Graded on a Curve:
Ohio Players, “Funky Worm” b/w “Paint Me”

Occasionally you run across a song so unutterably strange you’re left speechless. Such is the case with the 1973 single “Funky Worm” by the great Ohio Players, who bequeathed us such fabulously funky tunes as “Love Rollercoaster” (“Say what?”) and “Fire.” “Funky Worm” inexplicably rose to No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts, despite it’s, er, rather odd vocals and subject matter. But if I’m surprised it was a big hit I have no doubt it’s a fantastic song, infused with high humor and featuring several high-pitched Moog synthesizer solos that have been sampled, at last count by one source, by some 183 artists including Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and N.W.A.

The Ohio Players were formed way back in 1959 as the Ohio Untouchables, but broke up and reformed several times. But talk about your perseverance; they were still together (having changed their name to Ohio Players) in 1973, when the band finally scored a hit with “Funky Worm” off their Pleasure LP. The song was written by the band’s then keyboardist Walter “Junie” Morrison, who split in 1974 and went on to record several solo albums before joining Parliament-Funkadelic.

“Funky Worm” is odd for the simple reason that it’s basically a conversation between a member of the band and “Granny,” who I suspect is another member of the band, although I’ve had zero luck in finding out who delivered her lines. Granny is introduced to a Mr. Johnson by his secretary while a funky groove plays in the background, and she delivers her introductory lines (“Me and the Ohio Players gonna tell you about a worm/He’s the funkiest worm in the world/Okay, sing it, fellas”), at which point the guys in the band sing about the worm, who lives six feet down and “who only comes around/When he wants to get down.”

Those six feet are odd, being grave-deep and all, but I don’t think the song has anything whatsoever to do with death, although the following tune, “Our Live Has Died” reprises the “six feet down” trope in a more meaningful setting. Nor is the worm a metaphor for a cock. No, it’s a worm she’s talking about, who “when he comes out of his hole sounds something like this,” at which point Morrison plays a freaky solo.

Just how funky is the worm? As Granny puts it, talking over the solo, “Oh that’s funky/That’s funky/Like nine cans/Of shaving powder/That’s funky.” Shaving powder? Is that an oblique reference to cocaine? Who knows? All I know is that the funky worm plays guitar without any hands, and “pretty good I might add.” As for Granny, she’s a sly one and knows a cash cow—er, worm—when she sees one, and over another of Morrison’s solos says, “I’m his manager/Gonna make a million dollars/I get it all too/He can’t spend it” and follows that with, “Don’t stop now, honey/Get down” before finally saying, “Okay, that’s enough/Get out of here/There ain’t no people/Listening to this/This is really funky/Get out of here.” After which the worm returns to his home underground, and Granny proceeds to talk business: “Do we get paid for this? (Yes.) I want to know. (Yes, of course.) We do, okay, okay (Yes) alright. (You’re welcome.)”

“Funky Worm” may employ a simple riff-wise but it’s complicated in terms of instrumentation, what with its ambitious horn charts, cool rhythm guitar riff, and that great synthesizer doing its sinuous and vaguely Middle Eastern thing. And Granny is a stroke of genius, as the Ohio Players must have known, as they bring her back for the tres cool “Rooster Poot,” which unfortunately didn’t make the Pleasure LP, probably because it’s a song (unless I’m reading the lyrics wrong) about taking an award-winning dump. It has her winning the Rooster Poot Contest held in Crown Point, Ohio (a real place!), thanks to her husband Pa, who proceeds to go scatological on your ass, and unlike “Funky Worm” there was no way this one was topping anybody’s chart.

As for “Paint Me,” it’s a catchy mid-tempo funk tune that puts the piano right up front, and features some really great horns and a vocalist who can move into the high octaves when called for. He wants a “Mr. Painter” to paint him into life because he’s lost and lonely and could use some new shoes, a new hat, and a woman or two while he’s at it. Me, I’d have added an Edsel, because it may have been a loser as an automobile but it’s one funky looking motorcar. And I don’t have much else to say about “Paint Me,” except that if I’d been the guy choosing the B-side I’d have gone with big and brassy funkstrumental “Ruffell Foot,” which didn’t make Pleasure either, even though it could bring a dead man back to life with its cool guitar groove and very fab horn arrangement.

Odd but true: listening to the Ohio Players solves a mystery that has haunted me for years, namely, from whence did the alt-country band Lambchop steal their occasionally funky grooves. The answer is the Ohio Players, a band that I think is seriously underrated, and not just because its music influenced everybody from Dr. Dre to Kurt Wagner. Although the range of their influence is bona fide impressive; show me another band that can make that claim, and I’ll buy you that Edsel.

I tend towards the hyperbolic, but in this case I’m dead right: “Funky Worm” should be an essential song in every responsible DJ’s record collection. And I’m talking every DJ in the entire world. I love “Love Rollercoaster” for the band member who tosses out that “Say what?”, which has always fought it out in my mind with the guy in Earth, Wind & Fire who throws out the occasional “Yow” for greatest interjection ever, soul/funk/R&B division. And now I have another reason to love the Ohio Players, and that makes me happy. Give “Funky Worm” a listen. And if it fails to make your day, I’ll gladly double your funk back. “Yow!”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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