“Gem City” is an unusual nickname for Dayton, Ohio. Perhaps, it’s a nod to a time when the city churned out the who’s who of funk. Artists like Zapp, Roger Troutman, Heatwave, and Slave, to name a few. This past Memorial Day Weekend, The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, welcomed Dayton’s crown jewel of funk and R&B — the Ohio Players.
The legendary band began the May 28 show with “Love Rollercoaster.” The song, off their 1975 album Honey, is one of their most enduring hits. The Red Hot Chili Peppers remade the tune with the signature guitar riff in 1996, and Disney recently used it to promote their new Guardians of the Galaxy ride.
Even if you’re not a ‘70s funk and R&B aficionado, there’s probably more you know about the Players than you realize. One of my favorite things to do is reverse engineer hip-hop songs to determine the original sample. The Ohio Players’ music provides a field day in this pursuit.
I was in music nerd bliss when the Players performed “Funky Worm.” According to whosampled.com, elements of the song have been reused 272 times. You’ll recognize the high-pitched synthesizer that anchors the track if you’ve listened to your fair share of hip-hop. “Funky Worm” came out in ‘73 when the Ohio Players were at their funk apex, but the group has never been one-dimensional.
Stream “Funky Worm” by Ohio Players on YouTube:
“People say we write some funky music y’all…we have written some funky music, but we like to think of ourselves as musicians, artists, and songwriters who have written great music of all kinds,” said Ohio Players drummer James “Diamond” Williams.
“Heaven Must Be Like This” is a case in point. The high harmony vocals gave fans a slice of the ethereal during their performance of the laid-back love song.
The Ohio Players’ history is shrouded in a myth that is definitively rock and roll — sex, drugs, and the IRS. In their earlier days, these digressions led to band shakeups. In recent years, the inevitability of loss, which accompanies the passage of time, has changed the group’s composition.
Three Ohio Players, whose membership dates back to the ‘70s, were on stage during The Birchmere show: keyboardist, vocalist, and music director Billy Beck; bass guitarist and vocalist Clarence “Chet” Willis; vocalist and drummer James “Diamond” Williams.
Newer members of the nine-piece band included a horn section with Michael Turner on saxophone; Johnny Cotton, slide trombone; trumpeter Kenny Anderson, and a trio of guitarists — Darwin Dortch, Christopher Bowan, and Rick Ward.
The “Players” in the Ohio Players band name is likely a double entendre. You can glimpse their appreciation of beautiful women through a collection of provocative album covers. They are also a group of talented musicians with a penchant for stretching song performances into jam sessions that place their skills on display.
“Everything you hear onstage has been produced by the Ohio Players, no computers, no samples, no autotunes, none of that bull sh*t!” said Diamond. “We are the Ohio PLAYERS!”
There was nothing cold and mechanical about their performance of “Skin Tight.” Horns blared, the bass guitar thumped, and Diamond displayed why Rolling Stone magazine ranked him among the 100 “greatest drummers of all time.”
Sirens can only mean one thing at an Ohio Players show – “Fire.” The song was a massive crossover hit in the mid-70s and continues to prove incendiary. The band closed out the show by encouraging the audience to dance in the aisles as they set the place ablaze. Fans eagerly complied.
Other highlights from the show included performances of:
- “I Want to Be Free,” Fire (1974)
- “Jive Turkey,” Skin Tight (1974)
- “Sweet Sticky Thing,” Honey (1975)
- “Who’d She Coo?” Contradiction (1976)
Here are some photos from the Ohio Players show at The Birchmere on May 28, 2022. All photos copyright and courtesy of Will Colbert.