The many facets of Roger Troutman, Zapp’s father figure of talk box funk

By on March 8, 2016

On April 25, 1999, when funk superstar Roger Troutman, the leader of the band Zapp, was shot and killed in the parking lot behind Roger Tee Enterprises, the Troutman family’s recording studio in Dayton, Ohio, the music world lost a visionary recording artist whose music had already had a huge influence on a lot of the funk and rap artists who followed his lead, particularly with the West Coast hip hop scene. He was just 47 years old.

Troutman — who frequently used a custom-made “talk box,” the Electro Harmonix “Golden Throat,” which retailed around $100 — can be seen here showing how the device could be used to create different vocal effects to Donnie Simpson, who was at the time the host of “Video Soul” TV show, which ran for more than fifteen years after it was essentially created by the Black Entertainment Network because MTV wasn’t playing a lot of black music.

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Roger had formed the slap-funk band Zapp with his brothers — besides Larry and Roger, there was also Lester and Terry — and together they had played their own part in putting Dayton, Ohio, on the funk map, as it was by the mid-80s the city that had hosted a number of the country’s best funk bands, including Bootsy’s Rubber Band, the Ohio Players, Slave, Aurra, Heatwave, Sun, Dayton, Faze O and Lakeside, who first dubbed it “The Land of Funk” in its swashbuckling 1980 hit “Fantastic Voyage.”

Roger Troutman was born on November 29, 1951, and grew up with brothers and sisters (ten Troutman kids in total) in a small, two bedroom house in Hamilton, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton. He proved quickly to be a child prodigy, showing signs of his incredible creative talents as early as age three.

Apparently, so the story goes, he was with his parents one day when they were shopping in Rink’s Bargain City, a discount department store which was located in a building that had once housed a skating rink, where they come across a row of guitars on display. Soon thereafter little Roger was asking his parents to buy him what he called a “ladeda” (say it like la-di-da). His father, thinking it was something his son had probably made up, told his little son Roger, “If you tell me what a ladeda is, I’ll buy it for you.”

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Roger very quickly showed incredible talent on that guitar, but his mother — who says he was almost instantly interested in singing and performing — would make him wait until he was six years old before she would let him perform onstage; his father, however, would bring Roger with him to local music clubs, where he’d place bets with people there that his son could play better than anyone in the club that night, and he usually won those bets.

His brothers, picking up on the popularity of “Lil” Roger, also started playing instruments — Lester on drums, Terry on keyboards and bass — and soon they were rehearsing in a garage-type building built behind the family home. Roger and Lester joined their first local band, called the Crusaders, when Roger was just eleven years old.

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They would break up sometime in the early sixties, but Roger and Lester kept playing. They were influenced by blues and R&B artists — B.B. King, Jimmy Reed, Chuck Jackson, and Junior Walker, in addition to such then-current chart-toppers as the Temptations, Wilson Pickett, and the Beatles — and before the end of the decade, Roger would add Hammond organ to his resumé of instruments.

They also embraced all kinds of R&B and dance music, of course, and local musician Bootsy Collins remembers first meeting Roger at the Soul Lounge in Cincinnati when Roger was just fourteen. It was Bootsy and his brother Phelps “Catfish” Collins who’d later give Roger his first big break one night at the Never on Sundays Club in Cincinnati, and Roger quickly became his Bootsy’s protégé, learning a lot from the man.

Around the same time, under the name “Lil” Roger And His Fabulous Vels, the family band played in and around the local area, and recorded their first single “Nite Time” in 1966, when Roger was fifteen.

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Larry Troutman eventually joined his younger brothers (on congas and other percussion instruments), necessitating a name change to Roger and the Human Body, which also included youngest brother Terry and a keyboard player from Cincinnati, Ohio, named Gregory Jackson. Larry was the oldest, and acted as the group’s manager and he became their leader of the group in terms of all major decisions and connections. Roger and the Human Body was essentially Larry’s band, but it was clear to everyone that Roger was the star, and all the music began with him. He was not only the lead vocalist, but also band’s producer, chief songwriter, arranger, and composer.

