On Nov. 7, HBO aired the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s annual induction ceremony. For the first time, because of the coronavirus pandemic, it was a virtual event for 2020 inductees Depeche Mode, the Doobie Brothers, Whitney Houston, Nine Inch Nails, the Notorious B.I.G. and T. Rex. One aspect exactly the same as previous years was the lack of recognition for the Ohio Players.
Once again, the hit-making, groundbreaking funk group from Dayton was excluded from the festivities. Daytonian Keith Jenkins of the Oniru Group and Sculptures of Sound Music is working to change that continued oversight with a new online petition here.
“There is no reason the Players shouldn’t be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Jenkins said. “Now, we’re trying to figure out different ways to get that spark. We’re trying to get enough people behind it, and then it will start to make others think about it more.”
Fans interested in helping the Ohio Players get inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame can join with Jenkins and other supporters and sign the petition at Change.org.
“The thing that kind of bothers me about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is it’s right here in Ohio,” said the Ohio Players’ drummer James “Diamond” Williams. “If it was in Wisconsin, Michigan, Texas or some other place, I’d say, ‘Well, they’re not familiar with the Ohio Players.’ But you’re right here in Ohio, how are you going to overlook some of the Ohio groups that are right here?
“We had the occasion of going there and playing one time,” Williams said. “Of course, we packed the place. We looked around there during our show and we remarked on the fact it would be nice to be part of this establishment.”
Williams chuckled and said, “That dropped like a rock.”
John Goehrke, director of guest experience for the Rock Hall in Cleveland, remembers that show well. It was February 2006, and he was fresh out of college and new to the job.
“We did a monthlong tribute to funk music,” Goehrke said. “It was amazing. We had Bootsy Collins here for an event, and we had Chuck Brown with his go-go music. I worked directly with Diamond Williams when we had the Ohio Players. It was a great, sold-out show at the museum.”
It made a big impression on Goehrke, who was already a fan of the Ohio Players, Roger Troutman and Zapp and other funk exports from Dayton. He mentioned he has Zapp’s first two albums hanging on the wall of his office.
“One of my favorite parts about working at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is our definition of rock ‘n’ roll. When you look at the inductees and the musicians we celebrate, it does have that inclusive spirit,” Goehrke said. “Now, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some great artists like the Ohio Players who haven’t made it yet.
“And, ‘yet’ being the operative word, I’d say,” he continued. “Certainly, when you think about funk music and that amazing Dayton, Ohio scene, it’s pretty impressive.”
Despite Goehrke’s obvious enthusiasm for Dayton funk, he doesn’t have input on who gets nominated. That process is presided over by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation in New York.
“The nominating committee is comprised of a really impressive assortment of record label executives, music historians and artists,” Goehrke said. “There are around 30 people, so it’s a really diverse group of excellence. Every year, they get together and do what you and I would do if we were at the bar. They sit back and think about who is eligible and who is deserving to be inducted. Then, they make a case in front of their peers. And, just like you and I, they’re very passionate, and they take it very seriously.
“There are tens of thousands of eligible bands out there,” he said. “They have to take all of those artists who are eligible and whittle it down to a ballot. Essentially, that’s what comes out of that room. At the end of that long day of debate, the nominating committee produces a ballot with anywhere from 12 to 20 artists. The final ballot is mailed out to more than 1,000 voters and that includes all of the living inductees, which is pretty cool. Then, typically, the top five to seven artists from that get inducted and that comprises the class.”
James Brown, the architect of funk, was the genre’s first recognized entry into the Rock Hall with his 1986 induction. Then, fittingly, there was the Isley Brothers in 1992, followed by Sly & the Family Stone in 1993 and Parliament-Funkadelic in 1997. Yet, despite the commercial and critical success, the Ohio Players have not joined these ranks.
“The OP had hits all over the radio in New York when I was kid,” writer-film producer Nelson George said in an e-mail statement. “(Songs like) ‘Fire’ and ‘Skin Tight’ were anthems. (The Players) were a super-tight musical unit with Sugarfoot’s vocals, full of the church, the blues and the Midwest, essential to what we think of as funk. They mixed strong harmonies, aggressive rhythms and sharp, jazzy horn arrangements that made them one of the great bands in the tradition of black music.”
Artists are eligible for induction into the Rock Hall 25 years after its first official recording, otherwise, the formal criteria is a bit fuzzy.
“Those on the nominating committee are asked to think about four things: impact, influence, innovation and musical excellence,” Goehrke said. “Those are all inherently subjective terms. Whereas, to use a sports analogy, if you’re in the Baseball Hall of Fame, there are these metrics. If you get 500 home runs or 3,000 hits, chances are, steroid-era aside, you’re going to get inducted.
“Rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t really work that way,” he continued. “There’s no, ‘OK, they had their three No. 1 hits and their 10 Top 10 hits, so they’re guaranteed to be nominated or they’re guaranteed to be in.’ If you did that, you’d never induct groups like Frank Zappa, the Grateful Dead or even Jimi Hendrix, who had very little commercial success.”
The Ohio Players, one of the most beloved funk acts of all time, check all of the aforementioned boxes, but there is no recognition from the Rock Hall’s nominating committee.
“The Ohio Players are exactly who the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s performer statement describes on their website,” said former Daytonian Jared Michael Nickerson of the New York-based Burnt Sugar Arkestra. “The Players not only created international hits but (also) had an influence on Dayton, Ohio’s local music scene. It (the local scene) created at least 15 bands and solo artists that were signed to national recording contracts who also produced a string of hits resulting in some folks titling Dayton the ‘Home of Funk.’ ”
A lasting legacy
There are certainly inductees with fewer hits and less musical and cultural impact than the Ohio Players, who remain part of popular culture. The Ohio Players placed 13 songs on the Billboard Hot 100, including two No. 1 singles, ”Fire,” which hit the top in early 1975, and “Love Rollercoaster,” a chart-topper almost exactly a year later. The band also scored 10 Top 10 hits on the R&B chart.
The Ohio Players also weren’t simply a singles band — with 14 studio albums making the Billboard 200 chart.
Aside from chart success, the group also pioneered a distinctive brand of gritty street funk that influenced plenty of acts, from Slave (also from Dayton) and Parliament-Funkadelic to Prince and D’Angelo.
“It’s a crime the Ohio Players are not in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame,” said Jim “Rev Cool” Carter, longtime host of the eclectic “Around the Fringe” on WYSO-FM (91.3). “They have been unjustly overlooked. I know some people will claim they’re not rock ‘n’ roll, which is completely ridiculous. When I look at some of the inductees in the Hall, I see artists who are classified as rap, R&B, soul, blues, country and more.
“There are performers who are in the Hall because of their influence or for musical excellence,” Carter continued. “If all of these artists fit the criteria, then the Ohio Players definitely do. The musical excellence of the Ohio Players is unquestionable. Their influence is undeniable. Many people would claim that the Ohio Players are the very definition of funk. And what is funk if not a combination of soul, R&B, rock, psychedelia and blues?”
Rickey Vincent discussed the group’s influence in his 1996 book “Funk.” He wrote:
“The end result of the Ohio Players’ experience had a far-reaching impact on the packaging of black music. The plush, pristine mix of the band’s totally original sound raised the standards of studio production quality that would take CDs to recapture a decade later. The lavish string arrangements on some of the band’s cuts, however, helped bring about the acceptance of the polished synthetic sounds of the disco arrangers.
“The blatant sex-freak imagery of their album art opened the doors for even cruder images by other acts, yet their music stands untouchable,” Vincent said. “Unfairly judged and masters of their craft, the Ohio Players stand out as legends of the time.”
The organizers of the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame recognized the band’s impact. The Ohio Players were among more than two dozen acts in its first class in a ceremony at Cleveland State University in 2013.
While induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame may not be crucial to the enduring legacy of the Ohio Players, it would be one more deserved accolade for the band. And it would clearly be meaningful for Williams and his surviving bandmates.
“The Hall of Fame has the Beastie Boys in there and some other people,” he said. “If they think they deserve it, that’s fine. They made an impact, but this band has, likewise, and we’ve inspired other musicians to play songs. There are cover bands that have done our songs to a great degree.
“A lot of rappers have sampled our songs, so it’s crossed over the music medium as far as the different genres it has impacted,” Williams said. “I think this band fulfills all the criteria the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame has for you to be nominated.”
Contact contributing arts and music writer Don Thrasher at email@example.com.
HOW TO HELP
What: A new online petition seeking the Ohio Players’ induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Notables making the case
Jim “Rev Cool” Carter, WYSO-FM (91.3) radio host: “Many people would claim that the Ohio Players are the very definition of funk.”
Jared Michael Nickerson of the Burnt Sugar Arkestra: “The Players not only created international hits but (also) had an influence on Dayton, Ohio’s local music scene. It (the local scene) created at least 15 bands and solo artists that were signed to national recording contracts who also produced a string of hits resulting in some folks titling Dayton the ‘Home of Funk.’ ”
Nelson George, writer and film producer: “(Songs like) ‘Fire’ and ‘Skin Tight’ were anthems. … They mixed strong harmonies, aggressive rhythms and sharp, jazzy horn arrangements that made them one of the great bands in the tradition of black music.”