The seventies was arguably the last great era of R&B bands and the Ohio Players rounded out a 'holy trinity' of Black music that included Earth, Wind & Fire and Kool and the Gang. But the brothers from the Buckeye State were the ones who had it all: an on-the-one and in-the-pocket rhythm section, hornlines birthed from bebop, Stax and Motown, and evocative, Afrocentric album albums covers of impossibly beautiful Black, brown and beige women that were literal initiation rites for manchildren in promised, urban lands.
The Ohio Players also had Leroy Bonner AKA "Sugarfoot," the toothy guitarist with the large, over-the eye Afro, whose down-home, up-south “Owww” put the final, soulful seasonings on their many hits, including “Love Rollercoaster,” “Sweet Sticky Thing,” and “Fire.”
Where other singers submerged their sepia sounds into the quicksand of crossover, Sugarfoot stayed true to his roots and never traded the blue lights of the juke joint for the blue glitter of the disco ballroom. Though he was born in Ohio, his voice came from those off-the-map hamlets below the Mason-Dixon Line, where those unknown Black bards, those truly unsung scientists of sound, transformed the racism, poverty, Jim Crow, chain gangs, and lynchings they endured into the blues—the sonic DNA that gave root to the many branches of our music.
That’s what Sugarfoot brought to every song he sang: an unfiltered, riveting realness that could never be learned in school or auto-tuned. When you listen to one of the Players’ slow jams “Let’s Love,” and hear him croon “They say that I’m mean and I’m evil/But oh, how else can a starving man be,” you know that his intended has no choice but to give her bad boy lover yet another chance. And on the Players’ masterpiece, “Heaven Must be Like This,” where he purrs “A place where I can find happiness/a place next to your loveliness,” Sugarfoot gave thousands of young lovers poetry to whisper during a lingering slow drag. Not to be outdone was Sugarfoot’s infectious, jazz-tinged, scat-guitar improvisations that gave tunes like “Angel” that extra sonic stank that left an unmistakable imprint on generations of artists from Larry Blackman of Cameo to D’Angelo.
Though the later years weren’t always kind to Sugarfoot—his guitar playing was cut short due to carpal-tunnel syndrome, he continued to own the stage right on up to his death at the age of 69. And as he approached the pearly gates of Heaven, you can almost hear him say to Gabriel…"Owww."