TIR 186: Chet Willis Talks Wild Ride on Ohio Players’ Soul Merry-Go-Round

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Brought to you by FUNKNSTUFF.NET and hosted by Scott “DR GX” Goldfine — musicologist and author of “Everything Is on THE ONE: The First Guide of Funk” ― “TRUTH IN RHYTHM” is the interview show that gets DEEP into the pocket with contemporary music’s foremost masters of the groove. Become a TRUTH IN RHYTHM Member at https://www.patreon.com/truthinrhythm.

Featured in TIR Episode 186 (2 parts): Guitarist, singer, composer and producer Clarence “Chet” Willis, he of one of the greatest funk-soul bands of all time — the mighty Ohio Players! Beginning in 1975 he became a mainstay with the group, trading guitar licks with the legendary Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner and joining keyboardist Billy Beck and drummer James “Diamond” Williams, both of whom have also been TRUTH IN RHYTHM guests, on backing vocals. Willis, Beck and Williams later formed the spinoff band called Shadow, and all of them more recently have been performing as today’s version of the Ohio Players.

While The Ohio Players’ roots stretch back to the late 1950s, it wasn’t until “Funky Worm” hit No. 1 on the R&B chart in early 1973 that the group got a taste of major success. They would go on to notch four more chart-toppers, with two of those songs also making No. 1 on the pop chart. A move to Mercury Records saw the band refining its sound to the signature millions would love. It was marked by stronger songwriting and pristine production, inventive arrangements, the distinctive lead vocals of highly influential, one-of-a-kind talent Sugarfoot, as well as his nimble guitar playing, the falsetto background singing of Diamond and Beck, as well as the latter’s brilliant keyboard work and, of course, the former’s progressive and impeccable drumming.

Beck replaced enigmatic genius Walter “Junie” Morrison, who would go on to release eclectic solo albums and become a key contributor to Parliament-Funkadelic during the late 1970s. Add to that intoxicating aural mix, Marshall Jones’ rumbling bass, and horn players Ralph “Pee Wee” Middlebrooks, Marvin “Merv” Pierce and bandleader Clarence “Satch” Satchell, and last but not least Willis’ guitar work and vocals, and you have the unmistakable magical funk perfection that was mid-1970s Ohio Players. Essential to their indelible sound and consistency was how self-contained of a unit they were, writing, arranging, producing and performing everything themselves. As if all that was not enough of a seduction, The Ohio Players were also famous for their sexy and provocative album covers showing young ladies in various stages of undress.

The Ohio Players’ creative and commercial peak took place from 1974-1977 when they unleashed the gold- or platinum-selling albums Skin Tight, Fire, Honey, Contradiction and Angel. During that time they were considered the biggest or close to the biggest funk or R&B band in the world — rivaled only by the likes of Earth, Wind and Fire, Parliament-Funkadelic, WAR, Kool & the Gang, The Isley Brothers and The Commodores. The Ohio Players’ hits and classics include “Skin Tight,” “Jive Turkey,” “Heaven Must Be Like This,” “Fire,” “I Want to Be Free,” “Runnin’ From the Devil,” “Smoke,” “Love Rollercoaster,” “Fopp,” “Let’s Love,” “Sweet Sticky Thing,” “Who’d She Coo?”, “Far East Mississippi,” “Contradiction,” “Angel,” “Body Vibes,” “O-H-I-O,” “Merry Go Round,” “Funk-O-Nots” and “Take De Funk Off, Fly.”

While Sugar continued to record under the Ohio Players name in the 1980s, Diamond, Beck and Willis splintered off to form Shadow. They released three albums for Elektra Records between 1979-1981. The last one, Shadows in the Streets, is worth seeking out for slick funk cuts like “Born to Hustle” and “Sinister Way.” The trio reunited with Sugar for an Ohio Players comeback album called Back in 1988. That would be the group’s final studio album to date, but varying lineups would keep bringing the Players’ unique brand of funk to stages for performances that continue to this day, led by Diamond, Willis and Beck.

Here, Willis discusses his approach to guitar, the secret sauce that made The Ohio Players so special, unforgettable memories, band member talents and personalities, the group’s catchy new single, “Reset,” and impending album, and stage show.

RECORDED JANUARY 2021

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Scott Goldfine

As a fervid lifelong music & film enthusiast / student, I grew up in and around the Los Angeles entertainment industry. I have worked and held many positions in various media realms, since 1998 serving as Editor-in-Chief and now Associate Publisher for Security Sales & Integration, a trade publication serving the electronic security industry. I love several genres of music & film. The former includes funk (Parliament-Funkadelic, Prince, Ohio Players, etc.); blues (Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, Eric Gales, etc.); rock (Jack White, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young, etc.); hard rock (AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, etc.); jazz (Herbie Hancock, Bob James, Crusaders, etc.); R&B (Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Gil Scott-Heron, etc.); and more. I was a club disc jockey and ran a mobile DJ company (Musical Moods) for more than 15 years, which is where the name Dr. GX originates (Doctor Good Times). Fave film genres include horror (Dawn of the Dead, Evil Dead, Nightmare on Elm Street, etc.); science fiction (Aliens, Terminator, 2001, etc.); action (Warriors, Road Warrior, Die Hard); westerns (Outlaw Josey Wales, Showdown at OK Corral; Wild Bunch, etc.); suspense (Jaws, Inception, Silence of the Lambs, etc.); drama (Apocalypse Now, Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, etc.); and comedies (Life of Brian, Superbad, Ruthless People, etc.). I have attended many hundreds of concerts and movies (in theaters or screenings). I may as well also throw in a few favorite TV shows to give an even broader taste of my sensibilities. A handful would be Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, Lost, Justified, Fargo, Seinfeld, Sopranos, South Park, Brooklyn Nine Nine, Key & Peele, Monty Python, Inside Amy Schumer, Louie, Modern Family, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Last Man on Earth, Bob Newhart Show, All in the Family and The Office. Fave authors are Stephen King, Clive Barker and Michael Crichton. I am also a big sports fan and lifelong supporter of the Dallas Cowboys (NFL), Los Angeles Lakers (NBA) and Pittsburgh Pirates (MLB). Also enjoy my family of course, electronics/computers/AV gear, and animals, nature and outdoor activities. Graduate of Santa Monica High School, Santa Monica College and California State University Northridge (Radio-TV-Film, Psychology minor). Also studied at UCLA for kinesiology/psychology and earned post-grad Certificate in Accounting from Santa Monica College. Present main occupation is as Associate Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Security Sales & Integration (SSI), which I joined in 1998. I am responsible for overseeing all editorial content in print. online, electronic, in-person and any other media or products for the electronic security industry's leading business-to-business trade publication. SSI is part of Framingham, Mass.-based Emerald Expositions.