You may have guessed that the Ohio Players were from Ohio. It was in the city of Dayton that they got together in 1959. They were the Ohio Untouchables then, and the lineup included vocalist/guitarist Robert Ward, Marshall “Rock” Jones on bass, Clarence “Satch” Satchell on sax and guitar, drummer Cornelius Johnson, and Ralph “Pee Wee” Middlebrooks on trumpet and trombone. The primary role for the band was backing the Falcons, the “I Found a Love” group from Detroit that included Wilson Pickett and Eddie Floyd at one time or another.
Ward was the group’s leader, but he wasn’t much in that regard. He wasn’t exactly reliable and was known to walk off stage in the middle of a set. In 1964 he got into a fistfight with Jones, and that was it. Ward got some new band members, and the rest of the band went back to Dayton. They were determined to keep playing together, and enlisted guitarist Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner to replace Ward. Gregory Webster also joined on drums.
By 1965 they had a new name that reflected their confidence as musicians and as ladies men, a new musical style to avoid competing with Ward, and a new frontman in Bonner. They added two more singers and served as the house band for Compass Records in New York. By 1970 they had broken up for the second time.
The Ohio Players were far from finished however. The got together once again with a lineup that featured most of the old band, and added Bruce Napier on trumpet, singer Charles Dale Allen, trombonist Marvin Pierce, and keyboard player Walter “Junie” Morrison, who later found fame with Funkadelic. The band signed with Westbound Records out of Detroit and had a Top 40 R&B hit with “Pain” in 1971.
At Westbound the band met a couple of people who proved to be important to their career. One was George Clinton, who was a fan of their music. The other was the striking bald model Pat “Running Bear” Evans, who would famously grace the memorable covers of a number of Ohio Player albums.
The first big hit for the Ohio Player was “Funky Worm.” The single reached #1 on the R&B chart and the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1973. It was their first million-seller, and first gold record. It was also enough to get the band a deal with Mercury Records in 1974. By then the lineup had changed again. Morrison and Webster were out, and Billy Beck and Jimmy “Diamond” Williams were in. The Ohio Players were poised on the brink of stardom.
The golden years for band were between 1973 and 1976. During that time the Ohio Players had seven Top 40 hits including “Fire,” “Skin Tight,” and “Love Rollercoaster.” The latter single was featured on their 1975 album Honey, which had perhaps the most memorable of those memorable covers that I mentioned. A great single should have a great story, and “Love Rollercoaster” has a few.
The gist of it is that the scream that is heard between 1:24 and 1:28 of the single is the sound of someone actually dying. Some say the sound of someone being murdered previously was inadvertently recorded and later inserted into the track. Others say that is the sound of a girl actually falling to her death on a roller coaster. The most popular theory involves Ester Cordet, the beautiful model who is covered with honey on the album cover. According to this one, Cordet was badly burned by the honey during the photo session and when she came to the studio control room and threatened to sue, she was stabbed to death by the band’s manager. There’s only one problem with that whopper — Ester Cordet is still alive.
Casey Kasem spread the urban legend on his American Top 40 radio show in 1976. The truth is not quite as intriguing. Years later Diamond Williams explained the controversy:
“There is a part in the song where there’s a breakdown,” Williams said. “It’s guitars and it’s right before the second verse and Billy Beck does one of those inhaling-type screeches like Minnie Riperton did to reach her high note or Mariah Carey does to go octaves above. The DJ made this crack and it swept the country. People were asking us, “Did you kill this girl in the studio?” The band took a vow of silence because you sell more records that way.”
“Love Rollercoaster” was a #1 on both the Pop and R&B charts. The Ohio Players had their last big hit with “Who’d She Koo” in 1976, but they continued recording until the late ’80s. The only surviving member of the band is Marshall Jones. He’s still living in Ohio.