Here’s a little known fact. Most of the greatest funk legends are known by only one name. Check the list of some of the funk greats. James. Sly. Curtis. Bootsy. Rick. Prince. Roger. Each artist is legendary, iconic even, in his own right. We identify with them, we know the distinct sounds they created, and the impact they had both on the funk and the popular music landscape. Sugarfoot is one of those special funk legends you can’t forget. You knew who Sugarfoot was when you saw and heard him, from his over-exaggerated afro, his gold tooth, his double-neck guitar, and his trademark southern drawl and “Owww…” vocal, which was covered by everyone from Maurice White to Larry Blackmon to Michael Cooper. He was the front man for a phenomenal band and he stood out from the rest of his talented band mates, yet he never really considered himself a lead guy. The Ohio Players were funk music innovators, and Sugarfoot, while instrumental to the band’s success never bought into the egotistical front man, which kills so many bands. To the music world, however, Sugarfoot was the center of The Ohio Players funk universe, and for a time, the man in funk music.
When you think of Sugarfoot, you instantly think of the Ohio Players, their risqué but always tasteful album covers, and the band’s unique brand of funk that crossed over into popular music mainstream in the early to the mid 1970’s. Before the Ohio Players, funk music, while on the rise, was still mainly an R&B genre.
Only two major acts, James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone enjoyed superstar mainstream success in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. (Three if you count Jimi Hendrix) Funk was in its toddling stage, and to be clear, there were funk bands that made an impact in the late 1960’s and early 70’s. The Isley Brothers incorporated funk to their new sound in 1969, both the JB’s and and the Meters were prominent at the time as well. Charles White & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band was making a splash in the early 70’s and Curtis Mayfield successfully ventured into funk with his solo debut album in 1971. P-Funk was still largely underground (The Ohio Players and Funkadelic were label mates on the Detroit based, Westbound label in the early 70’s) and bands like the Bar-Kays, Commodores Kool & the Gang, and Earth, Wind & Fire were still finding their way.
All of that changed with the Ohio Players. On the band’s second album, (and first gold seller) “Pain” The Ohio Players firmly
entrenched themselves into the black community in 1972. The music was great, but it was the racy, erotic album cover that immediately captured your attention. The “Pain” album cover gained its own following, and the Dayton, Ohio band’s music was a different departure from the funk of the day. Most funk of that era was mainly instrumental and heavy on the percussions. The Ohio Players, however, brought a style of vocals into the music that became the perfect marriage of their sound. The vocals and lyrics, while good, were mainly secondary. “We were players,” Sugarfoot told the Dayton Daily News in 2003. “We weren’t trying to be lead singers, but we became one of the first crossover singing bands.”
And while the music of The Ohio Players was Ohio funk, it wasn’t the same kind of Ohio funk that Cincinnati natives the Isley Brothers were putting down during that time, nor was it the funk that both Cincy siblings Bootsy and Catfish Collins, who as members of the JB’s, were playing for the Godfather of Soul, James Brown.
Funk wunderkind Junie Morrison gave The Ohio Players its first number one R&B single with the instrumental song, “Funky Worm” in 1973 and promptly left the band soon after. Sugarfoot, who had been with the band since 1964 when they were known as the Ohio Untouchables, took a major part of the creative control of the band.
And the rest is history.
“Skin Tight” was the band’s first number one R&B album, and platinum seller. The title single, reached number two on the R&B charts. The follow-up album and single, “Fire” peaked at number one on both the R&B and Pop charts. The single, with its catchy bass line and funky horns, tantalized the funk world and mainstream alike. With his voice and showmanship, Sugarfoot led the charge to The Ohio Players serving notice that they were one of the preeminent funk bands of their era. Between 1973 and 1976, The Ohio Players recorded seven Top 40 hits, including five number one R&B tunes and two Pop music chart-toppers. The band had four consecutive albums that went gold or platinum, and they became a live performance favorite on TV. Dayton, Ohio transformed a hotbed for talented funk artists and bands. Bands like Heatwave, Slave, Lakeside, Zapp, and the Dazz Band all hail from the “Gem City” and all of those bands paid homage to the Ohio Players for making Dayton “the land of funk” as Lakeside describes it in their song, “Fantastic Voyage.”
News of the death of Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner rocked me when I learned he’d succumbed to cancer on January 27th. Sugarfoot, after all, is on the short list in the pantheon of funk greats. I grew up on The Ohio Players; they were music staples in my house, and in my community. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to hear someone, after watching the Ohio Players on, say, “The Midnight Special” say, “That Sugarfoot, man…” and you knew exactly what they were talking about. Funk stars are personalities unto themselves, and Sugarfoot was no exception. The brother had the look of a cross between a blues performer, with the gold tooth, and a rocker/funk man with the hair and wild costumes. As an elementary student growing up in newly integrated North Carolina in the early and mid-1970’s, I could discuss “Fire” or “Love Rollercoaster” with some of my schoolmates who were white, even though we lived in two totally different worlds. The Ohio Players and Sugarfoot were conversational icebreakers in race relations during that time. That’s how prominent they were on the music scene.
And that’s the impact of The Ohio Players. Although they had crossover appeal, they never compromised themselves or their sound, for
mainstream success. You took The Ohio Players and Sugarfoot straight, with no chaser; they went down into your system best that way. The Ohio players were a funk band that musically, was black and proud, and you couldn’t help but feel the funk they created. And that was the beauty of the 1970’s. It was the funk decade, where people could be their funky selves and not feel ashamed or guilty about it. Funk was everywhere, from radio to television and motion pictures. The 1970’s decade was the blackest time in America, where white America saw the black and white civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s in both stereo and Technicolor in the 1970’s. And The Ohio Players were about as Technicolor and stereophonic as you can get, even today.
If there is a Mount Rushmore of funk, Sugarfoot’s face surely belongs on it. It was he and his band that provided the bridge for the success of dominant late 70’s and 80’s funk bands from Earth Wind & Fire and the Gap Band to Con Funk Shun and Midnight Star among many others. Sugarfoot left an indelible imprint on funk music, and for that, we music fans are all the better for it. And as someone who takes journeys to the land of funk often, I couldn’t be more grateful for his sonic contributions. A man of few words, Sugarfoot was never one to bragg on his accomplishments. But I’d like for him to know he did a job well done. Thanks for the memories, Sugarfoot, you will be missed.