James “Diamond” Williams is the dynamic, progressive drummer/singer with the legendary platinum hit-making band, the Ohio Players.
Diamond joined the group on their third and final album for the Westbound label, Ecstasy, then went on to be an integral part of their Mercury Record’s ascension, playing and co-writing the albums that cemented their place in music history. Skin Tight, Fire, and Honey were the three albums that represented, not the end, but the pinnacle of their success. The popular 70’s, late-night, music show The Midnight Special devoted an entire 90-minute episode solely to the Ohio Players, a move that was almost unheard of – just to give you a sense of how big the band was at its peak.
The Ohio Players’ lasting influence – and Diamond’s influence in particular – on the music landscape, to this day, is pervasive yet subtle. You hear it in drum programming, and the trend of technique/note-heavy drumming commonly referred to as ‘Gospel Chops.’
Currently co-leading the band with long-time Ohio Player’s keyboard player/vocalist William “Billy” Beck, Diamond is still forging ahead, as the next generation of his family makes some show business history of their own.
We caught up with Diamond at his home in the funk capital of America – Dayton, Ohio.
50BOLD: Where in the world are you right now?
Diamond: I’m in the home of funk–Dayton, Ohio.
50BOLD: The home of funk, Dayton, Ohio! You know, I claim all artists from Ohio. I’m from Ohio myself. I’m from Youngstown.
Diamond: That’s where Billy Beck is from.
50BOLD: No doubt, the great William “Billy” Beck, your keyboard player/vocalist. and also one of your guitar players, Rick Ward is also from Youngstown.
Diamond: Rick Ward, that’s right! I got a couple of guys from there.
50BOLD: Yeah, that’s home for me. That’s where I was born and raised. I spent most of my adult life in New York City, where I am right now.
Diamond: My daughter is in New York; she’s in Long Island.
50BOLD: I’m not far from Long Island, I’m in Queens myself. I’m in Long Island in like 5 minutes.
Diamond: She’s currently directing the Broadway revival of The Wiz.
50BOLD: That’s huge!
Diamond: That’s her! That’s my baby! That’s my first baby!
50BOLD: Well, alright! Talent is in the blood. I love it! I did not know that man, this is a scoop!
Diamond: She was in the Broadway musical Rent for seven years. She also directed the Broadway revival of Aida. She is doing great things, man!
50BOLD: Tell us her name.
Diamond: Schele Williams.
50BOLD: That’s great! I feel like I got a scoop I wasn’t expecting! We have some questions from readers, and I’m sure you heard these questions a million times. And if readers never heard the answers, then it’s new to them. So, I’m going to ask you anyway. The first thing we have to address are the Ohio Players’ album covers—very provocative! You featured these naked women, basically.
Diamond: Come on Monte, out of all the things we’ve done, you state that the first thing you want to address are the album covers! (laughs) The first thing we will talk about is not the music but naked women? [laughs] Okay, let’s do it!
50BOLD: Well, as The O’Jays said, ‘you’ve got to give the people what they want.’ [laughs] Now, Westbound Records, was this before you joined the band? Is that correct?
Diamond: Well, no, I joined the band on the Ecstasy album. The Ecstasy album was part of the Westbound albums. There was Pain, then Pleasure, and then Ecstasy was my first album with the band.
50BOLD: Oh, I didn’t realize that. I thought you joined the band during the Mercury era.
Diamond: No, that’s when Billy Beck got in, during the Mercury era. I got in right before Beck, on Ecstasy.
50BOLD: So, were you on Funky Worm?
Diamond: No. However, when Funky Worm came out, I was in the band. Greg (the original drummer) never played it live. Nobody ever heard Greg play it on the road because I was in the band at that time.
50BOLD: You’re speaking about Greg Webster?
Diamond: Greg Webster, yes. Westbound gave me the 45, I didn’t play on it, but I played it a thousand million times on stage.
50BOLD: Okay, okay, so I’m learning something already, that’s why I love a good interview. But let’s get back to these naked women. What was behind that?
Diamond: I knew you were going to get right back to that…. Tell me, what your people want to know about these naked women. [laughs] Not what you want to know, I want to know, what your people want to know.
