Paying Tribute To Funk's 'Sugarfoot' Bonner

With his double neck guitar, big afro and flamboyant costumes, the late Leroy 'Sugarfoot' Bonner got people dancing with hits like, Love Rollercoaster. Host Michel Martin looks back at the life of the Ohio Players' front man and how his musical vision ushered in 70's funk.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now we'd like to remember a funk legend.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE ROLLERCOASTER")

OHIO PLAYERS: (Singing) Rollercoaster of love. Say what? Rollercoaster, ooh-ooh, ooh, ooh.

MARTIN: Leroy Bonner died last weekend at the age of 69. Best known as the front man for the Ohio Players, Sugarfoot, as he was called, joined the band in 1964 as guitarist, songwriter and, eventually, lead singer. He was the eldest of 14 kids, and he was a self-taught musician who never went to high school.

Scholar Scot Brown of UCLA spent time with the late musician when he was researching a book about funk music with roots in Ohio.

SCOT BROWN: For all of the largess of his personality on stage and as a character and as a musician, if you met him one-on-one, he was a very quiet, thoughtful, reflective, a very philosophical person.

MARTIN: Professor Brown said Sugarfoot redefined funk by bringing a country-blues sensibility.

BROWN: Sugar has that understanding of tone. He has a tone that, you know that's Sugarfoot when he sings. There's a soulfulness there. All of the kind of anguish and satire of the blues vocalist is in Sugar's voice.

MARTIN: The Ohio Players thrived in the 1970s, producing seven top-40 hits with their distinctive brand of funk and soul. And while they never won a Grammy for their music, the Ohio Players took one home for best album package in 1976 for the album "Honey," which like many of their other covers, featured provocative images of African-American women.

Rickey Vincent, author of "Funk: The Music, The People, and The Rhythm of The One," says Sugarfoot's contribution to Funk was unparalleled, including his distinctive style.

RICKEY VINCENT: Sugarfoot was a mindblower, because he had the little sparkle in his teeth, and then he had this amazing double-neck guitar, and then he had this Afro that was kind of permed and laid off to the side a little bit. And so he was in a sort of permanent lean when you check him out. And so you just knew this was, you know, the player among the players.

MARTIN: Here's a clip of an interview that he did with Houston DJ Madhatter on his own musical legacy.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

LEROY BONNER: To make music that lasts is more important than making a hit at discos out there, and end up nobody remembering you no more in life. To be immortal is my desire.

MARTIN: Leroy "Sugarfoot" Bonner of the Ohio Players. He died last weekend at the age of 69.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEAVEN")

PLAYERS: You know what I think heaven is? I think heaven is you. You know that? Listen.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today.

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