Funk music lost one of its most distinctive and important voices this week with the death of Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner. The group’s frontman and guitarist, Bonner’s inimitable voice was one of the most recognizable in ’70s popular music; and was emulated by countless other funk artists who followed his path.
The Ohio Players are unquestionably one of the greatest funk bands of all time, but as decades passed, the ensemble became overshadowed somewhat by names like Sly & the Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic, The Isley Brothers and The Commodores. But under Sugarfoot’s leadership, the group was one of their era’s most consistent hitmakers; with hits ranging from the gritty funk of “Skin Tight” and the classic “Fire,” to smoothed-out soul ballads like “I Want To Be Free” and “Heaven Must Be Like This.”
The Players’ influence stretched into the 1990s, when artists as wide-ranging as D’Angelo (“Heaven Must Be Like This”) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (“Love Rollercoaster”) covered some of their most iconic songs. The Players’ stomper “Funky Worm” has been sampled by everyone from N.W.A. to Kendrick Lamar. It could be argued that Sugarfoot’s distinctive voice and flamboyant on-stage persona bridged the gap between ’60s funk legend Sly Stone and ’80s funk superstar Rick James. The band was also notorious for their sexually charged album covers, and the long-running urban legend that a woman was killed in the studio during the recording of “… Rollercoaster” — a myth that the band would often jokingly play for up for publicity.
At the center of it all was Sugarfoot, playing ringleader for one of the greatest bands of all time.
“Humble yet charismatic, soft-spoken and of few words, the weight of his thoughts, lyrics and music has influenced countless other artists, songs and trends,” stated an “official family announcement” posting on the Ohio Players’ Facebook page. “He will be missed but not forgotten as his legacy and music lives on.”