50BOLD: Well, they want to know, if you received any flack like from record labels, agents, or did anything happen because you had those women on the cover. And I want to say the Westbound covers were kinkier. They were almost like S&M or something. And when you went to Mercury, the covers were sexier.
Diamond: Yeah, Westbound had that little raunch, you know what I mean. But when we went to Mercury, we dealt with Playboy photographers and models. We also had a better understanding, conceptually, of where we wanted to go with the albums. We really didn’t want them to be so explicit but more artistic in their design. You can go to museums and you’ll see all kinds of naked pictures, paintings, statues.
We know the anatomy of the female and male body. It was just about putting the concepts together in a classy and tasteful way. And this is what we tried to do. It was a little risqué at the time, but to answer your question, Monte, we never did get too much flack for the albums. I mean, you know, if something is done all the way right, somebody’s going to say, they don’t like it. No matter what it is! But overall, no women nor organizations ever said anything about the albums. But they were kind of on the edge at that time.
50BOLD: We love them though! We love those album covers to this very day.
Diamond: The covers were typical of the Ohio players, Monte, because we were on the edge too. We were on edge. It was typical.
50BOLD: On the edge? What do you mean? Give me another example of how you were on the edge.
Diamond: When I say on the edge, we were the first Black band that basically did everything our way, okay? Our way! We started to do some things, man, when I say on the edge…. When we got our thing going, we went out and bought Italian sports cars. We were probably one of the first bands driving Italian sports cars. Everybody in the band had Italian sports cars, you know what I mean?
Diamond: We were on the edge; we wore leathers. When Skintight came out, man, we were all in leather and in all kinds of stuff. We were on the edge, man. We were a band that did everything our way from the A to the Z. Nobody was looking over us. Nobody was taking anything from us, like our publishing and writings, we kept them all. I mean, we did things that were unnatural for a Black band, we wrote three platinum albums in a row. We wrote two in one year. Is that on the edge, are you kidding me? It’s on the edge, man. It’s on the edge. Five gold albums in a row! Who does that? You know what I mean? Who does that? Only the Ohio Players!
50BOLD: Only the Ohio Players, right on! So, the peak for us was, I guess, Skintight, Fire, and Honey; I would say this was the pinnacle.
Diamond: Yeah, we had two pop number one records out of the three albums, okay. Who does that? Not an artist, not a singer, but a Black band. Nobody but the Ohio Players!
50BOLD: And completely self-contained. I love that. And in keeping with that, when I think about your drum sound on the records, your sound was unique. I think of all the stuff that was happening at that time, you know Earl Young with the Philly thing and Uriel Jones with Motown. You had Funky George Brown who just passed, rest in peace, with Kool and the Gang. Your sound was unlike anything we had ever heard. I mean it was rich, resonant, deep, fat drums. Those are the words that come to mind when I think of the sound of your drums. And that sound, it holds up extremely well to this day. I mean you can play the records now and it just has a current progressive sound to it. Was getting that sound a collaborative effort? Was it trial and error, or was your vision completely clear from the beginning?
Diamond: Well, I’ll tell you, it was trial and error for the most part. As I mentioned, my first album was Ecstasy. And as we talked about Billy Beck’s was Skintight. And at the point we did Skintight which was my second album, the both of us, Billy Beck, and myself, were coming. We were quite learned in music. I took ten years of private music lessons, and so did Billy Beck, and possibly even longer. I got a full-ride scholarship to Kentucky State and transferred to the University of Dayton. But I mean, music was my thing. I was drum captain in the drum and bugle corps for seven or eight years. It was the largest Black drum and bugle corps in Dayton.
Music was my thing, I know it was Beck’s thing too. So, us enterprising with the Ohio Players set a new standard in music, musicology, and then, music performance–the melodies and lines played, the horns, and all that stuff. The music came from a different vibe. It came from people who thoroughly studied music professionally throughout our lives. I won’t fail to mention how inspirational Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner (lead vocals, guitar, lyricist) was in the process of recording with his daggone ingenious self. We were kind of like the motors of this writing team of Sugarfoot, Billy Beck, and myself.
