Ohio Players Way: Local funk legends get street named in their honor

Band to perform again this summer: ‘We’re very blessed to still have this support’

The Ohio Players have always been a one-a-kind funk act. With the smash number one hits “Fire” and “Love Rollercoaster” and a dozen other songs on the Billboard Hot 100 and 14 charting albums, the band’s commercial and critical success is still unmatched by any act from Dayton. That legacy was commemorated on Friday, April 2, with a small ceremony marking the designation of a portion of Hillcrest Avenue as Ohio Players Way.

“I can only say, to tell it truly, I am humbled and honored all in the same breath,” Ohio Players guitarist Chet Willis said. “The things that have gone down musically in Dayton, Ohio are expansive. There are so many people that have done things in music. It’s mind-blowing when you think about it because it goes back quite some years. I’m not just talking about the ’70s and ’80s, when the funk music out of Dayton was large, but way before that.”

Members of the Ohio players and fans attended the unveiling of the Ohio players Way sign Friday April 2, 2021. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF
Members of the Ohio players and fans attended the unveiling of the Ohio players Way sign Friday April 2, 2021. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF

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At the ceremony, drummer James “Diamond” Williams talked about what the honor meant to him. “It means the culmination of music lessons and practicing and marching bands ... (the city) is recognizing this band and we have accomplished something. … It’s like Aretha Franklin. Did we get any respect? I think respect has been gained now and so it means everything.

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“I live here in the city. I was born and raised here. I continue to live here. ... This is home. And to be recognized at home? What else can you ask for?” he said.

The long process to get Hillcrest Avenue designated Ohio Players Way was driven by Willis’ brother Jeffrey, who did much of the leg work. To move forward with the honor, 51 percent of property owners on that stretch of road had to give their approval, so he literally went from residence to residence, knocking on doors and asking for support.

“I had to go out several times because some people are retired and some people work and, then, a lot of the property was rental property,” Jeffrey Willis said. “I went out several times, even on a Sunday and even at 7 or 8 o’clock at night. It was tedious, but we kept at it.”

“The overwhelming support the fellows received was great,” he added. “So, even though I walked the street several times, everybody was very much in support.”

The Ohio Players, as pictured in their 1970s heyday. CONTRIBUTED / FILE
The Ohio Players, as pictured in their 1970s heyday. CONTRIBUTED / FILE

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

An inside man

Jeffrey Willis also credits the contributions of Ken Marcellus, who grew up in Dayton during the funk era. He was a fan of the music and friends with many of the musicians. While he recently retired from his position as a community development specialist for the City of Dayton, Marcellus’ experience with the street designation process was instrumental in Ohio Players Way becoming a reality.

“Ken and I talked a lot,” Jeffrey Willis said. “It’s funny because he is so humble, but Ken is a very good adviser. He was helpful in talking to the people on the other side about what we were allowed to do.”

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Not surprisingly, Marcellus downplays his contribution.

“I consider it an honor just to be involved,” he said. “This is clearly something they are due. It’s our hope this is a small gesture of acknowledging what the Ohio Players have done for the music industry. As Daytonians, we’re always proud of folks who go out and make a name for themselves and make us proud. I know that’s what they do every time they go somewhere.”

James ”Diamond” Williams, the drummer for the Ohio Players, right, along with the other surviving members of the group at the unveiling of the Ohio Players Way sign on Friday, April 2, 2021. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF
James ”Diamond” Williams, the drummer for the Ohio Players, right, along with the other surviving members of the group at the unveiling of the Ohio Players Way sign on Friday, April 2, 2021. MARSHALL GORBY\STAFF

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Live again

Despite the dedication of Ohio Players Way, the funk band is far from done. In non-COVID times, the group remained in high demand as a live act so the acknowledgement of its cultural impact comes while the Players are still very much an active entity.

“Yeah, 2019 was a pretty busy year,” Willis said. “The three or four years leading into 2019 and 2020 were sort of busy for us and that’s a good thing. If you’re a performing band, you like to be performing. We had dates on our calendar to go back out in 2020 when everything shut down. Some of those dates have been rescheduled for this year,”

Willis admits the unexpected time at home was a shock to the system.

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“We’ve never done that before so it was different,” he said with a laugh. “Even during the time when the dates were lean, we did have a couple of dates. The last time we actually worked as a band was January 20, 2020, so we’ve never been in a situation like this.

“I like being at home, to tell you the truth, but I like going to work and then coming home,” Willis continued. “Sometimes you can’t get everything you like but, at least, let me get a few things I need like some work.”

John W. Smith holds up a copy of a record that he received at the ceremony honoring the Ohio Players Friday April 2, 2021. MARSHALL GORBY \STAFF
John W. Smith holds up a copy of a record that he received at the ceremony honoring the Ohio Players Friday April 2, 2021. MARSHALL GORBY \STAFF

Credit: Marshall Gorby

Credit: Marshall Gorby

That request has been filled. While they’re still a couple of months away, the Ohio Players do have some summer dates on the books, beginning with a return engagement at Sycuan Casino Resort in San Diego, Calif., on June 4.

“It’s a real nice place,” Willis said. “We’ve been there several times. As a matter of fact, we were supposed to be there last May. That date will be here soon but not soon enough. You look at it, and it’s been almost a year-and-a-half, but at least we have a couple of more dates in June.

“We’re very blessed to still have this support,” he added. “Some things have been recognized and acknowledged. Other things have gone by the way, but we’re still here and we have to look at it as a blessing.”

Contact this contributing writer at 937-287-6139 or e-mail at donthrasher100@gmail.com.

Chet Willis (left), Billy Beck, James “Diamond” Williams and Robert “Kuumba” Jones, original members of the Ohio Players and their bandmates, were honored on Friday, April 2, when a portion of Hillcrest Avenue received the designation of Ohio Players Way.
Chet Willis (left), Billy Beck, James “Diamond” Williams and Robert “Kuumba” Jones, original members of the Ohio Players and their bandmates, were honored on Friday, April 2, when a portion of Hillcrest Avenue received the designation of Ohio Players Way.

Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Credit: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

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