YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Billy Beck and the Ohio Players are celebrating 50 years of making music.

A celebration is planned in Warren on Tuesday, hosted by the Warren Heritage Center. The program begins at 6 p.m. at the Kinsman House. The event is free.

Known for its soul and funk hits, Beck was the keyboard player for the Ohio Players and co-wrote many of the band’s hits. He released his first gospel album in 2021.

“The city of Warren is honoring me for my contributions to music and the music field. Being a Black man, first of all, so we can inspire younger ones coming up” Beck said.

There were seven original members of the Ohio Players who signed the first Mercury Records deal. Now, there are three left with one living in Australia.

Beck was in a local band when the Ohio Players came to town and reached out to him when their keyboard player quit.

Beck was raised by a single mother on the South Side of Youngstown. His mother and family were connected to the church.

“At the time, I was playing for New Hope Baptist Church. The youngest minister of music in the city at the age of 18,” Beck said.

Nowadays, there seem to be fewer minority pianists and organists in the churches.

“These days, it seems to be a shortage. It really does. Back then when we were coming up in church, you know, people with talent, young people with talent were nurtured. You know what I’m saying? They were encouraged and they were nurtured, and there’s not a lot of that going on. Young people don’t like to go to church or they’re bored with church or whatever,” Beck said.

Beck remembers going to Sunday school and being at church all day.

“I was lucky and blessed… I was playing behind somebody accompanying someone. My music teacher happened to be in the congregation and heard me play and came up and introduced himself. My mom was there and everything, and he happened to be Professor George Bretz… from Youngstown State University, Dana School of Music. He took me on as his protege and taught me on a college level,” Beck said.

Beck went on to join the Ohio Players and garnered two Grammy awards.

“We always had themes in our music and all of our themes went by the album title,” Beck said.

According to Beck, the band was notorious for having Black female models on their album covers.

“Sometimes provocative. But, you know, that’s to help sell records… But also, we wanted to emphasize the point about celebrating the beauty of Black women,” Beck said. “Because all of us had Black mothers — strong, Black mothers and, you know, they were very, very influential in our lives.”

Beck said the message they tried to portray was about the beauty of a woman.

“We try to talk about relationships and talk about love. You know, a lot of things that a lot of artists nowadays don’t talk about,” Beck said.

Beck believes music is a healer.

“It should be used as a healer. That’s something that we still believe in, and a lot of old school groups, people. So a lot of people are returning back to old school and even some young rap artists are returning to the formula for old school,” Beck said.

He said they respectfully told stories about other people.

“I’m very happy and proud and honored. I feel very blessed to still be sitting here and still be doing the music that I’m doing, both in church and popular music, because it’s me giving back what was given to me — as far as my talent, my gift, and as far as music and lyrics and what happened,” Beck said.

This March, the band will go back on tour.

WKBN Community Affairs Director Dee Crawford is highlighting local Black leaders throughout Black History Month who have made a difference in the Valley.