Rhythm and blues group
The O’Jays have enjoyed over 30 years of popularity as R&B vocalists and are still going strong. Adaptability may be the key to their longevity: not just a 1960s and 1970s novelty act, they continue to incorporate contemporary sounds into their signature crooning style and to make it onto the charts. Doo-wop, soul, disco, funk, and rap influences have all found their way into the O’Jays’ music. At the core of the O’Jays lineup are two of the original members, Eddie Levert and Walter Williams, who have been singing together since the late 1950s. The tradition is being carried on by Levert’s sons Gerald and Sean and their hit-making R&B hip-hop group LeVert.
Several permutations before the O’Jays, Levert and Williams sang together as a gospel duo. Around 1957, McKinley High schoolmates William Powell, Bobby Massey, and Bill Isles joined them to become the Triumphs. Achieving local popularity performing in Canton, Ohio, they changed their name to the Mascots and managed to record a few singles on small labels. Scraping around for work, they did some session singing, including work for Nat King Cole and Phil Spector.
A Cleveland disc jockey, Eddie O’Jay, provided guidance and airplay; in turn, the quintet again renamed themselves, this time after O’Jay. They had tossed around the idea of calling themselves the Almosts because “we almost made it so many times,” Levert told Rolling Stone’s Mikal Gilmore. Things began to take off, however, when they signed with Imperial in 1963 and achieved their first hit, “Lonely Drifter.” This was followed by several other singles that hit the charts and the release of their debut album in 1965, Comin’ Through.
The O’Jays had released one more record, Soul Sounds, in 1967 on another independent label, Minit, when they met songwriters and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. By this time the group was a quartet—Isles had left the O’Jays for family reasons. It was with Gamble and Huff that the O’Jays were destined to achieve stardom, but it didn’t happen right away. After some unsuccessful recordings, Gamble and Huff’s Neptune label folded and the O’Jays were on their own again.
Talented but lacking any formal training, the O’Jays have often found themselves at a disadvantage. Around 1970, after the Neptune sessions, they tried to produce a record themselves without much luck. In an interview with Jay Grossman in Rolling Stone a few years after the experiment, Williams said of the attempt, “It was lousy!”
For the Record…
Original members include Bill Isles (born in 1940; left group, 1965); Eddie Levert (born June 16, 1942; children: Gerald, Sean); Bobby Massey (born early 1940s; left group, 1972); William Powell (born c. 1941; left group, 1975; died May 26, 1977); and Walter Williams (born August 25, 1942). Later members include Nathaniel Best (joined group c. 1992) and Sammy Strain (born December 9, 1941; joined group, 1976; left group c. 1992).
Group began as quintet the Triumphs at McKinley High School, Canton, OH, 1957; became the Mascots c. 1960; renamed the O’Jays, c. 1961; released several singles; released debut album, Comin’ Through, Imperial, 1965; joined forces with producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff; recorded as a quartet on Gamble and Huff’s Neptune label after Isles’s departure in 1967; Massey left group in 1972 and trio reunited with Gamble and Huff on Philadelphia International label; during the 1970s, released 27 Top 100 hits and four Top Five hits; signed with EMI, 1985.
Awards: Grammy Award nominations for “Love Train,” 1973, “For the Love of Money,” 1974, and “Use Ta Be My Girl,” 1978; American Music Award for favorite R&B group or duo, 1990.
Addresses: Agent —Star Direction, Inc., 9255 Sunset Blvd., Suite 610, Los Angeles, CA 90069.
In the same interview, the O’Jays reflected on their limited knowledge of musical forms and on the evolution of R&B groups. Powell pointed out that when they were starting out, all they needed to know how to do was sing. “Back then a group of us would just start off singing walkin’ home from school, y’know, but now they’re taking up the bass or the guitar or something, which is better,” Powell remarked, adding, “I’ve been thinkin’ about our bass player givin’ me some lessons.”