This is the band who first recorded a single called “Freedom,” sometime around 1976, the first to use a talk box, around the same time that Peter Frampton released his talk-box monster double LP Frampton Comes Alive — but Frampton had first heard the talk box being used by Pete Drake, a Nashville pedal steel player, who used it in 1963 on Roger Miller’s “Lock, Stock, and Teardrops” and then solo for “I’m Just a Guitar (Everybody Picks on Me),” which had been released the following year (trivia: Frampton apparently also marinated his talk box tube in Rémy Martin cognac).

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Roger and the Human Body continued playing shows all around the northern and eastern part of the U.S. and up into Canada. Their repertoire included Troutman-penned originals — which showed the influence of artists like Jimi Hendrix, the Isley Brothers, Stevie Wonder, and Funkadelic — but also covers too, which ran the gamut in terms of styles and genres, everything from Rufus and Chaka Khan to Led Zeppelin songs (apparently the Troutman boys were big rock fans and Terry in particular studied the way John Bonham played the drums and tried to copy his thundering style).

At some point along the way, the band had also changed their name, and were now calling themselves Zapp, which was Terry’s childhood nickname (he even began using it as his own first name at some point), with Bobby Glover joining the band.

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In 1979, George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic fame took Roger under his wing, and signed the group to his Uncle Jam Records, a subsidiary of Columbia Records. and soon they began working on Zapp’s first record at United Sound in Detroit album, with co-producing being handled by Roger and P-Funk’s Bootsy Collins.

Warner Bros. Records stepped in at some point, after hearing the demo tape for a song Zapp had done at United, and they offered Roger a considerable sum of money, and bought the album from Columbia, signing the band and leaving a distressed Clinton with no Zapp album for his shaky boutique label, which ultimately folded.

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Warner Bros. released the self-titled debut album in the late summer of 1980, propelled by the success the first track on Side One, a nearly ten-minute long Roger Troutman-composed robotic-sounding party anthem calledMore Bounce To The Ounce,” which proved to be a huge hit that would put Roger Troutman into the national spotlight, climbing to #2 on Billboard’s Hot Soul Singles chart that fall. The album would also reach the Top 20 of Billboard’s album charts, on it’s way to being proclaimed a funk masterpiece.

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The eponymous album cover artwork itself seemed like it was created with the West Coast in mind, showing a crayon-pastel rendering of car keys, ocean, a sunset, and a cassette tape.

Meanwhile, Roger Troutman would join up with Clinton’s Funkadelic band and appeared with them during a show-stopping performance at the Funk Awards in December 1979, where Clinton introduced Roger Troutman as the most talented musician he’d ever seen in his life. He appeared with P-Funk during two sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden around that same time, thrilling audiences with his use of the talk box and outlandish stage antics, including standing on his head in nothing but a G-string, or goofing around with the talk box in an X-rated fashion.

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Roger also appears on Funkadelic’s twelfth and last studio album, The Electric Spanking of War Babies, released in 1981 on Warner Bros. Records, and that same year, he would part ways with Clinton and released his showcase-y first solo album, The Many Facets of Roger, released under the name Roger, which had a cover version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine (Part 1)” that rocketed to #1 on the R&B charts.

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In 1982, the family band released Zapp II (each subsequent album became identified by the number following with the group’s name, which might have been a tribute to Led Zeppelin’s roman numeral numbering scheme), which climbed to #2 on the Billboard R&B chart, and also reached #25 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, propelled by a hit single, “Dancefloor,” which shot to #1 on the R&B singles chart.

During interviews in the 1980s, Roger would talk about how he’d begun using the talk box in concert in order to disguise his voice while singing hits that had originally been performed by female artists, like Chaka Khan (this was years before Shirley Murdock joined Zapp as a vocalist and songwriter).

He’d bring it with him to interviews he did at TV and radio stations, where he’d give funny names for the apparatus, calling it the “Ghetto Robot” or the “Electric Country Preacher,” while Bootsy Collins would chime in with suggestions of his own, like the “Magic Babbler,” “Snake Charmer,” and “Cosmic Communicator.”

Sometimes the excessive use of the talk box — which as you see requires you to put a plastic tube in your mouth — would create health issues due to the saliva in the tube, and Roger would get sick many times with weird stomach viruses, and streptococcal-related problems. He would soon have to hire an attendant to not only guard the talk box backstage, but also keep in clean and have supplies of Listerine available at the ready. A few times, apparently, Roger even ended up in the emergency room after becoming quite ill from re-using the plastic tube too often.