We were constantly in the studio, constantly writing. We had an engineer, Barry Mraz, when we were working on Skintight. He was an ex-drummer, coincidentally, who kind of manipulated and helped me fine tune my drum sounds. He was a great engineer with super ears…we had ideas. We found an engineer who could implement some of our ideas as far as sound and wasn’t scared to like reach out. We were always trying to create something different from anyone else. There were songs that hadn’t been really used with sound effects or whatever. But we kind of used sound effects for Skintight.
50BOLD: On Fire, you had sirens going.
Diamond: Sirens, yeah. We were kind of like exploring different avenues, and we were the first band to write an album. We accomplished a lot of firsts. We were the first band to write six songs for one album. All I saw on Skintight were long grooves and Mercury said, you can’t do that no more partners. We started to write more songs for the album, okay. Again, we wrote six songs on the album, I mean who does that? The Ohio Players! And there’s always a reason why. We thought, everybody was making 3, 4, 5 minute songs. If we could get airplay, we could get them to play one of our songs for seven minutes. The long grooves worked. They worked back then and we were kept on the radio. It was the thing, it was a real big thing.
50BOLD: You had a very live energy in the studio. A lot of drummers kind of reign it in when they’re in a studio, a lot of repetition. But your vibe was like… you played live. It was different man. You were unique.
Diamond: There was a lot of energy back then, now I have a lot of microphones, Monte. [laughs] No, I’m just kidding! But it comes from playing, man. I started playing at age four or five years old in the kitchen, banging on pots and pans, then taking lessons and all that stuff when I was seven or eight years old. I started playing drummer bugle corps when I was fourteen. All I know is how to beat something, Monte. That’s all I know is to just beat it. Give me something and I’ll beat it!
50BOLD: So, if I asked for a double-paradiddle or a ratamacue (Editor’s note: common rudiments in snare drum study has many uses and applications for drummers.), you’d be like ‘no problem.’
Diamond: No problem. Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me right now? I’m teaching all that stuff to my granddaughter in New York, who is my daughter’s, daughter. She’s got a zoom lesson with me on Sunday. My grandson who is six years old, has got a lesson with me in the house on Saturday. Yeah, so I didn’t know they increased the rudiments (Editor’s note: rudiments are foundational drum exercises), daggone, we used to have 21 and now, it’s forty.
50BOLD: I did not know that. And I teach at Berklee now. We just had our finals. I mostly deal with mallet percussion (vibraphone, marimba, etc.). Yeah, I didn’t know they had additional rudiments now. So, I’m learning stuff every day.
Diamond: My daughter was proficient in xylophone. That’s what she did last week. She played like 3 or 4 mallets with the Dayton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. She was playing in the pit orchestra one day, and when she came home, she said, ‘Dad I don’t wanna play in the pit orchestra.’ I said why? What’s going on? She said, ‘nobody can see me down there. I’m going to start acting.’ And she did! [laughs]
50BOLD: Well, that got me from behind the drums. I wanted to be up front, you know. I also sing and do a lot of things, but I started as a drummer myself. And I just didn’t want to be in the back. I didn’t want to be behind. I didn’t want to play that role. I loved that role. I respect it, but I said, I wanted to do something different. So, I can dig where she’s coming from.
Diamond: Yeah, it never bothered me, man. In fact, if I went up there, I’d have to have a picture with a drum set in front of me to feel comfortable. [laughs] Put something in front of me; I just want to play! I ain’t no Temptation, you know what I mean? Where are my drums? Give me something and I’ll hit it.
50BOLD: Now, I want to double back to the reader’s questions and it’s in keeping with what we’re talking about. How many of those members from of the core period, you know, Skintight, Fire, Honey–how many of those members are still around? I know we’ve lost a lot of people.
Diamond: Oh yeah, still around. Well, Marvin “Merv” Pierce is in Australia, he was the trombone player.
50BOLD: What is he doing, do you know?
Diamond: He’s into programming and writing them and stuff like that. Dealing with golf courses and stuff like that in Australia, he’s doing quite well. And Billy Beck is here, of course. And Clarence “Chet” Willis, is in Atlanta, he’s a guitar player, lead guitar player.
