If you grew up in the 1970s and loved to cruise around in your parents’ car with your buddies, getting down to some funk music on the AM radio, the words to the Ohio Players’ “Fire” probably are still seared into your frontal lobes.
The way you walk and talk really sets me off
To a full alarm, child, yes, it does
The way you squeeze and tease, knocks me to my knees
‘Cause I’m smokin’, baby, baby
Everything about the OPs made you want to bust a move, from the thumping bass lines to the driving, catchy horn riffs that that they managed to build around a single-chord melody. But the band’s pièce de résistance was the vocal virtuosity of lead singer Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner, who had a knack for shifting effortlessly from a satyric growl to a soaring falsetto, and whose playfully improvisational enunciation — the way, for example, he turned “baby” into “BAY-yay-ah-BEE” — no doubt subtly worked its way into the everyday speech of millions of teenagers.
Considering that we all copied his sexy swagger so slavishly, it’s remarkable how little most of us knew about Bonner, who died on Jan. 26 at age 69 near Dayton. Here are five intriguing tidbits about a smoldering legend of funk:
- According to the Associated Press’ Dan Sewell, Bonner was born in Hamilton, north of Cincinnati, the oldest of a family of 14, and grew up in poverty. He learned to play harmonica and guitar in part by sneaking into bars as a teenager to play with older musicians. At age 14 he ran away from home, supporting himself initially by playing for change on street corners, and returned only once to the town of his birth.
- Bonner ended up in Dayton, where he met other musicians and in the mid-1960s formed a band that initially was known as the Ohio Untouchables.
- According to the All Music Guide to Rock, the Ohio Players’ first hit on the R&B charts was “Trespassin’ “ in 1968.
- Like proto-Beatle bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, Bonner in his early years played guitar with his back to the audience, so that he wouldn’t get distracted.
- In addition to their funk sound, the Ohio Players were famed for their bawdy album covers and sometimes suggestive lyrics. But as Bonner said in a 2003 interview, he couldn’t relate to the far more explicit lyrics in contemporary pop music and rap. “It’s a shame the way these artists are preaching badness to a drum beat,” he explained.