By any measurement, the O'Jays must be considered one of the most important Soul Music groups of the past 40 years. Originally a regionally popular act in Cleveland (and in fact named after local deejay Eddie O'Jay), the group was together for a decade before getting a major break by teaming with young songwriter/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The quintet had a number of minor hits together on Chess Records in the late 60s and early 70s, and frustration with their lack of real success pared the group down to the trio of Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and William Powell by 1972. And it was that lineup that recorded the groups first album on Gamble & Huff's Philadelphia International Records, Backstabbers. Backstabbers was a triumph, highlighted by the McFadden & Whitehead-penned title track. The haunting song with the great intro (later sampled by Angie Stone on "I Wish I Didn't Miss You") became a monster hit, and was followed by the even bigger "Love Train." It also began a string of critically acclaimed and commercially popular albums.
During the period of Philadelphia International's 70s dominance of the airwaves, it was clear that the O'Jays were the foundation of the house. The contrast of the gruff, electrifying voice of Eddie Levert and the mellifluous tones of Walter Williams gave the group the ability to masterfully handle the funkiest cuts Gamble & Huff could throw at them and yet also handle ballads beautifully. They generally received the best songs and the most creative Gamble & Huff arrangements, with far more hits than misses. Songs like "For The Love of Money," "Livin' For the Weekend," and the classic "Use Ta Be My Girl" all appeared to be a year or two ahead of what everyone else was doing, and made each new O'Jays release an event. And, as the vehicle for G&H's social statements, the group released some of the most intelligent, relevant album cuts of the decade. Their mid-70s albums, especially Ship Ahoy, are worth seeking out.
With popularity came the dangers of stardom: women and drugs. The group succumbed to both vices, but Williams and Levert were able to bring themselves back and continue developing as performers. Powell had more difficulty, becoming addicted to drugs before tragically being felled by cancer. He died in 1977. Former Little Anthony & the Imperals singer Sammy Strain became the new member of the trio, and stayed with the group for a decade and a half.
As the 70s ended, the Gamble & Huff sound became more familiar -- even formulaic -- but the O'Jays' albums continued to include fine material and always wonderful vocal performances. Generally forgotten early 80s releases such as When Will I See You Again and Love and More featured some of the group's best ballads, but found a more limited audience acceptance. With their crossover days were behind them, the O'Jays began focusing on writing more of their own material and continued to adjust to changes in the sound of popular black music, ultimately leaving the Gamble & Huff fold. They continued to score sporadic hits, such as the rap-introed "Have You Had Your Love Today" and the gospel-like cover of Bob Dylan's "Emotionally Yours." During that period Eddie Levert also made a terrific album with son Gerald, who was then a rising solo star and leader of the popular group Levert.
In 1992, Strain left the O'Jays to again join the reunited Little Anthony & the Imperials. He was first replaced by Nate Best, but ultimately Eric Grant, a friend of Gerald Levert, joined the act in 1995 and continues to this day.
Unlike many of their 70s soul counterparts, The O'Jays never stopped successfully recording. In 2001 they released the surprisingly strong For the Love... on MCA Records, which featured the hit "Let's Ride." In 2004 they signed a multi-disc recording contract with Matthew Knowles' (Beyonce's father) Sanctuary Urban Records and issued Imagination. Gamble and Huff also unearthed some old O'Jays recordings from the 70s and released them, against the group's wishes, in early 2004 under the title Together We Are One.
Tragedy struck the Levert family with the deaths of Eddie's sons Gerald and Sean in 2007 and 2008, as O'Jays fans around the world mourned with him.
In 2008, the O'Jays celebrated their 50th anniversary together. With Levert living in Las Vegas and Williams in Cleveland, the group's founders continue working both together and separately. Williams released a solo album of classic soul songs and some originals called Exposed and he announced in May of 2010 that he has been living with the disease multiple sclerosis for more than a quarter century. The group also independently released Christmas with the O'Jays in November, 2010, and continue to perform around the world.
By Chris Rizik