Wednesday, March 9, 2011

March 9: Ohio Players, "Love Rollercoaster"

Artist: Ohio Players
Song: "Love Rollercoaster"
Album: Honey
Year: 1975

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Though it is sadly overshadowed by the sounds of disco, there were few genres that provided more exciting sounds and innovations throughout the 1970's than one will find in the funk music of that time period.  Those within the genre were able to take full advantage of the new technologies and find ways to integrated them into their sound, and the amount of crossover that occurred within the world of funk was second to none.  Many of the greatest bands of that era swelled in membership, and it was this full sound that defined them, and without question, one of the most important and creative bands of this time were the aptly named Ohio Players.  Bringing an absolutely perfect blend of soul and jazz to the funk style, the group had already been performing for well over a decade when they began to gain international recognition.  Largely due to their brilliant horn section and the overall upbeat feel of their music, on all fronts, Ohio Players could not have released a more perfect record than one finds in their 1975 classic, Honey.  Even before one gets to the musical aspects of the album, the cover itself created great controversy due to the presence of a nude model and many myths behind the photo shoot that yielded the picture.  However, once one gets past this, there is an absolutely stunning record to be heard, and few songs have withstood the test of time to define Ohio Players as well as their iconic 1975 song, "Love Rollercoaster."

As soon as the song begins, the group deploys what has become one of the most unmistakable and heavily used guitar riffs of all time, and the bouncing, almost ska-like progression is able to pull in the listener as quickly today as it did more than thirty years ago.  Played by Leroy Bonner, it is this riff that is one of the best examples of the power than can come from simplicity, and even when he moves away from the riff here and there throughout the song, it is the hook that sticks in the mind of the listener.  Marshall Jones' bassline is without question everything that one could want from that instrument, as it swings back and forth on the track, giving "Love Rollercoaster" a sense of movement that is fitting of such a title.  This groove is complimented by drummer James Williams, and the way in which this pair seem to be completely locked in with one anothers' sound almost instantly gives them support for being one of the greatest rhythm sections in history.  However, the "pop" to "Love Rollercoaster" comes from the brilliant horn section in the band, and it is this performance that separates both the song and band from their peers.  The way in which the trio of Mervin Pierce, Ralph Middlebrooks, and Clarence Stachell blaze across the track, rising and falling with the mood is absolute musical perfection, and it is this combination of sounds that makes "Love Rollercoaster" such an unmatched moment in the history of funk music.

Working perfectly alongside the music, the vocals on "Love Rollercoaster" are able to push the mood even higher, and it is in this aspect of the music where one can connect the song to the roots of the band.  While Leroy Boner handles the lead vocals on this track, the entire band, as well as a number of backup singers, help to give a far more full vocal presentation, and this enables the song to take on a far more universal feel.  Bonner brings a scattered vocal delivery that is heavily based on the mood of the song, and the way in which his voice matches the music in both rhythm and tone is what makes it such a unique vocal performance.  In fact, one can easily tie a number of later musicians (read as: Outkast) to this performance, and in many ways, it was this moment that redefined what was possible within the role of a lead singer.  However, it is also the group vocals that define the song, and the almost "call and response" nature of the chorus is clearly what enabled the song to have such a successful crossover, sending it to the top of both the r&b and pop charts.  The theme behind the song certainly helped as well, as the song speaks to the idea of the "ups and downs" of a relationship, and yet is able to spin this frustration into a positive sounding song.  "Love Rollercoaster" is without question a celebration of sound, and this mood and energy are perhaps no more clear than within the vocals from Leroy Bonner.

Truth be told, the vocals on "Love Rollercoaster" also provided for what remains one of the most perfectly handled, yet most controversial myths in all of music history.  About two and a half minutes through the studio version of the song, there is a wild, almost chilling scream that can be heard in the mix, and the legend was that this was the sound of someone being murdered while the tape was rolling for the recording.  This noise was in fact the bands' keyboard player, Billy Beck, but the rumor persisted as the band took a vow of silence on the issue because, as Williams later said, "you sell more records that way."  Even without this massive controversy surrounding the song, one can easily argue that it would have achieved the status that it has over the decades, as it presents the ideal combination of funk, soul, and outright fun that one can find within music.  The song has been sampled countless times over the decades, and in 1996, Red Hot Chili Peppers released an absolutely fantastic cover of the song that introduced Ohio Players to an entirely new generation.  The way in which the band is able to make the rhythm move in quick circles around the listener, yet never lose its potency throughout the nearly five minutes is a testament to the talents of the group members, and it is this unforgettable musical arrangement that helps Ohio Players' 1975 classic, "Love Rollercoaster" remain such a pivotal moment in music history.

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