By any measure, they are one of the most important Soul Music groups of all-time. Whether delivering funky dance music, romantic ballads, or thoughtful social commentary in song, The O'Jays are 100% all-time greats.
Originally a regionally popular act in the Canton and Cleveland, Ohio areas (and in fact named after local deejay Eddie O'Jay), the quintet (Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, Bill Isles, Willam Powell, Bobby Massey) had a number of minor hits together on Chess Records in the late 60s and early 70s; but frustration with their lack of real success pared the group down to the trio of Levert, Williams and Powell by 1972. And it was that lineup that teamed with rising young Philadelphia songwriter/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and recorded the group's 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 trio 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 insightful, 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 dying of cancer in 1977. Former Little Anthony & the Imperials 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 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 as a vital member of the trio.
Unlike many of their 70s soul counterparts, The O'Jays never stopped successfully recording, including 2017's contribution to the Brawl in Cellblock 99 soundtrack. However, the O'Jays have faced their share of struggles, too. Levert suffered a parent's nightmare, with the deaths of his sons Gerald and Sean in 2007 and 2008. And in 2010, Williams revealed that he had been suffering from multiple sclerosis for years.
But the group has soldiered on, celebratung their 60th anniversary together and, in 2018, releasing a fantastic album with an equally powerful message. The Last Word recaptured that O'Jays magic on record, becoming one of the year's best R&B albums. If you haven't heard it, check it out. All three members have also recorded solid solo albums over the past few years.
With Levert living in Las Vegas and Williams and Grant in Cleveland, the group members continue to come together to perform around the world and are still bringing it as they enter their seventh decade together. In 2022, the O'Jays went on one final tour before retiring from the road. They have certainly secured their place in music history.
By Chris Rizik