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Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner, RIP

by Mosi Reeves

Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner, RIP

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The Ohio Players were one of the mightiest funk outfits of the 1970s, landing five gold and platinum albums -- and two No. 1 hits -- at the height of their power. Seven men strong, they prided themselves on communality, sharing the songwriting credits. Their album covers, heavy on scantily clad ladies, were just as famous as songs like "Fire" and "Love Rollercoaster," whether it was the bald dominatrix on Pain or the bronze woman coated in honey (and nothing else) on Honey.

Amid this party of funk warriors, Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner stood out. The guitarist, who passed away on Sunday, January 27, at the age of 69, wasn't the band's leader -- that honor belonged to saxophonist Clarence "Satch" Satchell, who died in 1995. However, while album liner notes often credited other members with vocals, notably pianist Billy Beck and drummer James "Diamond" Williams, if you heard a singer on an Ohio Players record, it was usually Bonner.

Born and raised in Hamilton, Ohio, Bonner ran away from home as a teenager and busked in various blues joints in Dayton before joining the Ohio Untouchables in the early 1960s. He took over the frontman role from Junie Morrison, who split after the group's breakthrough single, "Funky Worm" (and eventually headed to George Clinton's rival P-Funk machine). Bonner valued his jazzman's sensibility, and as the group ascended to superstardom, he retained his love of artists like Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock. "That's why 'Sweet Sticky Thing' was a jazzy thing, because that's what I used to do," he told Wax Poetics magazine in 2010. The connection between jazz and funk is one of the neglected themes of '70s musicology, but it made for some of the Ohio Players' best moments, from the sprawling improvisation section that closes "Sweet Sticky Thing" to the coolly blissful tones of "Heaven Must Be Like This."

The band's other formative element was the blues, and Bonner was a larger-than-life character in tune with the likes of blues and soul legends Little Richard, Esquerita and James Brown. He strummed chicken-scratch rhythms on a double-neck guitar and shaped his hair into a pompadour Afro, if you can imagine such a thing. His trademark drawl and signature phrase "Aw girl!" is so ingrained in the funk lexicon that any no-name karaoke singer doing a funk tune is liable to use it.

Sadly, the Ohio Players' all-for-one brotherhood would lead to their demise by the dawn of the 1980s. After they were sued for tax evasion, the members pointed fingers at Satch for mismanaging funds. And in recent years Bonner seemed bitter about the way the group's profits were shared, after he wrote the lyrics to their biggest hits. "We had a rule in the group that everybody would share the names on the albums, because we were all the Ohio Players. It doesn't say 'Sugarfoot and the Ohio Players,'" he said in that same 2010 interview. "But truthfully, if I sang it, I wrote it." And who can forget phrases like "Skin Tight" and "Who'd She Coo?" As a member of one of the best funk groups ever, Bonner was first among equals.