Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner, guitarist and frontman for venerable funk outfit the Ohio Players, died on Saturday in Dayton, Ohio. He was 69.
A post on Bonner’s official Facebook page confirmed his passing, describing him as “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.”
An estimable commercial force in the pre-disco 1970s, the Ohio Players combined flashy aesthetics, ebullient horn sections and gritty grooves on such lubricious hits as “Love Rollercoaster,” “Fire” and “Sweet Sticky Thing,” marrying some of funk music’s most outre tendencies with accessible pop songcraft. Though the band generally functioned as a unit, with greater emphasis on rhythms and harmonies than spotlight performances, Bonner had a recognizably sinuous vocal style, best heard on “Ecstasy” and “Skin Tight.”
A native of Hamilton, Ohio, Bonner left home as a young teenager and gravitated to Dayton, where he joined one of the earlier incarnations of the Players in the mid-’60s. The group went through numerous personnel changes and names through the decade, eventually releasing 1968’s slow-selling debut “Observations in Time.”
After a brief breakup, the group returned in 1972 with sophomore LP “Pain,” released on Westbound, the same label as that of fellow travelers Funkadelic. Featuring a lurid S&M-themed cover, the album was followed within the year by the similarly packaged “Pleasure,” which spawned the first of the band’s five R&B singles chart-toppers, “Funky Worm.”
With “Ecstasy” and “Climax” completing the group’s Westbound tenure, the Ohio Players signed to Mercury Records in 1974, logging three straight No. 1s on the R&B album chart, with 1974’s “Fire” hitting No. 1 on the Billboard album chart and its title track topping the singles chart as well. Single “Love Rollercoaster” also summited the pop charts in 1975, and the band notched its last R&B No. 1 the following year, with “Who’d She Coo?”
The group petered out as a sales force in the late-’70s, and Bonner made a brief attempt to launch a solo career in the mid-’80s, cutting the Roger Troutman-produced “Sugar Kiss” for Warner Bros. in 1985. Bonner continued to tour in various incarnations of the group through the following decades, most recently as Sugarfoot’s Ohio Players.
Bonner’s records stayed in circulation for years after the Players’ heyday thanks to samples on literally hundreds of hip-hop songs, with “Funky Worm” in particular providing a touchstone for the whiny synth sounds of NWA’s “Straight Outta Compton” and the g-funk style it spawned. In the mid-’90s, modern rock mainstays the Red Hot Chili Peppers logged an enduring rock radio hit with a cover of “Love Rollercoaster.”