The 21-panel funk mural in Dayton, Ohio. Melissa A. Weber

The Ohio Players, Lakeside, Slave, Zapp. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Dayton was a hotbed of funk bands. With the opening of a new museum, the city is claiming its position as “The Land of Funk.”

In February, after years in the making, the Funk Music Hall of Fame and Exhibition Center (also known as The Funk Center) held its grand opening in Dayton, Ohio. Why funk music? Why Dayton?

Why not?

Although there are a number of museums dedicated to pioneering forms of popular music created by Black Americans—including soul (Memphis’ Stax Museum and the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum), jazz (the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and the New Orleans Jazz Museum in New Orleans), and for hip hop, the in-development Hip Hop Hall of Fame Museum in NYC—this is the first to honor funk. And it’s fitting that it is the city that’s been called “The Land of Funk.”

Dayton not only participated, but contributed mightily to the genre of funk that found its main commercial success in the 1970s. At the time, Dayton’s black population was at the end of a three-decade swell—from 1940 to 1970, nearly 54,000 black people migrated to Dayton, while the city lost about 32,000 whites. Black residents concentrated in West Dayton, in part due to a history of redlining, and because of restrictive covenants that prevented the sale of east-side homes to black people, and that mortgage lenders were required to include if they wanted loans ensured by the FHA.

While Dayton is considered a small city in comparison to major metropolitan areas, the number of classic funk hits that the area’s artists released within just a decade is staggering. As UCLA professor Scot Brown, a historian of funk in Dayton, wrote: “African Americans in Dayton comprised over one-third of a population of approximately 200,000 during the latter half of the 1970s.”  

The critical mass of blacks plus the availability of relatively high-paying working class jobs, so that parents could afford instruments, Brown has said, produced ripe circumstances: The funk musicians in West Dayton produced countless hits that reached the R&B Top 10 charts , sometimes crossing over to the pop charts, from the mid-1970s through mid-1980s.

The Funk Center’s opening is part of a continuing movement to brand and market Dayton as “The Land of Funk,” to quote the 1980 hit “Fantastic Voyage,” by Lakeside. (Trivia: Lakeside’s original name was the Ohio Lakeside Express.) A few blocks from the museum, along a concrete wall under a rail line, is the 21-panel “Land of Funk” mural, depicting the major funk bands of Dayton. It was shepherded by visual artist Morris Howard with Brittini Long of Montgomery County Juvenile Courts, and painted with young artists in HAALO (Helping Adolescents Achieve Long-Term Objectives).  

Of course, one of the panels honors the legendary Ohio Players, who enjoyed two number-one pop hits in 1975 and 1976, first with “Fire,” and then “Love Rollercoaster,” and kicked off the successes of the area. They, like many other Dayton funk musicians including the Troutman brothers (of Zapp), remained in the city even at the height of their success, creating a model for the Dayton’s young musicians to follow.

The items on view at The Funk Center were often donated by the artists themselves—paraphernalia from recording sessions, concerts, and photo shoots. Led by Dayton native and dedicated CEO and president David R. Webb, the center is located not in West Dayton, but on the east side, on Third Avenue. And, as many people in Dayton have a connection to funk, it is perhaps only to be expected that before the museum opened, there were others vying to create a Dayton funk institution. The Funk Center aims to stake claim of this period of music by telling the stories of the people and city that brought so much funk to radios, dance floors, and concert arenas during the heyday of funk—a time when musicians ruled in Black popular music.

Visitors can see the wicker chair that the lead vocalist and guitarist of the Ohio Players, Leroy “Sugarfoot” Bonner, sat in for the cover of his solo Sugar Kiss album; on view are original costumes for the band Slave, designed by local artist and schoolteacher Delora Buford-Buchanan; and for Heatwave, who scored major hits in the mid-1970s with “Boogie Nights” and “The Groove Line.” There are also the instruments used by Faze-O to record hits such as the 1977 song, “Riding High.” (More trivia: The “O” in Faze-O stands for “Ohio.”)

Also on display are the original album artwork proofs for Platypus, a funk-rock band signed to Casablanca Records. While Platypus didn’t have chart hits like the other Dayton bands, their dance-friendly music was considered ahead of its time, and their 1979 self-titled debut album was recently reissued on CD by Big Break Records in the UK.

Among the rare photographs and memorabilia items celebrating Dayton funk are several unique gems, which will make music lovers thankful that the Funk Center exists. For example, on display is the bicycle horn used in Slave’s number R&B chart stomper, “Slide” (1977). The artifact is a reminder of the ingenuity of musicians and the way many incorporated signature, unusual sounds. This is especially true in the case of Slave, a band that enjoyed its first hit while many of its core members were still students at Roth High School (which has since evolved into Thurgood Marshall High School) on Hoover Avenue in West Dayton.  

While the Funk Center is an invaluable resource for preserving the history of funky Daytonians, its end goal is to be a resource of all funk music and musicians. Artists like the legendary Parliament-Funkadelic leader George Clinton have pledged to donate items to the Center. While the location lacks the massive square footage of, for example, the neighboring Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland (which included no funk artifacts in its “Cleveland Rocks” room during my last visit), the quality of stories told by the museum’s items, well-appointed and stacked from floor to ceiling, as well as the support of the original artists, will soon make the Funk Center, and a trip to Dayton, Ohio, the next holy grail visit on the list of noteworthy cities in the story of Black music and history in this country.

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