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Ohio Players Way? Locals seek to honor Dayton funk pioneers

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

A group of local residents are working to commemorate the pioneering band’s legacy by designating a portion of Hillcrest Avenue as Ohio Players Way.

Credit: DaytonDailyNews

The group behind huge hits in the ’70s still calls Dayton home

Dayton is known for turning out tremendous funk talent such as Roger Troutman of Zapp and Johnnie and Keith Wilder of Heatwave. There was Slave, Lakeside, Faze-O and Sun, to name just a few others.

And then, of course, there was the mighty Ohio Players, not only the city’s first legitimate funk act but also its most commercially successful. Now, there is a local campaign to commemorate the pioneering band’s legacy by designating a portion of Hillcrest Avenue as Ohio Players Way.

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“Just like the murals downtown, this kind of designation honors local individuals,” said Kenneth Marcellus, a community development specialist for the City of Dayton. “It’s something where they know there are folks in this community that value what they’ve done and the time, energy, effort and sacrifice they’ve put in to do the music they love.”

James “Diamond” Williams, The Ohio Players’ drummer and manager. CONTRIBUTED
James “Diamond” Williams, The Ohio Players’ drummer and manager. CONTRIBUTED

The Ohio Players’ drummer and manager James “Diamond” Williams agrees. While he didn’t get into music for accolades and honorifics, the man “Rolling Stone” magazine named number 72 on its March 2016 list of the 100 Greatest Drummers of All Time believes this kind of hometown recognition is long overdue.

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“Having a street in the band’s name is one of the things that’s on my wish list,” Williams said. “I’ve even talked to Judge Rice a couple of times about the situation. I talked to Rhine McLin when she was the mayor of our city, which would date back some 15 or 20 years, so it has been a conversation. With all the protests and stuff going on in the world today, I guess we’ll just add this to the list because this is a protest.”

It is a crazy time for citizens of Earth. Coronavirus cases are spiking in many places. There are protests around the world. A staggering number of Americans are out of work. A street dedication isn’t necessarily at the forefront of the minds of most Daytonians but, as we’ve learned, life goes on during the pandemic. Perhaps, while the shutdowns keep touring acts like the Ohio Players off the road, this is the ideal time to focus on this well-earned honor.

“We’re trying to say we believe it’s deserved,” Williams said. “Daggone, we’ve waited long enough. We ride around the city and we see signs for other prominent people that have been good to the city and good for their profession like Edwin Moses and Mike Schmidt. We think we’ve done a little bit in our profession, likewise we’ve done a little bit for the city.”

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(From left) James Diamond Williams (drums), Billy Beck (keyboards), Clarence Chet Willis (lead guitarist) and Robert Kuumba Jones (percussion) are all original members of The Ohio Players who are back together again, playing their former hits and writing new songs. CONTRIBUTED
(From left) James Diamond Williams (drums), Billy Beck (keyboards), Clarence Chet Willis (lead guitarist) and Robert Kuumba Jones (percussion) are all original members of The Ohio Players who are back together again, playing their former hits and writing new songs. CONTRIBUTED

MUSICAL IMPACT

The group, which still calls Dayton home, began as the Ohio Untouchables in 1959 before changing its name to the Ohio Players in 1967. The band placed 14 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. “Fire” and “Love Rollercoaster” were both number one hits, topping the charts, respectively, on Feb. 8, 1975 and Jan. 31, 1976. Three others reached the Top 20. “Funky Worm” peaked at 15 on May 26, 1973, “Skin Tight” hit 13 on Oct. 12, 1974 and “Who’d She Coo?” stalled at 18 on Sept. 18, 1976.

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“The Ohio Players took music in a new direction,” said Basim Blunt, host of “Behind the Groove,” which airs Fridays from 10 p.m. to midnight on WYSO-FM (103.9). “Their whole concept and creativity was so unique. They definitely pushed the edge with six-minute songs on the album. It was the soundtrack to young kids’ lives in the ’70s. It wasn’t as clean and spiritual as Earth, Wind & Fire. It was a little bit more gritty.”

Steve Arrington formerly with the Funk band Slave. LISA POWELL / STAFF (Photographed Sept. 11, 2019)
Steve Arrington formerly with the Funk band Slave. LISA POWELL / STAFF (Photographed Sept. 11, 2019)

Steve Arrington of Slave discussed the group’s influence in a June 2017 piece by RJ Smith for “Cincinnati Magazine.”

“When they hit, they hit big, they were one of the biggest groups in the world,” Arrington said. “But when we all came behind them, it wasn’t with ‘the Ohio Players sound,’ it was ‘the Dayton sound.’ They were so unique, and what we took from them was that we have to be unique, too. That was the way to honor the Players.”

The Ohio Players’ music not only influenced other musical contemporaries in the 1970s and ’80s, but also successive generations of rap acts. According to the web site Who Sampled, parts of the group’s “Funky Worm” have appeared in 261 songs by artists like NWA, Snoop Dogg, Kriss Kross, De La Soul, Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince and the Beastie Boys.

(From left) James Diamond Williams (drums), Billy Beck (keyboards), Clarence Chet Willis (lead guitarist) and Robert Kuumba Jones (percussion) are all original members of The Ohio Players who are back together again, playing their former hits and writing new songs. CONTRIBUTED
(From left) James Diamond Williams (drums), Billy Beck (keyboards), Clarence Chet Willis (lead guitarist) and Robert Kuumba Jones (percussion) are all original members of The Ohio Players who are back together again, playing their former hits and writing new songs. CONTRIBUTED

STILL ACTIVE

The Ohio Players is still very much a functioning entity. Despite the deaths of Clarence “Satch” Satchell (December 1995), Ralph “Pee Wee” Middlebrooks (November 1997), Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner (January 2013), Marshall “Rock” Jones (May 2016) and Walter “Junie” Morrison (January 2017), Williams (drums) and other surviving members Chet Willis (lead guitar), Robert “Kuumba” Jones (percussion) and Billy Beck (keyboards) are keeping the musical legacy alive through extensive touring.

Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner of The Ohio Players
Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner of The Ohio Players

Credit: Archive photo

Credit: Archive photo

“Oh, man, the band had a wonderful year in 2019,” Williams said. “We probably did over $1 million on the road last year. I’ve been in the band 48 years and for us to still be able to make a decent living out here is remarkable. It’s almost mind-blowing to a point.”

Like many other touring acts, the Ohio Players faced dozens of concert cancellations because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“We were expecting to have an even better year this year so it has impacted us a lot,” Williams said. “You know, musicians work from week-to-week and month-to-month, so it has taken us completely out of work. I’ve got things on the books for later in the year but it’s all invisible, you know what I mean? With things going the way they are around the world, nothing is really written in stone for this band right now.”

While the band’s concert schedule remains uncertain, a group of fans, friends and family are working to make Ohio Players Way a reality. This mission includes getting the approval from 51 percent of property owners on that stretch of Hillcrest Avenue and paying a $500 application fee.

“The fee covers the cost of new street signs but it’s really more of a regulating thing,” Marcellus said. “It basically makes it so not just anybody can change a street name. If folks are serious about the designation, they should be willing to provide a little monetary compensation and to go along with the other requirements.

“If it happens, it’ll be just like any other sign for Mike Schmidt or Erma Bombeck,” Marcellus added. “Ten years from now, even if you don’t know anything about the Ohio Players, you’ll know they were somebody because you see their name up on the street sign.”