The O’Jays didn’t have long to wait, however, before they were back on track. When they did hit, it was as a trio; Bobby Massey stepped down in 1972 to form his own production company. That same year Gamble and Huff re-emerged with their new record company, the soon-to-be-legendary Philadelphia International, and the O’Jays had a smash with the million-seller “Back Stabbers,” which went to the top of the R&B charts and made it to the Number Three spot on the pop charts. The album of the same name was one of the first two albums released on Philadelphia International, and the first of over a dozen that the O’Jays would make for the label.
For the next seven years the O’Jays had a gold or platinum record every year and garnered three Grammy nominations for best R&B vocal group. In 1974 and 1975, respectively, Live in London and Survival went gold, and 1975’s Family Reunion went platinum. “Love Train” was Number One on both the pop and R&B charts in 1973; other Number One R&B hits from that period include “Give the People What They Want,” “I Love Music,” “Use Ta Be My Girl,” and “Lovin’ You.”
Despite the steady stream of hit records, the O’Jays suffered some setbacks. In 1975 William Powell had to leave the group due to illness; he died of cancer two years later. He was replaced by Sammy Strain in 1976. Having been with Little Anthony and the Imperials for some time, Strain had no trouble picking up the O’Jays’ music and choreography; he fit right in and stayed in until 1992, when he returned to his former group. The O’Jays continued to rack up hits throughout the decade, including the gold albums Message in the Music in 1976 and Travelin’ at the Speed of Thought in 1977 and two platinum records in the next two years, So Full of Love and Identify Yourself. Yet the O’Jays were conscious of being received strictly as a black group and thus garnering neither the attention nor sales a crossover act might.
Powell complained to Tom Vickers in a 1976 group interview with Rolling Stone, “Why can’t I get paid as much as the Rolling Stones?” Levert provided the answer to Powell’s rhetorical question: “You can’t go out there and try and be a white person.” Williams added, “I know we’re not a strong white appeal act the way, say, Richie Havens is. We toured with him and we died.” Crossing over was, in fact, fairly difficult at the time. In the same article Quentin Perry, a black promoter, named the O’Jays “one of the top three black acts in terms of drawing power” but said that “no act is drawing a crossover audience.” He noted that it was a two-way street: “How many blacks go to see Elton John or the Rolling Stones?”
Even within the black community that eagerly, and constantly, bought their records, the O’Jays remained fairly anonymous; few fans could name individual members. The only names that appeared on the album covers were Gamble and Huff’s. It is difficult to assess how much of the O’Jays’ success can be attributed to the group members and how much to their production team. The O’Jays themselves hadn’t written any of their own songs since their early, pre-Gamble and Huff days and did not have any control over production. Speaking to Vickers, Levert insisted the O’Jays brought a key ingredient to the collaboration: “I don’t care how good the arrangement or the song is … if you don’t have talent singing it, it won’t happen.” But Powell maintained, “One thing I hate is the fact that the people don’t really respond to us but to our records.”
By the late 1970s the O’Jays appeared to be asserting more control over their material. Not always comfortable with the social and religious message-making of Gamble and Huff’s songs, they pushed for more upbeat tunes. “There was a time for all that social commentary stuff, but that time’s played out now.… We felt like it was time to make happier music,” Levert explained to Gilmore in 1978. Keeping abreast of changing musical tastes, the O’Jays released records during this period that reflected a shift from soul to disco. The era of the Philadelphia sound was waning by then and the next few years were relatively fallow as the O’Jays continued to turn out records and draw crowds to their live shows but were not able to score any big hits.
Yet the group stayed in touch with current trends, and their perseverance paid off in 1985 with Love Fever, their first record for EMI, which made it on to both the black and pop charts. While retaining the stylistic vocal strengths that made them famous, Love Fever was a truly contemporary record, incorporating synthesized rap and funk sounds. In 1987 the O’Jays scored another hit with Let Me Touch You; the single “Lovin’ You” took the place of a Michael Jackson song at the top of the R&B charts.
