Monday, March 16, 2015

Review of the Ohio Players' Album Fire

The Ohio Players enjoyed an extremely productive five-year run from 1972 to 1977. During that fruitful period, the Dayton-bred R&B/funk band dropped an insane amount of great music—including several tracks that went on to become funk and R&B classics. One of those funk classics is the incendiary title track from the band’s platinum chart-topping album Fire (1974). The monster funk/dance smash packed dance floors across the U.S. back in the day and lit up the airwaves.

“Fire” has a unique rhythm arrangement that is simultaneously explosive and hypnotic. It also has some tight horn work, a roof-raising percussion-driven breakdown and a powerful chorus. And frontman/guitarist Sugarfoot brings some rock flavor to the mix with a scorching guitar solo. Also, the fire truck siren at the song’s intro is a nice touch. The track, which was written by all the band members, topped both the pop and R&B singles charts in the United States and went on to sell a million copies.

“Smoke” is another terrific funk track from the Fire album. This percolating, bumpin’ cut takes a friendly jab at heavy smokers and touches on how the habit can do serious damage to your health. The song boasts a ridiculously funky horn arrangement. And in the spirit of Ohio Player hits like “Funky Worm,” “Jive Turkey” and “Fopp,” the track contains the band’s signature goofy humor.

The album also contains the luminous ballad “I Want to Be Free” where Sugarfoot delivers a sterling lead vocal performance. And the silky falsetto background vocals lift the track up to the heavens. Additionally, James “Diamond” Williams kills it on the drums with some fantastic fills. The Ohio Players reached a brand-new audience with this classic slow jam when it was featured in a scene from Paul Thomas Anderson’s critically acclaimed 1997 film Boogie Nights. The song performed well on the charts, peaking at #6 on the U.S. R&B singles chart and #44 on the U.S. pop singles chart. This is definitely one of the band’s best ballads—a true gem.

“Runnin’ From the Devil” is a kinetic, high-energy funk track about battling your demons, sins and temptations. The song closes out with a great horn/percussion breakdown that kind of sounds like a circus clown car driving away.

 “What The Hell” is a blaring, chaotic rock track about the turbulent state of the world. The song features some blistering guitar work from Sugarfoot, and the jazzy bridge provides a nice contrast to the rampaging main groove. This terrific cut is very effective in musically conveying pure pandemonium.

And in addition to “I Want to Be Free,” the other two mellow jams on the album are “Together,” and “It’s All Over.” “Together” is a sweet love song that boasts some splendid keyboard work from Billy Beck. His soaring synth lines nicely complement the feathery falsetto vocals, and his work on the piano is also topflight. And the lovely ballad “It’s All Over” has a cool 1950s vibe to it.

Fire is a marvelous collection of funk and soul tracks that not only showcased the band’s considerable chops as musicians but also their impressive songwriting and production skills. (The band wrote and produced all the tracks on the album.) And the album’s two hits, “Fire” and “I Want To Be Free,” encapsulate the band’s dual strengths: the ability to craft gorgeous ballads and irresistible, super-funky grooves. The album also has an interesting low-key concept that touches on hellfire and Satan.

Fire captures the Ohio Players at the top of their game and is one of the band’s most successful albums, critically and commercially. The album reached the summit of both the pop and R&B album charts in the U.S., remaining atop the R&B chart for five weeks. It also went platinum (a million copies sold).

The lineup for the band at the time of the album’s release was the following: Leroy “Sugarfoot Bonner (guitar, lead & background vocals); William “Billy” Beck (piano, organ, Fender Rhodes piano, synthesizer, clavinet, percussion, lead and background vocals); Marshall Jones (bass); James “Diamond” Williams (drums, congas, flugelhorn, timbales, percussion [Gong], percussion [Miscellaneous], lead & background vocals); Clarence “Satch” Satchell (percussion, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, soprano saxophone, lead & background vocals); Ralph “Pee Wee” Middlebrooks (trumpet, trombone & background vocals); and Marvin “Merve” Pierce (flugelhorn, trombone, trumpet).


"I Want To Be Free"

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