Obituary: Roger Troutman

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The Independent Culture
ZAPP WAS one of a myriad acts who took up the funk of James Brown and George Clinton and turned it into the sophisticated R&B which dominated US urban radio stations in the Eighties. Zapp's lead singer and instrumentalist Roger Troutman was found shot dead on Sunday, apparently by his older brother Larry, who subsequently committed suicide.

With Roger Troutman at the helm, Zapp developed enough of a cult following in the UK to sell out the Hammersmith Odeon and score two Top 75 hits in 1986. Their anthem "More Bounce to the Ounce" has cropped up on rap records by the likes of Ice Cube, Snoop Doggy Dogg and EPMD, and Troutman himself had most recently featured on the infectious hit "California Love", which made the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic in 1996 and was nominated for a Grammy award.

Zapp evolved out of the Troutmans, a family group comprising the versatile Roger (on vocals and guitar) and his brothers Larry (congas, percussion), Lester (drums) and Terry (bass, keyboards). Terry was nicknamed "Zapp" because, as a baby, he couldn't pronounce the name of Elza Sapp (the principal at his brothers' elementary school).

Originally from Hamilton, a small Ohio town halfway between Dayton and Cincinnati, the Troutman family were heavily influenced by the Ohio Players (local heroes based in Dayton) and the bass-player Bootsy Collins, who lived in Cincinnati. Bootsy Collins took the Troutmans under his wing, introducing them to the Parliament and Funkadelic leader George Clinton, and helping them to secure a recording deal with Warner Brothers.

In 1980, "More Bounce to the Ounce", Zapp's debut single, included on their eponymous first album, proved an instant smash. The thumpy bass, the choppy rhythm guitars and Roger Troutman's unlikely use of a talk-box made this slice of funk irresistible and it reached No 2 on the R&B charts. Since then, it has become arguably one of the most sampled tracks of all time.

The following year, Troutman struck out on his own, recording as Roger, with a solo album entitled The Many Facets of Roger and a high-tech up- tempo remake of Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine". The song had also been a hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips and Creedence Clearwater Revival but Troutman was adamant he could update it. He spent hours building the track, once again using the Vocoder to great effect. Troutman had noticed Stevie Wonder and Peter Frampton employing this strange device in the mid-Seventies.

"People seemed to like the voice box but they couldn't always understand what I was saying," Troutman remembered. "So I said to myself: the best way to prove this works is to take a song everybody knows and do a remake. If they think they can't understand the words through the voice box, they'll know the words because the other versions have already planted those lyrics in the listener's mind."

The single topped the R&B charts for two weeks in November 1981. "I've never experienced any feeling like having a No 1 record. It's the ultimate in acceptance and it was amazing," Troutman said.

The following year, Zapp released the album Zapp II, featuring the maddeningly catchy "Dance Floor (Part 1)", which gave them another No 1 R&B hit. "It was so unorthodox, such a bizarre, insane way of making a record," Troutman said. "I never knew exactly what I was going to do next. The only thing I was sure about was that I wanted to call the song `Dance Floor' because I was imagining a guy at the discotheque who's a bit bashful."

In 1983 the album Zapp III and the single "I Can Make You Dance" confirmed Zapp's status as potential rivals to the Gap Band, Kool and the Gang and the Dazz Band. Roger Troutman kept busy producing the group Human Body, the former Zapp singer Bobby Glover and the vocalist Shirley Murdock, who joined Zapp on the album The New Zapp IV U. The group's hard-edged sound became even more sophisticated as the synthesiser-heavy single "Computer Love" pointed soul towards the future while "It Doesn't Really Matter" looked back to their funk roots.

"It's the black experience, it's the blues of the Eighties," Troutman said at the time about Zapp's distinctive brand of funk. "It has the same purpose with black people as blues had for black people when B.B. King started out, or Jimmy Reed."

Following the Top Ten success of "Computer Love", Troutman reverted to his solo persona for "I Want To Be Your Man", a 1987 ballad inspired by relationships. This time, Troutman used a slightly different approach. "It was a mixture of my human voice and the voice box. I had never done that before," he explained. "I have a keen understanding of harmony and music and I have a very good understanding of layering. It would always take a long time to record because, with the voice box, I could only play one note at a time."

In fact, unsure of the result, the musician wanted "I Want To Be Your Man" to remain an album track. The Warners president Lenny Waronker changed Troutman's mind. Troutman related that "He called and said, `This song is so great . . . We want you to leave Warner Brothers and put you over on Reprise.' Lenny wanted to launch the record in a big way. I have to say it was a great success. It was No 1 black and No 3 pop." This crossover success meant Troutman could even sing the song at a rodeo in Texas and do a six-night run of shows at Disneyland.

But after Zapp V, the group lost momentum and toured only sporadically. A compilation entitled Zapp & Roger: all the greatest hits, issued in 1993, featured several remixes and a rather ghastly "mega-medley". In 1996, Troutman appeared with the dance act One Tribe on "High as a Kite (FFRR)" and rappers The Click on "Scandalous (Jive)". He issued the odd solo album (The Saga Continues) and ran Troutman Enterprises, and was working in his Dayton studio when he was killed.

Roger Troutman, singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and producer: born Hamilton, Ohio 1941; died Dayton, Ohio 25 April 1999.