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Ohio Players

Mercury SRM-1-1013
Released: November 1974
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 29
Certified Gold: 12/13/74

Leroy BonnerUneven is the word for the Ohio Players. They're a progressive soul group in that they write and produce their own material but they've got roots if Fifties doo-wop. Their sound is spaced on the surface, owing more to Hendrix than to Sly, but underneath the rhythm instruments play tightly, sometimes rigidly. As a unit they play pulsating dance music with stylistic unanimity but guitarist Sugarfoot, who looks something like a cross between Jimi and Bugs Bunny, seems to be their only distinctive instrumental soloist. He combines the choked riffing we've come to expect in this kind of music with unusual agility and a lot of imagination, jazz chops if you will.

Fire is both more focused and more schizoid than previous efforts. It can be divided pretty evenly between floating ballads ("Together" and "It's All Over") and burners ("Fire," "Smoke," "Runnin' from the Devil" and "What the Hell") with "I Want to Be Free" falling somewhere in between. The group production is much improved. "Over" combines Fifties elements -- triplet piano, riffing background vocals -- with a more modern, ethereal bridge and a second backup chorus in the falsetto range, overlapping with the first as well as with the lead. "Smoke" is dissonant, with blaring horns, juxtaposed lines in different keys, an assured guitar solo and various phasing effects, all riding over a very basic backbeat. The drum sound throughout is heavy, penetrating and exceptionally well defined. A less-than-perfect but intermittently intriguing LP, then, by a bizarre but professional group.

- Robert Palmer, Rolling Stone, 2/13/75.

Bonus Reviews!

The seven singer/writer/musicians who are probably the funkiest of the "funky" soul conglomerates put together a remarkably versatile LP, featuring not only their patented, frenetic dance numbers but some ballads and some jazz oriented material. With their mix of alternating lead vocals, backup vocals that act almost as leads, and excellent instrumentation, the Ohio Players have developed into one of the premier bands of their type. Lots of possibilities here for pop airplay as well as soul and if they should cross more, they'll be doing it the best way -- by making the best possible soul music rather than trying for pop. Best cuts: "Fire," "Together," "I Want To Be Free," "Smoke," "What The Hell."

- Billboard, 1974.

The makers of Shoogity-Boogity bring you: More Shoogity-Boogity. B

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

The Ohio Players peaked as a funk band with this record, which became their lone #1 pop hit. The title track was a #1 pop and R&B single, while "I Want To Be Free" was perhaps their best non-dance or novelty hit. The horn charts were catchy and energetic, guitarist Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner was in his prime, and the vocals were silly but hypnotic. * * * *

- Ron Wynn, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

In 1974, the veteran R&B group the Ohio Players signed to Mercury Records and scored their greatest commercial triumph up to that time with Skin Tight. The album reached number 11, thanks in part to the title track, which was a number two hit on the Billboard Hot R&B Singles chart.

Skin TIght wasn't the Ohio Players' first taste of success. In 1973, the band had scored a Number One R&B hit with "Funky Worm" on the Westbound label. Yet the group's albums on that imprint had failed to break the top 50. Prior to Skin Tight, their high-water mark on the album chart had been 1973's Pleasure, which had peaked at number 63.

The history of the Ohio Players dates back to 1959, when the group was known as the Ohio Untouchables and served as a backing band for the Falcons, a group led by Wilson Pickett. Back then the group included guitarist Robert Ward, who would later be "rediscovered" as a notable blues artist in the 1990s.

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The band, led by singer/guitarist Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner, had gone through numerous lineup changes by 1974, but was primed for success. Skin Tight was recorded in a mere nine days and had to be sandwiched into the band's touring schedule, says bassist Marshall Jones: "We would be playing nights in Buffalo and then we would get up in the morning and fly to Chicago to record."

For Fire, the band opted to spend an entire month recording. "We wanted to do Fire right, so we took off from the road," he says. The seven-member band recorded the album at Paragon Studios in Chicago. "It kind of reminded us of the basement we used to practice in," says Jones, "and it had a real good sound. We recorded at several studios, but for some reason Paragon was the most comfortable."

Fire, like most of the group's previous LPs, featured a racy album cover -- something of an Ohio Players trademark by this time. The woman featured on the album cover was photographed naked, save for a fire helmet and a clear fire hose, which was strategically wound around her body. "It's like the media says, 'Sex sells'" says Jones.

Musically, the funky title track incorporated fire engine sirens and other sound effects. On January 25, 1975, the track became the Players' second Number One R&B single, and was racing up the pop charts as well.

By February 8, both the album and the single had reached the summit. The "No. 1" featured on the cover model's fire helmet had turned out to be prophetic.

Yet Fire wasn't just about fun and games. On "I Want to Be Free," the Players offered some social commentary. "There was a lot of racial oppression at the time," says Jones. That track made number six on the Hot R&B Singles chart, amplifying the triumph the Players had scored with Fire. Says Jones, "We were pumped up. Having a Number One album and single was like getting a Super Bowl ring to us."

- Craig Rosen, The Billboard Book of Number One Albums, 1996.

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