Zapp’s first three albums for Warner Brothers (Zapp, 1982’s Zapp II, 1983’s Zapp III) all went gold, each of them hitting the Top Ten with R&B hits such as “Doo Wa Ditty,” “I Can Make You Dance,” “Heartbreaker,” and ballads like “Computer Love (R&B #8)” and a cover of The Miracles’ “Ooo Baby Baby.” Their biggest hit after “More Bounce” was 1982’s “Dance Floor, Part 1,” which charted at #1 on the R&B chart.

“Computer Love”was issued as the fourth and final single from their fourth studio album The New Zapp IV U. It was written by Shirley Murdock along with band members Roger and Larry Troutman; and was produced by Roger. The song peaked at #8 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1986.

As a solo artist, Roger’s solo albums mixed R&B standards and originals, and would have another #1 R&B chart hit with “I Want to Be Your Man,” with future album titles — 1984’s The Saga Continues, 1987’s Unlimited!, and 1991’s Bridging the Gap — all showing that beyond Zapp (the Troutman brothers would follow up Zapp III with 1984’s The New Zapp IV U, and 1989’s Zapp V) and his busy producer duties, he had a successful solo career of his own to consider promoting.

By the end of the 80’s, Troutman Enterprises now included a construction company, a bus company, a recording studio, a touring operation, a booking agency and a music production company. Roger Troutman, meanwhile, became more and more outrageous onstage, the consummate lead vocalist donning flashy costumes and whipping the audience into a frenzy, wearing a photon-studded suit (an idea he’d copped from the Nudie-designed suit that Robert Redford wore in The Electric Horseman).

The influence of Roger Troutman’s music expanded beyond the world of funk, R&B and dance music, to new wave combos like Scritti Politti, who recorded hits with him.

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In the early 90’s, Roger Troutman was already being seen as a funk father figure, and his music was being used as samples in tracks recorded by MC Hammer, Biggie Smalls, Redman, Kris Kross, Blackstreet, Michael and Janet Jackson, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur, and Snoop Dogg, and Roger himself appeared as a guest vocalist on tracks by H-Town (”A Thin Line Between Love and Hate”), Johnny Gill (”It’s Your Body”), Eazy-E (”Eternal E”) , EPMD (“You Gots to Chill”) and he famously lent his talk box-ed vocals to songs by 2Pac featuring Dr. Dre’s colossal “California Love,” and even appeared in the 1996 Mad Max-styled video for the song, seated in a helicopter flying above the Mojave desert, with the plastic tube from his talk box clearly visible. The video and track renewed interest in Roger Troutman’s then slightly-fading career.

Tragically, as events early that sad day in April 1999 quickly unfolded, it would turn out that not only was Roger’s career cut short by it would turn out that the man who pulled the trigger four times, was none other than Roger’s older brother, manager and bandmate Larry Troutman, who had by then retired from music to serve as his younger brother’s manager.

Just a few blocks away from the parking lot scene, Larry turned his .357 revolver on himself, firing a single bullet into his head as he was driving away, crashing his car into a tree. Larry was 54 years old.

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No one can know for sure what happened between Roger and Larry, but it was clear to those who were close to both brothers and the family funk business that Roger had wanted to break off from his brother’s management and Troutman Enterprises, which was in dire financial trouble at the time, in order to focus on his solo recording career, which had taken off independently from Zapp.

The funeral took place six days later at the Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio — located halfway between the Troutman brothers’ childhood hometown of Hamilton, and their business and residential home in Dayton — with thousands in attendance, including funk legends like the Gap Band, Bootsy, and the Ohio Players. Hundreds more watched the funeral on a closed-circuit feed outside the main sanctuary.

Bootsy Collins paid his respects to the musicians he’d helped break more than two decades earlier, as did members of fellow funk elite the Gap Band, the Ohio Players, and Lakeside. Blues singer Gerald Levert sent flowers, as did Warner Bros. Records.

The funeral service concluded with Larry’s son, Rufus Troutman III, singing “Amazing Grace” on the talk box.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Blu

    Amazing tribute article!!! L.O.V.E Roger… REST IN PARADISE!!!