CD, and if you stick it in your computer you get brief band interviews, short performance clips, and
other frills. (DBW)
When The City (Junie Morrison: 2004)
After taking stock for a couple of decades, Morrison came back on his own Juniefunk label. As usual, he wrote, played, sang and produced every note. Junie's voice sounds just the way it used to, there are some lovely melodies ("Booty 4-2," with a brief quote from "One Nation Under A Groove"; "Discreet"), and there's a ton of variety: "Now And Evermore" is a ballad; Latin-y synth horns crop up on "Friends";
"Cloud Sorcerer's Lament" is Cool Jazz. "L.A. Stories" has both a loud, extended guitar solo and salsa piano.
Sometimes the drum programming is repetitive (title track), but it's never as irritating or tasteless as Evacuate Your Seats so it never spoils the fun.
I want to be free...