Obituary: Ron Beitle / Played that funky music for Wild Cherry

Aug. 30, 1954 – Dec. 9, 2017

Scott Mervis – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – December 13, 2017

Ron Beitle was the white boy told to “Play That Funky Music.”

It happened in a North Side club in 1975, and those words have become part of the pop-music lexicon.

Mr. Beitle, who died Saturday at age 63 from complications of bladder cancer, was the drummer for the Ohio/Pittsburgh band Wild Cherry that went to the top of the charts with the disco-funk hit in 1976.

The O’Hara-based musician was part of the second version of the group, the one that made it big. Rob Parissi, the founder and frontman from Mingo Junction, Ohio, formed Wild Cherry in 1970 and after a few unsuccessful singles left the music scene in 1974 to manage a Bonanza steakhouse.

Pittsburgh guitarist Bryan Bassett, now a member of Foghat living in Florida, answered an ad to buy his equipment and mentioned “if you ever want to put the band back together …”

Mr. Parissi decided to take him up on that offer and they formed a new version of Wild Cherry in 1975 with Mr. Beitle on drums, at the request of Mr. Bassett.

“We used to call him ‘the golden boy,’ ” the guitarist said. “He had this beautiful curly blond hair and was buff like a football player, but a down-to-earth and honest person. Very humble.”

It might seem surprising now but Wild Cherry was a rock band, not a disco act.

“We were playing [Robin] Trower and Zeppelin and we were a really good band, an A-list band,” Mr. Bassett said. “We were playing the 2001 club on the North Side. At the time, it was a futuristic name. Music was getting funkier with K.C. and the Sunshine Band and David Bowie doing ‘Young Americans.’ When we would play clubs like 2001, the dance floor would just clear out.”

One night, while playing to a largely black crowd there, “Ronnie comes backstage and says, ‘You won’t believe what this guy just said to me.’ ”

By most accounts it was “Are you going to play some funky music, white boys?”

When Mr. Parissi heard that, he grabbed a pen and server pad and wrote the song within minutes. They recorded “Play That Funky Music” in Cleveland for Sweet City Records and with distribution by Epic/CBS, the infectious dance track went to No. 1 on the charts within six months.

Managed by Cleveland’s Belkin Productions, Wild Cherry, named for a cough-drop flavor, spent the next few years touring with the likes of the Commodores; Average White Band; Earth, Wind & Fire; and Santana.

Although they had a few more singles low on the charts, Wild Cherry ended up a one-hit wonder. But it’s a hit that has endured, and in 2008 it was listed at No. 73 on Billboard magazine’s “All-Time Top 100 Songs.”

Mr. Beitle stayed with Wild Cherry until the band split up in 1979 and then joined Mr. Bassett in Tumbling Dice, shortened to T.Dice after they received a cease and desist letter from the Rolling Stones.

In the early ’00s, Mr. Beitle, who worked a day job as a furniture installer for CIS Office Installers, became a member of the Pittsburgh-based R&B group the Nied’s Hotel Band. Two years ago, the Wild Cherry crew got back together for a 40th anniversary reunion for charity in Mingo Junction, Ohio.

John Vento, who fronts the Nied’s Hotel Band and owns CIS, said, “You know how Pittsburgh is. So many musicians won’t even talk to each other. This was a guy everyone loved — and loved to play with. No ego. None at all.”

Mr. Bietle is survived by his wife Karyn; sons Benjamin and Nicholas; brothers Robert and David Beitle and sister Bernadette Spinella. Friends will be received Wednesday and Thursday from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. at Worrell Funeral Home, 820 Main St., Sharpsburg. A Mass of Christian burial will be held Friday at 10 a.m. at St. Joseph Church in O’Hara. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions are requested for the American Cancer Society, 320 Bilmar Dr., Pittsburgh, PA 15205.

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