When Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner gave me one of his guitars some years ago, he wrote an inscription on it that encouraged me to “Play Well.” It was his recipe for life.
When Sugarfoot died, I thought of our 35-year friendship and the tremendous impact of Sugarfoot’s own gift for “playing well.”
Sugarfoot — often called “Sugar” or just “Foot” — Bonner was the lead singer of The Ohio Players. He died on Jan. 25. In many ways Sugar was the symbol and the sound of the funk music that came Dayton in the 1970s. As one of the original members of The Ohio Players, he collected a stack of hit records including “Love Rollercoaster,” “Honey,” “Skin Tight,” “Fire,” “Sweet Sticky Thing,” “Funky Worm” and “Who’d She Coo?” Sugar’s drawl “aww garl” became a signature of funk music, copied by many other artists including Lionel Richie and Walter Orange of The Commodores.
I first met Sugar, as a client, in the late 1970s when The Ohio Players were at their zenith in popularity and involved in some litigation between Mercury Records and Arista Records over recording rights to the band. During the course of a deposition, Sugar was asked whether he knew how successful The Ohio Players had been. “Yes,” he replied, “I read it on a billboard.”
A couple of years later, I was in California to accompany The Ohio Players to meet with Clive Davis, the president of Arista Records, in his luxurious suite in the Beverly Hills Hotel. The Ohio Players seemed to take the meeting all in stride, but I was struck by the respect that Clive Davis accorded their music talents, and by his special interest in Sugar.
Later I was sitting with Sugar in his room at the Continental Hyatt House — or the “Continental Riot House,” as it was then known in the music industry — on Sunset Strip in Hollywood. He pointed out the window to the billboard across the street. It was the same billboard Sugar cited in his earlier deposition as his answer about the success of The Ohio Players.
But success and awards never meant as much to Sugar as his music: “What I do is sing. That is important to me,” Sugar told me. He was his music, and his music was the only thing what mattered to him. If a billboard on Sunset Strip recognized his music, it only measured the value others placed on his music; it did not measure Sugar’s internal assessment or satisfaction with his music.
During his later years, Sugar told me that his greatest reward was that he had worldwide acclaim and hometown respect. In the last week of his life, Sugar told me that he was at peace with his music, at peace with his life. He seemed comfortable in his shoes.
But, it wasn’t always easy for Sugar. He had come from the streets. He achieved fame and fortune in warp-speed fashion, and the temptations of the streets followed him. There were many times when his life was ragged as he struggled to stay focused on his music. But when I talked to him alone, in both good times and bad, I was always struck by the simplicity of his goals and his desire to do good things for his friends and family, and how especially proud he was that his daughter Kiera recently graduated from college.
Sugar and The Ohio Players have performed at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but they have never been inducted. They should be. As one critic noted, the Baseball Hall of Fame is all about statistics. Baseball players fail because they don’t have Hall of Fame numbers, not because they did not make an impact on the game. Hall of Fame musicians are recognized by impact, not statistics. The Rock and Roll of Fame is all about impact. Sugar and The Ohio Players have made a Hall of Fame impact on the music world.
Clarence “Satch” Satchell and Ralph “Pee Wee” Middlebrooks — two of the other original seven members of the Ohio Players — died some years ago. But James “Diamond” Williams and other talented members survive. The band will play on. Funk will play on. I would just like to hear that “aww garl” play on, one more time.
Merle Wilberding, the writer of this article, is a longtime Dayton attorney for The Ohio Players and knew the late Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner well.