50BOLD: Yeah, I wanted to ask you about him. And the thing about Chet Willis, every time I saw you guys play on TV, he was always in the band. He isn’t, however, in the photos on the albums, so it gave the impression that he wasn’t an official member or something. What was his status?
Diamond: Well, you almost got that right man. When you first get into the Ohio Players band, I found out on the first album, you didn’t receive any credit. None! On the Ecstasy album, you won’t see my photo on the album. It also meant, Monte, that on the Skintight album, you wouldn’t see Billy Beck. Now isn’t that a funny thing? Now, those are some dues that were paid. Ain’t that a funny thing? And look who’s running the ship. And there’s still another member who was there during the seventies, is Robert “Kuumba” Jones, who was the percussionist. He’s in a VA now, not doing well physically, but he’s still alive. So, there would be the five of us out of the nine, the four other ones would be Sugarfoot, Marshall “Rock” Jones, Clarence “Satch” Satchell, and Ralph “Pee Wee” Middlebrooks who have passed away.
50BOLD: Okay. Another facet of The Ohio Players, and I want to include former keyboard player, multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, songwriter, Walter “Junie” Morrison in this assessment. And I’m talking about the use of stratospheric falsetto background vocals. No females needed! You and Billy Beck had it covered. When did you discover you could do this and that it would be viable in the studio and even live for that matter.
Diamond: When I got in the band, Junie was my roommate. When I married my wife, Junie married her sister, so we became brothers-in-law. Nobody knows this but you Monte. And when Junie was going to leave the band to go with Westbound Records, I was the only one who knew he was leaving. So, the thing in Ecstasy, Junie knew me. Heck, he went to Roosevelt; I went to Dunbar (Editor’s note: local high schools in Dayton). I knew that boy was just a genius. He could play drums or anything he basically put his hands on. When I got to be his roommate, I found out how artsy he was with his imagination, he could think outside the box. You know what I mean?
Junie was very clever, an excellent musician. He played more percussive keyboards, but the vocal thing…. When I got with the band during Ecstasy, he said, ‘Let me hear you sing this part.’ So, I started singing the part. He said, ‘You can sing!’ I said, ‘Yeah I guess, I don’t know.’ That started a thing. So, Junie sang high, and then when Beck got in the band, Sugarfoot took over the lead. We found out that Beck could sing too, so both of them basically sang leads, back and forth. But I did all of the background vocals, and there were a couple of songs I sang lead on. But we held down the background parts. I never knew about singing. I had never tried to sing that high. At the time, many singers had those high, daggone falsettos! So, we just tried to blend in with what was going on musically at the time.
Now, Sugarfoot had created an entirely different style than what was happening on the radio at the time. He’d use slang and every daggone word was a rhyme. The boy was a genius. Then the vocals started to get more intricate like when we’d sing Sweet Sticky Thing, where the background vocals took the lead. Or like in Rollercoaster—where we actually sang lead. So, worked on our singing and thank God, it all worked out.
50BOLD: Yeah, that’s really the cornerstone of the band, when you hit those high falsetto vocals, the horns and the funk. I Wanna Be Free. A slow jam that has drum solo interludes throughout. Who’s idea was this? Was everyone on board with it? It was so radical. I mean to this day it’s a radical idea.
Diamond: I want to hear from all your people Monte. You ask, who does that? The Ohio Players is the answer! Tell your people! [laughs] Listen before it ends, nobody would have ever thought that a daggone ballad would start out with drums. Sugarfoot said we’d be playing the rhythm track, you know, just laying it out to see what we were going to do. Sugarfoot said, ‘Diamond, you take it.’ I ain’t never backed down from taking nothing, Monte. I never backed down in my life. You write that down. [laughs] I ain’t scared of nothing. I ain’t sacred of nothing and nobody. So, when I was told to take the drum breaks, well, that’s what I did.
50BOLD: And when it was done everybody was down with it. Were they like ‘this is great!’
Diamond: Yeah and as you know, you being a percussionist, that with every solo I played, I got a little less complicated because I didn’t want to go back [laughs] to do another take. But yeah, it was a process. Again, I have to ring my own bell, cause I am, what I am. The Ohio Players created songs that were different from everyone else on the planet, even today.
