Funk. Soul. Rhythm and blues. Rock n roll. Classic. Ol’ school. All of these words are used in any number of combinations to describe some of music’s most decorated heroes, Sugarfoot’s Ohio Players. The phoenix that is this legendary band, which emerged from the ashes of its original incarnation from the late 1970s, is both a testament and a testimony. Through extraordinary career highs that spanned the better part of the decade, to heartbreaking personal and collective struggles most recently revisited when the band was featured as part of TV One’s UnSung series, Sugarfoot’s Ohio Players are living proof that all is never said and done. It’s been more than two decades since the band released a studio recording, yet with a body of work brimming with jams such as “Sweet Sticky Thing,” “Skin Tight,” and “I Want to Be Free”–which both define an era and simultaneously defy generational boundaries, Sugarfoot’s Ohio Players (comprised of original Ohio Players front man Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner; bassist and musical director Trae Pierce; and Earl Fleming, Emmanuel Cook, Derwin Daniels, Courtney Girlie, Tony Cheesebourough, Dr. Marvin Pryor, and Nelson Rendor) has consistently kept the funk in the pocket with electrifying live performances stateside and abroad. Their hit song “Fire” from the 1974 album release of the same name is hands down one of the most instantly recognizable tracks in popular music, and has appeared everywhere from Urban A/C radio to TV commercials, and is the theme song for FOX’s Hell’s Kitchen.
As Sugarfoot’s Ohio Players prepare to tear it up at this weekend’s Vail Soul Music Festival, SoulTrain.com had the immense pleasure to talk with Sugarfoot, Trae, and manager and friend Scott Hanover about musical legacy, the key to a long and satisfying career, and how they’ve kept audiences rockin’ along the way.
SoulTrain.com: Without a doubt, you are one of the most legendary bands in the history of funk, with an insanely kinetic live show. You’ve outlasted a lot of other bands and continue to rock the house all these years later. What has been the key to your longevity?
Sugarfoot: Well, it takes a certain amount of insanity (laughs)! It takes a little bit of craziness because after doing this for forty years or more, you can’t take it too well. But the insanity keeps getting better and better! It takes a lot to stay in this business. It takes a lot of love, too, a lot of love of what you do.
SoulTrain.com: When you first started out, did you imagine that you’d still be doing this 40 years later?
Sugarfoot: I personally went into this thinking I would do it til the day I die. This is what I love to do, so it wasn’t like ‘I want to just make a hit record and quit.’ I really want to do this til my last breath–that’s how much I care about music. Somebody who loves music doesn’t mind that; if I have to go, I’d rather go being happy, doing what I like to do. And after forty years, I didn’t think I’d be here anyway, didn’t think I’d make it that long! (laughs) But now that I am here, let’s rock and roll!
SoulTrain.com: How have you been able to maintain such a hectic touring and live performance schedule? How do you stay healthy and vibrant?
Sugarfoot: You ever heard the song that says, “The things I used to do, I don’t do no more”? That’s how we keep it together! We have to try to stay healthy. When you’re young you don’t put as much energy into trying to stay alive because you’re partying. But as you get older, you start taking things much more seriously.
SoulTrain.com: Looking at the make up of the band–you’ve got guitar, bass, drums, keys, the core instruments for most bands. But then, you’ve got horns–sax, trombone, trumpet. Talk to our SoulTrain.com audience about how the addition of horns contributes to Sugarfoot’s Ohio Players’ signature sound.
Sugarfoot: Trae Pierce is the director of the band and my best friend, and he puts it together for me. He wants it to sound like the original Ohio Players.
Trae: When we first started, we had keyboard horns and, I think, one horn player. And it didn’t sound too much like the original records; it was close to it, but it was fabricated. We decided to add the other horns. We went to Atlanta and got a good horn section, and we made them go back and study the old records–as I did. I’ve been around the Ohio Players for thirty years and I know how every position is supposed to be played. So we came up with this amazing horn section that plays the songs exactly like the records.
SoulTrain.com: You brought up the point about going back and listening to the old records. One of the things that we see in today’s popular music is that there isn’t as much live instrumentation. Kids coming up after this particular era, what are they going to listen to?
Sugarfoot: If you don’t listen to ol’ school music, you’re not going to hear anything as far as I’m concerned. I had to listen to “older” school music to learn how to play. I listened to Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Sammie Davis, Jr., Ella Fitzgerald–that was old school for me when I was a kid. Now today when they talk about ol’ school, they’re talking about me. But first of all, they need to learn how to play an instrument. People today are playing electronic this and electronic that, they push buttons. Trae Pierce plays his bass himself. Our drummer plays drums–he doesn’t push a button and call it drums. You’ve got to play the instrument to understand the instrument, and today’s music is kind of shallow when it comes to being natural about music. Put music back in schools, and let kids learn how to play an instrument–real kids playing real instruments playing real music. In the future we’re going to have robot kids, robot music, and robot life if we do not do something about this.
