review and photos by Matt Bauer
The funk was on fire as Rhythm and Blues Hall of Famers The Ohio Players performed to a standing room only crowd at The Bear’s Den Showroom at Seneca Niagara Casino January 17.
Since initially forming in Dayton in 1959 as The Ohio Untouchables, The Ohio Players’ fatback grooves remain cornerstones of that incredibly potent and fertile musical territory known as funk, formulating a soulful stew nourishing the likes of Dr. Dre, Too Short, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, too many hip-hop samples to count and a generation of significant funk bands that emerged from the Southern Ohio area throughout the 1970s and 1980s. And, of course, who can forget the scintillating covers of landmark albums like “Fire” and “Honey,” – now iconic images of African American sensuality.
The set opened with the rollicking “Love Rollercoaster” and the current 12-piece incarnation of the band ( which features original members from the group’s 1970s commercial peak: drummer James “Diamond” Williams, guitarist Clarence “Chet” Willis, and keyboardist Billy Beck) still has the goods to tear the roof off with tight interplay, gutbucket bass and drums, stinging horn charts and that distinct synthesizer sheen-always a classy stamp of the Ohio Players sound. The 1977 concert favorite and ode to their home state “O-H-I-O” followed with audience chanting the infectious chorus.
Many musicologists (this writer included) have theorized why so many
funky folk-Bootsy Collins, Lakeside, Slave & Steve Arrington, Sun, Zapp & Roger Troutman, Faze O-emerged from the bottom end of the Buckeye State in general and Dayton in particular. As “Diamond” explained in a post-show interview, it was a continuum of Dayton’s rich, yet unsung, jazz tradition of the 1940s and 1950s.
“It’s the predecessors that were musicians that we grew up listening to. I’l
l give you names that you wouldn’t recognize: Zeke Sloane, Joe Arnold and Shannon Bell. These are drummers, guitarists and saxophone players that were just incredible. Basically, we just developed the funk and our artistic ability-it was around us. When I was a little kid my dad was a jazz aficionado so he got me involved in jazz music and artistry around the city of Dayton and that’s basically where it came from. People will say it came out of the water but they weren’t affiliated with the musicians that inspired us and there were great musicians in the Dayton area and I think it just developed over time.”
As the show progressed it became even more apparent how much this
group has honored and added to that aforementioned musical tradition. “From the first note you know what an Ohio Players song is” said “Diamond” before dropping into that inimitable drum solo-and showing why he was ranked 72 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 100 Greatest Drummers list- that heralds the lush “I Want To Free.” “Funky Worm” was performed with a gleeful aplomb while “Skin Tight” and “Sweet Sticky Thing” remain stone-cold funk exemplars.
An off-the-cuff “Ecstasy” was greeted enthusiastically by hardcore fans before “Fire” brought the house down featuring a vibrant guitar solo by Edward “Rick” Ward- a formidable conclusion and confirmation that this venerable musical institution will be dropping funk bombs for years to come.
The Ohio Players are now ingrained in both popular music and popular culture as a whole, “Diamond” is grateful and humbled by The Ohio Players’ legacy: “ To think that 45 years ago the music would still be played today in rotation and you have things like Spotify and not only radio stations and TV shows (“Hell’s Kitchen”) and movies it’s unbelievable. I’d like to think it’s the music itself, the work that we did to create that music to think that we had the ability to do that, we’re very fortunate.