50BOLD: Without a doubt.
Diamond: What do I mean by this? We recorded songs like Little Lady Maria. Who recorded songs like Contradiction? You know what I mean? Are you kidding me? Today the song is still relevant, everything is a contradiction. So, we were kind of ahead of the game, man. When we recorded Heaven Must Be Like This, everyone used to think, of course, heaven was a place that you went to. But we made heaven a place that was right here, where you are. You didn’t have to go over there, you could live in heaven right here. We came up with all those kinds of idealisms, we came up with them, man. The Ohio Players as a collective, we came up with things like this.
50BOLD: Right on, right on! So, speaking of ideas, and doing it differently, we came into the era of the sequencers and the drum machines.
Diamond: Drum machines first.
50BOLD: Right, drum machines first. Once programming became sophisticated, I hear an influence. I think a lot of those cats back then knew those old records, because the way you used to play, stuff like doubling up on the bass drum. You used to play that. And when the sequencing got sophisticated, they’d put that in the sequences. And also what we have now are the Gospel Chops coming out of the church, a lot of technique, playing a lot of notes, and they will do it over anything. You know, I Want to be Free. It’s the same concept. I think a lot of that was your influence. Now, do you feel like when you hear music… the standard practices in music today, do you think you had an influence?
Diamond: You know, I feel blessed that when I started out, Monte, all I wanted to do was just play my best. Knowing that everything recorded has your signature on it. Once you record something, it could possibly live forever. I thought about that quite conscientiously and I said, you know, I want to always play my best. It just so happens that people said I contributed to music and to the advancement of certain songs, rhythms and all that stuff. And for the most part, I think I’ve done my part, you know what I mean?
50BOLD: Alright, so we’re winding down, man. I want to go back to the readers one more time. And another thing we have in common besides Ohio and percussions, we share a birth sign. We’re both Aries.
Diamond: Oh, okay.
50BOLD: Is that where you got the name?
Diamond: What, Diamond?
50BOLD: Yeah, from our birth stone.
Diamond: No, you know where I got my name? I’m with a band where you have to have thick skin. I got my name because when I got in the band, I didn’t have any diamond rings. Okay? So, Satch said ‘Call him Diamond.’ So, everybody would say, ‘Oh your name is Diamond, where are your rings?’ It should be known that I did buy some diamond rings, okay! That’s how I got my name, man. They were just needling me. Sugar was called Sugarfoot because he was the new guy in the band at that time. Those guys were just messing with us.
50BOLD: Well I’m glad, because people wanted to know that. I never would have guessed that. I always assumed it was because of your birthstone. That’s a much better story. Alright let’s see what else we got from the people. Give the people what they want. There was one more thing I want to ask you before we wrap this up. Let me see… Is R&B dead. No, I don’t want to ask the question is R&B dead, because obviously it’s not dead. That’s just my two cents.
Diamond: I’m with you all the way!
50BOLD: Alright. Do you have a bucket list? Some things you haven’t done that you would like to do?
Diamond: Oh, man, my bucket list is too long for me to even get into. Man, I’ve got too many things to do and too short a time to get them done. But you know, every day you should be able to learn something new. So, I’m doing some things now like checking into podcasts. I also want to instruct and teach at colleges. You know, the way you approach songs, the way we approach songs. Like you said, Monte, you’ve got a lot of guys today who are playing a lot of chops. They have a lot of chops to make a good beat, but a lot of chops don’t make a good beat. I want to offer some instructional stuff like what is the bassline of certain parts? Or how to add a beat to this. Like what kind of beat would you add to Skintight. Before they hear my beat, let me see what they would add to the bassline of Skintight for example. The beat has a lot of power.
50BOLD: You should play at Berklee College. I think I can make that happen…
Diamond: No doubt. I’m going to get prepared so I can illustrate. I wanna play the period that happened before the Ohio Players to show how inspirational and original we were at writing songs. So, I want to do all of that. Yeah man, anytime you want. I’m available partner!
50BOLD: Okay, we’ll see what we can do…. And thanks a million for doing this man. I learned a lot. You always have assumptions about certain artists, but you never know until you talk to them. So, thank you for sharing your experiences.