The O'Jays - Biography



           As far as Philly soul is concerned, the only group to really give The Spinners a run for their money was an Ohio-based act known as The O’Jays. One of the most popular acts of the 1970s, The O’Jays—led by Eddie Levert’s gritty, soulfully scratchy baritone—scored one huge hit after another in their ’70s heyday. The brains and lyrics behind the band were producers/songwriters Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff—Gamble and Huff, as they were known—the tandem that produced over 170 gold and platinum albums in their career. After making a couple of now-classic albums and rising to super-stardom in the early ’70s, The O’Jays have undergone many transformations. Notably, the line-up has dwindled from five members to three over the years, and they’ve carried on after the untimely death of integral member, William Powell. Although they have never matched the success of essential albums like Back Stabbers or Ship Ahoy, The O’Jays have managed to sustain a place for themselves on the R&B charts for most of their career.


The original five members of The O’Jays were Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, William Powell, Bill Isles, and Bobby Massey, all classmates at McKinley Sr. High School in Canton, Ohio. In 1958, the friends took in a performance by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Inspired by the notion that the five of them could achieve similar possibilities, they formed a singing group, calling themselves The Triumphs. One year later, they rechristened themselves The Mascots, and by 1961, after gaining a little steam, they had a deal with Cincinnati-based imprint, King Records. Their label debut was the single, “Miracles,” which became a modest regional hit in Ohio.


The group met radio DJ Eddie O’Jay as a result, and this encounter would prove significant. O’Jay not only played their music on his radio program, he managed the five singers and gave them advice on strengthening their careers. When O’Jay took the group to Detroit the quintet encountered a group also calling themselves The Mascots, thus a name change was recommended. The O’Jays were born, a name selected in tribute of their mentor. Soon thereafter The O’Jays signed to Imperial Records and began recording with producer H.B. Barnum, who polished up one single—“Lonely Drifter”—enough to land on the charts. Several more singles followed.


Isles quit the group in 1965, and as a quartet they released a debut LP that same year, Comin’ Through (1965, Imperial). The album was more a promise of things to come than it was a proclamation, with the novelty song “Do The Wiggle” gaining the most attention. The O’Jays first R&B top ten single, however, came in 1967, after they left Imperial in favor of Bell Records. The ballad “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I was Today)” made the first splash at #8, off the album Back on Top (1968, Bell). Even with the hit, The O’Jays were giving serious thought to quitting altogether until they were introduced to Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, who were working as a production team for the Neptune label in 1968. Gamble and Huff took a special interest in the singers, and this new six-man musical team produced several successful singles for Neptune.


The first O’Jays album that came out of the partnership was The O’Jays In Philadelphia (1969, Epic/Legacy). Although the LP didn’t produce any bona-fide hits, it was a telling document of what The O’Jays and the Gamble/Huff team would soon achieve together. However, before they could continue their partnership, a roadblock occurred when Neptune folded in 1971.The O’Jays once again found themselves at a crossroads. Massey exited the group that same year and, just had they did before, the remaining members soldiered on—this time as a trio—without a seeking a replacement.


Deciding to make The O’Jays a priority, Gamble and Huff formed their own record label, Philadelphia International, and signed their signature trio right away. The group’s debut for their new label was the socially conscious and groove-oriented Back Stabbers (1972), and it would prove to be an instant commercial breakthrough—the album would become universally regarded as a classic example of the Philly soul sound at its finest. The title track not only went to #1 on the R&B charts but cracked the Top 5 of the pop charts, as well. The sunnier and more optimistic “Love Train” was an even bigger blockbuster, quickly rising to #1 on both the R&B and pop charts. With the wunderkind team of Gamble and Huff at the helm, grand achievements kept on coming for The O’Jays. Another smash hit was released the following year, Ship Ahoy (1973, Epic/Legacy), which also reached #1 on the R&B album charts.