After a little time off, the O’Jays were back in 1990 with a new orientation and a new album, Serious. Levert explained to Billboard how they made the album and how they named it: “It was a serious time in our career because it was the first time we were away from Gamble & Huff, the first time that Walter Williams and myself had a chance to do production and some of the writing, so it was a serious venture.” It was a successful venture, too; the single “Have You Had Your Love Today?,” with guest voice rapper Jaz, made first place on the R&B charts.
The O’Jays’ 1991 release, Emotionally Yours, garnered more hits, critical approval, and their first American Music Award. The album features two versions of the title track, which was written by Bob Dylan—one a straightforward R&B version and the other in the gospel tradition. Another song, “Lies,” features a rap by Gerald Levert, who also did some of the production on Serious. EMI aggressively promoted Emotionally Yours, and the O’Jays themselves demonstrated they were eager to get the recognition that they still felt had been lacking, even after all the hits: “It fueled us to the point of saying we’re going to go in here and produce one of the greatest albums we’ve ever done to show people that we are real and that they shouldn’t downplay us,” Williams told Billboard.
The O’Jays have certainly proven that they are not to be underestimated. They have managed to evolve for over three decades, maintaining a keen sense of what is working in popular music at any given moment. While the O’Jays’ success helped propel LeVert—the R&B group that Eddie Levert’s sons formed in the mid-1980s—into the stagelight, it seems to be a mutually beneficial relationship, one which has helped the O’Jays keep current.
The O’Jays experienced one more personnel change in 1992 when Strain left to return to his original group and was replaced by Nathaniel Best. In 1993 the new line-up released Heartbreaker, another album that demonstrates the O’Jays’ versatility and features gospel, pop, and funk tunes as well as soulful ballads. In press material accompanying the record, Eddie Levert shared the secret of the O’Jays’ success: “Good lyrics and good melodies are always the key. It’s only the drum and bass sounds that really change with each decade. We’re keeping our natural vocal sound—just adapting to those musical changes. That way, we stay in the game.”
Comin’ Through, Imperial, 1965.
Soul Sounds, Minit, 1967.
O’Jays, Bell, 1967.
Full of Soul, 1968.
Back on Top, 1968.
Back Stabbers, Philadelphia International, 1972.
The O’Jays in Philadelphia, Philadelphia International, 1973.
Ship Ahoy, Philadelphia International, 1973.
Live in London, Philadelphia International, 1974.
Survival, Philadelphia International, 1975, reissued, 1987.
Family Reunion, Philadelphia International, 1975.
Message in the Music, Philadelphia International, 1976, reissued, 1993.
Travelin’ at the Speed of Thought, Philadelphia International, 1977.
So Full of Love, Philadelphia International, 1976, reissued, 1993.
Identify Yourself, Philadelphia International, 1979.
Year 2000, Philadelphia International, 1980.
My Favorite Person, Philadelphia International, 1982.
When Will I See You Again, Philadelphia International, 1983.
Love and More, Philadelphia International, 1984.
Love Fever, EMI, 1985.
Close Company, EMI, 1985.
Let Me Touch You, EMI, 1987.
Serious, EMI, 1990.
Emotionally Yours, EMI, 1991.
Home for Christmas, EMI, 1991.
Heartbreaker, EMI, 1993.
Billboard, March 20, 1976; July 6, 1985; August 26, 1989; March 23, 1991.
Ebony, February 1993.
Essence, September 1992.
Jazz and Blues, December 1972.
Jet, November 16, 1987; August 21, 1989.
Melody Maker, January 12, 1974; February 27, 1988.
Rolling Stone, August 1, 1974; January 15, 1976; September 21, 1978; August 22, 1991.
Soul, July 22, 1974.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, July 17, 1993.
Village Voice, February 18, 1980.
Washington Post, September 10, 1993.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from EMI Records press materials, 1994.
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