R&b singer, songwriter
As the lead singer of the legendary O'Jays, the vocal group best remembered for their "Philly soul" sound, Eddie Levert lent his voice to such chart-topping tunes as "Back Stabbers," "Love Train," and "For the Love of Money." Throughout the 1970s Levert and the O'Jays racked up more than thirty hit singles, becoming a crossover success in both pop and R&B. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, the O'Jays have stood the test of time, continuing to record and perform live. For Levert, musical collaboration has been a family affair as well—with son Gerald Levert he recorded two popular albums and wrote a book before Gerald's untimely death in 2006.
Edward Levert was born on June 16, 1942, in Bessemer, Alabama. When he was eight years old, his family relocated to Canton, Ohio, where he spent his youth. He began singing at an early age, first teaming up with an elementary school friend, Walter Williams, to perform as a gospel duo on local radio. At McKinley High School in Canton, Levert and Williams, together with pals William Powell, Bill Isles, and Bobby Massey, were inspired to form their own vocal group after attending a show by Frankie Lyman and the Teenagers.
Launched in 1958, the quintet initially called themselves the Triumphs. The group began performing locally, attracting enthusiastic crowds. Before long, Cincinnati, Ohio, producer Syd Nathan had signed them to his King label; now calling themselves the Mascots, the group released their first single, "Miracles," in 1961. The song enjoyed moderate success in the Cleveland, Ohio, area.
Levert and his group had an early fan—and mentor—in Eddie O'Jay, a popular Cleveland disc jockey who featured them at sock hops that he hosted. O'Jay offered them career advice, notably suggesting a name change, and considered becoming their manager for a time. As an homage to the DJ, the group renamed themselves the O'Jays. They soon signed with Imperial Records, working with producer H. B. Barnum. Their first chartmaking song, "Lonely Drifter," was released in 1963. More would follow, including the 1967 hit "I'll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today)," which landed Levert and the O'Jays their first top-ten single on the R&B charts.
The group's big break would come in 1968. Performing at the Apollo Theater in New York City, they met Philadelphia-based producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who were then representing the Neptune label, distributed by Chess Records in Chicago. The O'Jays' first single for the producers, "One Night Affair," rose to number fifteen on the R&B charts in the summer of 1969. A few years later, when Gamble and Huff established their own label, Philadelphia International, the O'Jays became their flagship act. The group, now pared down to a trio—Levert, Williams, and Powell—was considered a pioneer of Philly soul (also called the Philadelphia Sound or Sweet Philly), a style of soul music marked by funk influences, strong strings and horns, and gospel harmonies.
The O'Jays' inaugural album with Philadelphia International, Back Stabbers (1972), epitomized Philly soul. The record's title track, featuring Levert's soulful lead vocals, became the band's first crossover hit, breaking the top five on the pop music chart and propelling them to stardom. The follow-up single, "Love Train," topped both the pop and R&B charts. The O'Jays enjoyed tremendous success over the course of the 1970s, releasing the hit albums Ship Ahoy (1973), Survival (1974), Family Reunion (1975), Message in the Music (1976), and So Full of Love (1978). During the decade they had hit after hit, including "Time to Get Down," "Put Your Hands Together," "For the Love of Money," "I Love Music," and "Livin' for the Weekend."
Founding member Powell left the group in 1975 and died of cancer two years later. Levert and Williams continued to record, replacing Powell with Sammy Strain, previously of Little Anthony and the Imperials, but the group produced fewer hits. As the times changed, so did Americans' taste in music. The 1979 album Identify Yourself marked the beginning of the O'Jays' decline in popularity as disco and funk music were replaced by the New Wave electronica of the 1980s. The group left Philadelphia International in 1987. They recorded Let Me Touch You, featuring the song "Lovin' You," for EMI Records that year, attempting to update their classic soul sound with a more contemporary R&B flair.
During the 1980s two of Levert's sons, Gerald and Sean, continued their father's musical tradition by forming the urban trio LeVert (with Marc Gordon) and issuing solo albums. Eddie Levert collaborated with son Gerald on the 1995 recording Father and Son, featuring the song "Wind beneath My Wings." In 2007 the pair's second album, Something to Talk About, came out alongside their book, I Got Your Back: A Father and Son Keep It Real about Love, Fatherhood, Family, and Friendship. Sadly, however, just before the release of both of these works, in November of 2006 Gerald died at age forty of an accidental combination of prescription and over-the-counter medications, just as work on the album and book was being completed. Levert lost a second son in March of 2008, when Sean died while in a Cleveland jail after pleading guilty to being behind in child support payments.
The book I Got Your Back takes its title from a song that Gerald wrote for the record Father and Son. In it, Eddie and Gerald reflect on their father-son relationship and the importance of family relationships. In a 2007 interview with Jet magazine, Eddie Levert recalled that his fondest memories of his son were of the music they made together: "The proudest moments in my career were onstage with that kid. The O'Jays is what I do, that's my job. But some of my greatest and proudest moments were when I was with him onstage…. With me and him, we'd look at each other and we knew what to do, that's how close we were."
Levert and the O'Jays have continued to record and perform for enthusiastic audiences, releasing For the Love in 2001 and Imagination in 2004. The group received the Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation in 1998, and they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. Levert made a big-screen appearance in the film The Fighting Temptations (starring Cuba Gooding Jr.) in 2003, and in 2006 the O'Jays performed live at the ESPY Awards, hosted by Lance Armstrong. PBS television recorded a live performance by the O'Jays on June 8, 2008, at Atlantic City's Borgota Hotel to commemorate the group's fiftieth anniversary in the music industry.
At a Glance …
Born Edward Levert on June 16, 1942, in Bessemer, AL; married Martha Byrd, 1966 (divorced); married Raquel Capelton, 2005; children: Eddie Jr., Gerald (died 2006), Sean (died 2008), Kandice, three other children.
Career: The O'Jays, lead vocalist, 1958—.
Awards: American Music Award, 1991; Pioneer Award, Rhythm & Blues Foundation, 1998; Vocal Group Hall of Fame, 2004; Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2005.
Addresses: Agent—Clark and Associates, 2020 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20006-1811.
Albums with O'Jays
Back Stabbers, Philadelphia International, 1972.
Ship Ahoy, Philadelphia International, 1973.
Survival, Philadelphia International, 1974.
Family Reunion, Philadelphia International, 1975.
Message in the Music, Philadelphia International, 1976.
So Full of Love, Philadelphia International, 1978.
Identify Yourself, Philadelphia International, 1979.
My Favorite Person, Philadelphia International, 1982.
Love Fever, Philadelphia International, 1984.
Let Me Touch You, EMI, 1987.
Serious, EMI, 1989.
Emotionally Yours, EMI, 1991.
Heartbreaker, EMI, 1993.
Love You to Tears, Volcano, 1997.
For the Love, MCA, 2001.
Imagination, Sanctuary, 2004.
Albums with Gerald Levert
Father and Son, EastWest America, 1995.
Something to Talk About, Atlantic, 2007.
(With Gerald Levert and Lyah Beth Leflore) I Got Your Back: A Father and Son Keep It Real about Love, Fatherhood, Family, and Friendship, Broadway Books, 2007.
Jackson, John A., A House on Fire: The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia Soul, Oxford University Press, 2004.
Jet, July 24, 2006, p. 54; June 18, 2007.
"The O'Jays," Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, http://www.rockhall.com/inductee/the-ojays (accessed July 11, 2008).
The O'Jays Home Page, http://theojayshomepage.com/index_1.html (accessed July 11, 2008).
—Deborah A. Ring
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