January 27, 2013 – Sugarfoot Bonner was born Leroy on March 14th 1943 in Hamilton, Ohio, about 20 miles (32 km) north of Cincinnati, the oldest of 14 children. He ran away from home as a young teenager and played the harmonica on street corners for change.
He joined the The Ohio Untouchables when they regrouped in 1964. Leroy’s rip-it-up guitar work and taste for something funky the band went on to become The Ohio Players, with Leroy as their front man, lead singer and guitarist.
Their first big hit single “Funky Worm”, reached No.1 on the Billboard R&B chart and made the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the spring of 1973. Other hits followed, including “Who’d She Coo?” and their double No.1 hit songs “Love Rollercoaster” and “Fire” in January 1976.
The Ohio Players had seven Top 40 hits in the 1970s and helped define a funk movement that included Parliament Funkadelic and Kool & the Gang. The band’s success stemmed substantially from Bonner’s playfully commanding lead vocals and gusto.
Humble yet charismatic, soft spoken and of few words, the weight of his thoughts, lyrics, and music has influenced countless other artists, songs, and trends. The band’s lineup changed over the years, but its instrumentation and sound remained basically the same: a solid, driving groove provided by guitar, keyboards, bass and drums, punctuated by staccato blasts from a horn section. Vocals were a secondary consideration. “We were players,” Bonner told The Dayton Daily News in an interview in 2003. “We weren’t trying to be lead singers.” The core members of the band did not originally sing, he explained, but “we got so tired of having singers leave us that we decided we’d just do the singing ourselves.”
“I used to play with my back to the audience in the old days,” he added. “I didn’t want to see them because they were distracting. Then the first time I turned around and opened my mouth, we had a hit record with Skin Tight. That’s amazing to me.”
After their break up Sugarfoot Bonner, assisted by Roger Troutman and his Zapp brethren, went solo in 1985 with Sugar Kiss – the same year Zapp released The New Zapp IV U (featuring “Computer Love”), while Shirley Murdock was on the verge of scoring with the Troutman-produced “As We Lay.”
From 1973 to 1976 the Ohio Players had seven singles in the Billboard Top 40. Both “Fire” and “Love Rollercoaster” reached No. 1. Although the band’s heyday was more than four decades ago, their sound has been kept alive by others. “Love Rollercoaster” gained new fans through a 1996 cover version by Red Hot Chili Peppers. “Funky Worm” has been sampled by many hip-hop artists.
With a career spanning 56 years, Sugarfoot Bonner had remained active in recent years with a spinoff band called Sugarfoot’s Ohio Players. Bonner passed barely short of his 70th birthday, fighting cancer on January 27, 2013.