OCTOBER 15, 1996- Trumpeter/trombonist RALPH “PEE WEE” MIDDLEBROOKS (b. August 20, 1939 in Dayton, Ohio) died after a battle with cancer in Dayton, Ohio at age 57.The Ohio Players were among the top funk bands of the mid-’70s. Emerging from the musical hotbed of Dayton in 1959, the group was originally dubbed the Ohio Untouchables, and initially comprised singer/guitarist Robert Ward, bassist Marshall “Rock” Jones, saxophonist/guitarist Clarence “Satch” Satchell, drummer Cornelius Johnson, and Ralph “Pee Wee” Middlebrooks. In late 1961, a relative of Ward’s founded the Detroit-based Lupine Records, and the group traveled north to the Motor City to back the Falcons on their hit “I Found a Love.”
The Ohio Untouchables soon made their headlining debut with “Love Is Amazing,” but Ward had proved to be an unreliable leader, who would sometimes, during gigs, walk off the stage, forcing the group to stop playing. Eventually, the group vowed to keep playing even after he left. Ward and Jones got into a fistfight in 1964, after which the group broke up. Ward found new backups, and the group’s core members returned to Dayton.At that point, the nucleus of Middlebrooks, Jones, and newly added guitarist Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner returned to Dayton; there they recruited saxophonist Andrew Noland and drummer Gary Webster, the latter a somewhat elusive figure whose true involvement in the group’s convoluted history has never been definitively answered (some sources credit him as a founding Untouchable, others even as the band’s early leader).
In any case, by 1967, with the subsequent addition of singers Bobby Lee Fears and Dutch Robinson, the newly rechristened Ohio Players were signed as the house band for the New York-based Compass Records, backing singer Helena Ferguson Kilpatrick on her lone hit, “Where Is the Party,” before issuing their solo debut, “Trespassin’,” which hit the R&B charts in early 1968.Although the Players’ trademark bottom-heavy, horn-driven sound was already blossoming, their follow-up, “It’s a Cryin’ Shame,” flopped, and as Compass teetered on the brink of bankruptcy they exited the label. (Their early Compass sides were later packaged as First Impressions.) The Players then landed on Capitol, where 1969’s “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” was a minor hit; an LP, “Observations in Time,” soon followed, with covers of “Summertime” and “Over the Rainbow” offering a strong hint of the stylistic detours to follow. In 1970 the group disbanded, however; Fears and Robinson both mounted solo careers, while the remaining members again decamped to Dayton, eventually re-forming with keyboardist, vocalist, and songwriter Walter “Junie” Morrison, trumpeter Bruce Napier, vocalist Charles Dale Allen, and trombonist Marvin Pierce, and keyboardist Walter “Junie” Morrison, the Players had a minor hit on the Detroit-based Westbound label with “Pain” (1971), which reached the Top 40 of the Billboard R&B chart. James Johnson joined the group at this time as vocalist and saxophonist. Dale Allen shared co-lead vocals on some of the early Westbound material, although he was not credited on their albums “Pain” and “Pleasure.” It was at Westbound Records where the group met George Clinton, who admired their music.
The two albums’ avante-garde covers featured a spiked-black leather-bikini clad, bald model Pat “Running Bear” Evans, who would later grace additional Ohio Players albums, including Climax, Ecstasy, and Rattlesnake.Influenced by the groundbreaking funk of Sly & the Family Stone, and with the nasal, cartoon-voiced Bonner assuming vocal duties, the new Ohio Players lineup made their debut with the single “Pain,” issued on the small local label Rubber Town Sounds; it was soon picked up for distribution by the Detroit-based Westbound label, reaching the R&B Top 40 in late 1971. An LP also titled “Pain” appeared that same year, and was followed in 1972 by “Pleasure,” which launched the absurdist smash “Funky Worm,” the band’s first big hit single which reached #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and made the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1973.
It sold over one million copies and was awarded a gold disc by the R.I.A.A. in May of that year.The “Ecstacy” album appeared in 1973 (the title track “Ecstasy” was sampled by “Jay-Z” on “Brooklyn’s Finest” featuring “The Notorious B.I.G.” from the 1996 album “Reasonable Doubt”), and after 1974’s “Climax,” the Players signed to Mercury; the label change also heralded yet more lineup changes, with keyboardist Billy Beck replacing Morrison (who later signed on with Parliament) and drummer Jimmy “Diamond” Williams taking over for Webster.At Mercury, the Ohio Players enjoyed their greatest success; not only did their sound coalesce, but they became notorious for their sexually provocative LP covers, a tradition begun during their Westbound tenure.
Their 1974 Mercury debut, “Skin Tight,” was their first unequivocal classic, launching the hit title track as well as “Jive Turkey.” Its follow-up, “Fire,” remains the Players’ masterpiece, topping the pop charts on the strength of its bone-rattling title cut, itself a #1 hit; “I Want to Be Free,” one of the band’s few attempts at social commentary, was also highly successful. 1975’s “Honey” (which featured perhaps the Players’ most controversial and erotic cover to date) was another monster, generating the chart-topping masterpiece “Love Rollercoaster” in addition to the hits “Sweet Sticky Thing” and “Fopp.”The insistent “Who’d She Coo?” from 1976’s “Contradiction” was the Players’ last #1 R&B hit; “O-H-I-O,” from 1977’s “Angel” was their last major hit on any chart, and as the ’70s drew to a close, the band’s fortunes continued to decline. 1979’s “Jass-Ay-Lay-Dee” was their final Mercury effort, and upon signing to Arista, the Players returned with “Everybody Up” followed by a pair of dismal releases on Boardwalk, 1981’s “Tenderness” and 1982’s “Ouch!” After 1984’s “Graduation,” four years passed prior to the release of their next effort, “Back.” No new material was forthcoming, although various lineups continued performing live well into the following decades.In August 2013, the Ohio Players were inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame at the Waetjen Auditorium of Cleveland State University as part of the inaugural class. Despite the deaths of core members Middlebrooks, Satchell (December 1995), Ward (December 2008), Johnson (February 2009), Bonner (January 2013), and Morrison (February 2017), the band continued to sporadically record and extensively tour.