Scott: Not too long ago the Red Hot Chili Peppers covered “Love Rollercoaster.” So a whole new generation of kids learned that song and had no idea that it was the Ohio Players’ from forty years ago!
Trae: People today get caught up in the money, and not the love of music. They go the fast way about it; the fast way is to not hire a band, not to play instruments, but to get one person to come in and play all the instruments [electronically]. Where I come from, we did it for the love. We love to play and work it out ourselves. You can’t just go for the fast money. You go for the love and the money will come.
Sugarfoot: [Today’s music] doesn’t have soul, it doesn’t have feeling. The original soul that music had back in the day is much different than what you’re hearing today, because those were real musicians playing it. Today you’re hearing machines playing it. Who doesn’t make mistakes? Robots don’t make mistakes, humans do–and that’s part of the feeling. Some of the things I did in the studio were wrong, but they came out so great.
SoulTrain.com: It’s been decades since you’ve released your last studio album. Are there any plans for Suagrfoot’s Ohio Players to release new music?
Sugarfoot: Most definitely!
Trae: We are 50% done with the new project. We’re talking about releasing a single in the next month or two.
SoulTrain.com: Are you embracing the new independent digital distribution model or going for a more traditional route?
Trae: We’re shopping it to record labels, but if we sign with a label we’ll keep a close eye on them, too. We’ve figured out that sometimes you need that name behind you or that financial backing. But we are open to doing it ourselves if nothing satisfactory comes around.
SoulTrain.com: You’re performing at the upcoming Vail Soul Music Festival, amongst a line-up of newer artists like Anthony David, Kindred the Family Soul, and Natalie “The Floacist” Stewart. As veterans in the business, what words of advice or gems of wisdom would you pass along to the artists coming up?
Sugarfoot: Just say no (laughs)! Sometimes you have to say no to the first thing that comes along–you can’t just say “I’ll accept that” or “I’ll take that.” Thing about things before you run out and do something ridiculous, that follows you for the rest of your life. In the case of the Ohio Players, there are a lot of things that have been following us around for decades that we can’t get rid of, because we didn’t say no.
Scott: Sugarfoot’s wisdom is unbelievable. There are things we’d bring to him as his administrators and he’d say no, and I don’t understand why he’d say no, but sure enough it was exactly the right thing to do. Trae is the same way. And now, I don’t question them; when they say no, I walk away. I don’t argue with them anymore.
SoulTrain.com: If you were not a musician, what would you be doing? Was there anything else you wanted to do professionally besides music?
Sugarfoot: I wish in life I’d have been lucky enough to have been a monk. I like the way they live. They’re happy. Very few people are able to obtain a state of happiness that a monk does, and I just want to be happy.
Trae: That’s a hard question to answer because music’s all I’ve known, but a minister maybe.
SoulTrain.com: When you go to a Sugarfoot’s Ohio Players show, you know you’re going to hear all your favorites: “Fire”, “Skin Tight”, “Heaven Must Be Like This”, etc. After decades of performing these and so many other classic Ohio Players tunes, the songs still get the crowd going. How do you keep these classic songs fresh, not just for your audience but also for yourselves?
Sugarfoot: It stays fresh to me because it’s hard work trying to reproduce the same thing every night the same way. I’ve never been able to do it, so it’s always been a challenge. I always have to try so hard, so I don’t have time not to enjoy it. It never gets old, it never wears me out. I’m constantly trying to make it sound better all the time.
SoulTrain.com: Share your memories of Don Cornelius and Soul Train.
Sugarfoot: Don was probably the coolest, calmest cat I’ve ever seen–besides me! (laughs) I never said one word on Soul Train when I was there, I was always laid back. I admired him for his calmness. He reached out and grabbed you with the warmth of his voice, his cool.
Trae: I remember watching Soul Train and he was very professional. He was always clean on TV. I met twice, and he was very down to earth. One of the highlights of my career was meeting him. If it wasn’t for Soul Train I wouldn’t be a musician right now.
Sugarfoot: It was a black awakening, to see Don Cornelius. It was like, ‘Wow, this is us! We can do this.’ He was encouraging.
Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter, lovin’ and livin’ in Oakland, CA. Download her EP “Nuda Veritas” on CDBaby and iTunes, and follow her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/rhondanicolemusic and on Twitter and Instagram @wildhoneyrock.