Ohio Players “Fire” (1974)

maxresdefault

Funk. It’s not just the notes and it’s not just the rhythm. It’s the feeling. When you’re listening to a band or a song, you shouldn’t have to do too much thinking to tell if it’s got the funk. You’ll feel it. And if it’s got the funk, ipso facto, it is funky. Funk bands and funky music have recently, I’m pleased to report, experienced a bit of a resurgence – that is if one is to believe the august New York Times, who on November 3rd ran a lengthy article in it’s Sunday Review section entitled, “The Glorious Return Of Funk.” Oddly, at least on the surface, the article’s author, professor and musicologist Nate Sloan, cited as his first example the song ‘Sucker,’ a current Top 40 hit by the decidedly un-funky Wyckoff, NJ trio (and all-time favorite of my daughter, Mary), the Jonas Brothers. But sure enough, precisely 1:55 into the tune and for the succeeding 14 seconds, comes the moment Sloan described as a “stupefyingly funky drum break.” I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel it. With reflections of academia, Sloan went on to explain funk’s elusive heart is in its syncopation. “(It’s) The art of placing rhythmic accents in unexpected places,” he expounds. “The cognitive dissonance created every time a drummer, a guitarist or a group of horns strikes a note on the offbeat has a way of generating a propulsive power that can’t be denied.”

Current renaissance notwithstanding, what can similarly not be denied is that such funky syncopated power was at its peak in the groovy era of the 1970’s. Earth, Wind & Fire, The Isley Brothers, Sly and the Family Stone, Kool & The Gang, The Gap Band, The Brothers Johnson, The Commodores, The Meters (later The Funky Meters), and certainly Parliament-Funkadelic, were just some of the roster of gigantic ‘70’s bands delivering the almighty funk. Invoking the unlikely pairing of Descartes and the aforementioned Parliament, professor Sloan further attempted to ascribe scholarly meaning to the subject with the moving, sensory description, “The olfactory nature of the name ‘funk’ suggests the music was all about sweat and sociality. And it is. But it’s also something greater. Funk insisted that physical release begets mental salvation and vice versa, a collapsing of Cartesian mind-body duality summed up succinctly in the title of a 1970 Funkadelic album: “Free Your Mind … and Your Ass Will Follow.””

That’s heady stuff (and, I suppose, booty stuff). More directly, James Jamerson, acknowledged recently as the “most influential bass player ever” by Bass Player magazine, was known to have said, “The funk is in the funk.” Personally, I just know it when I hear (and feel) it. And probably no band (outside of James Brown and The Famous Flames) put that feeling across quite like The Ohio Players. Originally formed in Dayton, Ohio in 1959, The Ohio Players reached their zenith in the ‘70’s with gloriously funkified hits such as ‘Love Rollercoaster,’ ‘Skin Tight,’ ‘Funky Worm,’ ‘Jive Turkey,’ and, undoubtedly their greatest ever, our featured song, ‘Fire.’ The video clip, taken from a 1975 live performance on the beloved late-night musical variety series, The Midnight Special, is over nine minutes long, but well worth the time. Right from the marvelously incongruous introduction by funk-less ‘I Am Woman’ Aussie, Helen Reddy, the Ohio Players launch into an elongated funk-fest that would almost seem to be parody – or an outtake from the Will Farrell flick, “Semi-Pro” – if not for the fact that it’s so damn awesome. There’s a lot to follow here: smoke, bubbles, sirens, afros, denim ‘n diamond-bedazzled outfits, flame-licking graphics, runway strutting, O-H-I-O chanting, the sudden appearance (then re-appearance) by a crew of pop-and-lock dancers, all happening while the band keeps churning away at its mighty funky business. But I do especially hope you’ll stick around until the end when (beginning at 8:24) double-neck guitarist Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner – that’s right, “Sugarfoot” – does a mind-blowing, pretty much indescribable scat/guitar finale that in retrospect seems like the only possible way to bring the entire eccentric exercise to a conclusion. Of its madcap mayhem, a YouTube commenter astutely wrote, “Caution: this is straight funk, please warm up with lesser funk before watching. Side effects may include uncontrollable urge to get down, get it on, or get on wit’ yo bad self, randomly begin shouting and whooping, and possibly, in severe cases, set fire to your house in honor of the funk.” To that, stretching back from the Ohio Players on up to the Jonas Brothers, all I can think to say is “Funk yeah.”

(the Jo Bros: jump to 1:55 for the funk)


Leave a Reply