Ship Ahoy produced one of the group’s biggest hit singles, “For the Love of Money.” The protest track, with the famous bass line intro, reached #3 on the R&B charts and has recently been reintroduced to audiences thanks to Donald Trump’s use of it as the theme song to his show, The Apprentice. The other single off of Ship Ahoy, “Put Your Hands Together,” was equally successful. Gamble and Huff demonstrated their ambition as songwriters with the album’s title track, a nearly 10-minute recounting of the hardships faced by African slaves on their way to America. Clearly on a roll, the partnership between Gamble and Huff and The O’Jays produced yet another well-regarded #1 LP, Survival (1975, Philadelphia International), two years later. With the #1 single “Give the People What They Want,”  and “Let Me Make Love To You” also charting, the band had now cemented themselves as one of the most famous hit-making acts of the ’70s, with a live stage show that lived up to the music.


Later in 1975, the sound of disco was pushing soul music out of the spotlight, and rather than fight the trend The O’Jays changed with the times, putting out an uplifting album that was leagues away from the “Don’t’ Call Me Brother” days. The disco-infused Family Reunion (1975, Philadelphia International) was released, giving The O’Jays two chart-topping albums in the same year. Family Reunion dished up their third Top 5 hit, “I Love Music, Pt. 1.” Things took a sharp, tragic turn for the group towards the end of the year when William Powell, the falsetto singer of the trio, was diagnosed with cancer. He fought the disease long enough to appear on The O’Jays next album, Message in the Music (1976, The Right Stuff), the title track of which was yet another #1 hit for the Cleveland trio. Performing live proved to be an impossibility for Powell, and on May 26, 1977, soon after retiring from the stage, he passed away.


Williams and Levert decided that, this time, they needed a replacement for their fallen member. A consummate showman named Sammy Strain was hired, fresh off a 12-year tenure with Little Anthony & the Imperials. The new lineup began recording, and within a year released of Travelin’ at the Speed of Thought (1977, Philadelphia International), an album that didn’t hold up to its predecessors, producing only one single, “Work On Me.” So Full of Love (1978, The Right Stuff) followed, putting the band back in the #1 spot as both the LP itself and the single “Used Ta Be My Girl” topped the charts. Their final release of the ’70s, Identify Yourself (1979, Philadelphia International), fittingly showed the actual O’Jays stepping up to write a few of their own songs—including “So Nice I Tried it Twice”—and the album was a minor success thanks to the single “Forever Mine.”


Just about every prominent musical group of the ’70s had trouble remaining relevant amidst the changing trends of the emerging ’80s, and The O’Jays were no exception. But while reviews were negative at times and their audience diminished, the group was unflappable in terms of sheer prolific output, releasing an album almost every year of the decade. They began with The Year 2000 (1980, Philadelphia International), My Favorite Person (1982, Philadelphia International), When Will I See You Again (1983, Philadelphia International), and Love and More (1984, Philadelphia International), embracing the production values of the times all the while. After this, the group left Philadelphia International in favor of EMI, maintaining their association with Gamble and Huff all the same on the albums Love Fever (1985, EMI America), and Let Me Touch You (1987, EMI America). For Serious (1989, EMI America), which spawned the hit “Have You Had Your Love Today?” the group incorporated hip-hop elements and took a break from working with Gamble and Huff.


The O’Jays made their ’90s debut with Emotionally Yours (1991, EMI America), which showcased their newest member, Nathaniel Best, who replaced Sammy Strain. This album and 1993’s Heartbreaker (EMI America) were quite successful on the charts. Though the group did keep on playing live for the next few years, they didn’t record another album until Love You To Tears (1997, Volcano), which marked the departure of Best and the debut of new member Eric Grant. The group entered their fifth decade as successful recording artists, signing with MCA Records and returning with For the Love . . .  (2001, MCA) and Imagination (2004, Sanctuary).


After five decades, The O’Jays have remarkably never won a Grammy, but on March 14, 2005, they were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. In 2008, the Cleveland trio that worked as a soundtrack to the 1970s, celebrated their 50th anniversary as recording artists.

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