James ‘Diamond’ Williams And The Ohio Players Are Still Funky As Ever
BY E.E. BRADMAN | FROM THE WINTER 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
It’s totally reasonable to expect that a band that hasn’t been on the charts in four decades would get onstage flaunting geriatric tempos, weak chops, and watered-down versions of their hits. But watching The Ohio Players blast through their classics is a powerful reminder that a great drummer makes all the difference.
The ten-piece ensemble is — bass, two keyboardists, three guitarists, and a three-piece horn section — gets much of its firepower from funky, super-solid James “Diamond” Williams, who sings backup, introduces the band and the songs, and throws down like a man half his age. Still rockin’ the traditional grip from his drum and bugle corps years, 68-year-old Williams is in absolute command of the in-your-face deep grooves that laid the foundation for The Ohio Players’ biggest hits, including “Skin Tight,” “Fopp,” “Fire,” “Love Rollercoaster,” “Who’d She Coo,” “Far East Mississippi,” and “Sweet Sticky Thing” — and earned him the #72 spot on Rolling Stone’s list of the top 100 drummers of all time. We caught up with Williams after a show to get a history lesson in Ohio funk.
Funk is found where there’s space… A good drummer can wear you out with a bass drum, a hi-hat,
and a snare drum
Y’all seemed to be having a blast onstage.
Every time we go up there, we have fun. The more we do this thing, the better we get. And right now, we’re at a good place. We leave it all onstage.
Who were your main influences back in the day?
Everybody talks about Clyde Stubblefield and Jabo Starks with James Brown, but the first funky drummer who ever caught my attention, playing something that was a little bit different, was Zigaboo [Modeliste], with The Meters — I liked his dexterity, syncopation, and open hi-hat. With my jazz background, I knew I could play some in-between stuff and still make it funky. I come from that slammin’ thing too, with Buddy Miles, Buddy Rich, Gene Krupa, who could beat the ever-living god out of some drums.
Did you grow up playing drums?
I grew up beating pots and pans in the kitchen. My mom played everything that had a reed, from bassoon and oboe to saxophone and clarinet. My dad, who played a little bit of drums and sang, was a jazz aficionado. I took 12 years of private lessons, played in all-city orchestra, all-city band, and high school marching band, and studied music at Kentucky State and at Miami University.
How’d you meet The Ohio Players?
I was in a band called Overnight Lows. I’d never seen The Ohio Players, but we played the same tri-state area, and people would always tell us that they were better. So, when we had a chance to play with them, I knew we were going to burn them up.
How’d it go?
We did our show, and then The Ohio Players came on. From the time they stepped onstage, it was total annihilation. The drummer played one beat, a shuffle, and the band played funky around him. I told my wife that if I ever got a chance to play with this band, I was going to have a job. Two years later, in 1972, I got the call: drummer Greg Webster was sick, and they asked me to sit in for the weekend. After that, the rest of the band went to the hospital and fired Greg. I came in there playing everything I knew, and I’ll tell you what: I knew quite a lot!
Some of your grooves are pretty complex. Which Ohio Players drum part gets butchered most often?
Probably “Skin Tight,” because it’s a polyrhythm. The tricky part is comin’ out of that daggone change, which is 2/4 and 4/4, coming back to that 7/4 time the rest of the song is in. Most people play it like a loop, but five minutes into the track, you hear me come out of the pickup and turn the beat like you would normally play it and then turn it back because I didn’t want to have to start it again. It’s a total mistake, but the rhythm kept going. I told the band, “Y’all keep going, I’ll make it right,” and within three or four measures, I turned it back around.
The bass drum helps keep things steady.
Things have changed so much today, but the emphasis used to be on playing with the bass. All the bass drum licks in “Skin Tight” are with the bass guitar. The bass drum has to come back with that phrase after the bridge — it has to come back correct, with the accent being on the 1 again.
What was it like playing with bassist Marshall “Rock” Jones?
All the stuff he did was incredible. The melodic phrases he played on “I Want To Be Free,” what he did on “Sweet Sticky Thing,” the 5/4 thing he did on “Big Score” — every track that kid played was just spot-on.
On “Feel The Beat (Everybody Disco),” and even with Jones doing disco-perfect octaves, you don’t play a disco beat.
There are a couple things I hate. One of them is disco, and the other is drum machines. I hate drum machines because in a lot of cases, they take a drummer’s job. It’s hard to program all the innuendoes and measured beats and accents and ritards; it’s a lot easier to play it.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to be funky?
Funk is found where there’s space. See how simple and how funky you can make things. Many times, people are capable of playing lots of stuff, but can you really feel it? Every lick is important, so only use the licks and sounds that are necessary. A good drummer can wear you out with a bass drum, a hi-hat, and a snare drum; it doesn’t really take all that stuff to make the groove really pop. I hear a lot of drummers playing the pocket, but the pocket’s not steady because the band is not locking. Where there’s power, there’s funk.