One of the best-loved vocal groups of the 1970s, the mighty, much-garlanded O’Jays are synonymous, of course, with the Philadelphia sound, an urbane and sophisticated style of R&B where soul and funk grooves were dressed up in opulent symphonic orchestration. Though they started out way back in 1959, it was in 1972 when the O’Jays joined Gamble & Huff’s groundbreaking Philadelphia International label that the trio originally from Canton, Ohio, hit the big time and became a global force, racking up hit after memorable hit in the shape of ‘Backstabbers,’ ‘Love Train,’ ‘I Love Music’ and many, many more.
Like their contemporaries, The Temptations and Four Tops, the O’Jays have been working consistently during the last six decades and are still going strong today. But unlike those two illustrious groups, who can only boast one founding member each, the O’Jays actually have two charter members on board – Eddie Levert and Walter Williams. Ahead of the trio’s forthcoming show in London’s West End at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane – where they’ll be performing on Sunday 15th July – SJF’s Charles Waring talked to Eddie Levert (on the right of the above picture) about the group’s imminent UK trip and their storied career.
Talking to me from his home in sunny Las Vegas, our conversation starts off with Levert asking me about the British weather. He chortles raucously when I tell him he’ll probably need to bring an umbrella with him in July. “I love going over there because it’s the only place I know that serves beans with breakfast,” he laughs. While the prospect of having baked beans with a traditional “full English” palpably excites him, on a more serious note, he remarks that the UK remains a hard market for the O’Jays to crack – and it perplexes him. “We recorded a live album over there back in the ’70s, ‘The O’Jays Live In London,’ which did very well for us, but we’ve never quite been able to really bust or break into that market,” he says ruefully. “Our popularity there is not as great as it is in other places and other parts of the world. I don’t quite understand that because we get a lot of requests from people over there. They say, ‘come back to England, come back, we want to see you,’ but I’m always disheartened when we get there as the places are not really packed out.”
I’d always assumed that the group were well-loved in England but when you compare their chart statistics with, for example, The Temptations and Four Tops who tour the UK regularly and play to packed houses, you can see what he’s getting at. The group has racked up only nine chart entries in Britain compared to The Tempts thirty-one and the Tops thirty-five, with ‘Love Train’ being their only Top 10 hit. “Maybe it’s the music that we’re doing,” muses Levert, adding with a laugh, “or maybe we’re just not good when we get over there.” But Eddie is at pains to point out that he’s not being critical of the British public. “At the end of the day, I always look at us as the reason, not the crowd,” he explains. “It baffles me and I always go back and look at the material and say well, maybe we’re not doing the right stuff, maybe we should go back and revamp the show.”
Eddie reveals that for this London trip, the O’Jays will be doing a different show – it will be longer and include more material, even some old songs from early on in their career. “We’ve revamped and changed it,” he confirms. “In our early career, we would sing maybe one song for ten minutes but now we do less vamping and go on to the next song so we can get more stuff in from the repertoire because, if you’re vamping you’re cutting into the time that you can spend on other material.”
All of their shows contain the immortal ‘Love Train,’ of course, which is like the group’s own national anthem. “We always have to do that one,” laughs Eddie, “and we’ll also be doing ‘Used Ta Be My Girl, and ‘I Love Music,’ they’re staples too. The last time we were in the UK, we got a lot of requests for songs that we did early in our career, so we’ll be doing some of those and songs like ‘Ship Ahoy’… and we have to do the ballads, of course.”
Eddie also reveals that they’ll be performing, ‘Now That We’ve Found Love,’ an anthemic, smoothly-harmonised ballad that first appeared on their 1974 concept album, ‘Ship Ahoy.’ A great album cut, it wasn’t issued as a single by the group’s record label in the USA and ironically, it became a global hit and million-seller for reggae group, Third World, in 1978. “I always felt that our version was just a little bit classier,” opines Eddie, who says he wasn’t amused when the Jamaican group had a hit with an O’Jays song. He laughs about it now, though. “Not that they didn’t do a bad job – they did a great job because they got a gold record out of it – but I felt like that we didn’t get the airplay. But there was so much other material that radio was gravitating to at the time that that song just didn’t get off the album.”
Born in Alabama in 1942, Eddie Levert moved north with his family to the Midwest town of Canton, Ohio, in 1948 and reveals that he began singing with fellow O’Jays founder Walter Williams when they were both young children. “I was seven years old, he was six, and it’s amazing that we are still able to stand one another,” he laughs. He honed his singing in his local church and says that gospel music is the foundation of his style. “Its influence was overwhelming because that’s how we got into singing. We were in the church choir together and his father was the choir director. He taught us a lot about how to address a song. He’d say: you start off on the first floor, then you go to the second floor, then you go to the third floor, and now you go through the roof. That’s how you address a song. The amazing part is that it still works for us. We still use that philosophy.”
In terms of his musical heroes, Eddie cites several key influences, all soulful male singers. “Ronnie Isley for one, Marvin Gaye for another and Nat ‘King’ Cole,” he reveals. His voice, a robust and powerful baritone, possesses a tone and timbre that is markedly different from Walter Williams’ smooth tenor. “I’m not what I call a ‘runner,’ like Walt, who can do runs and tricks with his voice,” says Eddie, who then reveals that one of the singers who arguably had the most profound impact on his own style was a white Italian-American operatic crooner. “I got my style of singing from Mario Lanza,” he confesses, “because it was amazing to me the way he held a note, the way he gave the note the true value and the true worth, which was enough to wrench your heart out, so I sort of copied that. I stole a little bit from him to get to Eddie Levert. I learned how to do that and it still works for me now.”
At high school in 1958, Eddie and Walter Williams joined forces with William Powell, Bobby Massey, and Bill Isles to form a singing group called The Triumphs. “We fell out of love with that name because people started calling us The Tramps,” laughs Eddie, “and then we changed to The Mascots, though we always felt like mascots represented a dog or a goat or a horse.” In 1969, they came to the attention of Syd Nathan, the owner of King Records – then James Brown’s label – in Cincinnati. “We went down there as The Triumphs and Syd Nathan said we’ve got to call ourselves The Mascots. We did a song called ‘Lonely Rain’ for King and they played it in Cleveland, where it became such a tremendous, popular record.”
It was in Cleveland where they met the man who would inspire their third and final name change – Eddie O’Jay (pictured below on the left). “He was a DJ there,” explains Eddie, “and was doing record hops on Friday nights. He invited us up to do ‘Lonely Rain’ and he saw us and from there, he liked us.” Smitten by the group – then still a quintet – O’Jay thought that they deserved bigger and better than King Records and took them to Michigan. “He took us to Detroit for Berry Gordy to listen to,” remembers Eddie. “Berry Gordy wanted to sign us but he wanted 50% of everything and Eddie said, ‘no, no way, I can’t let you do that.’ So he went around the corner to Berry Gordy’s wife, Thelma, and she had this label called Daco and we recorded a song called ‘Miracles.’ They wanted to change the name from The Mascots to something else but couldn’t think of a name for the group, so Eddie O’Jay said ‘okay, listen, we’re going to call them the O’Jays for the time being to get the record out, but when we think of something else, we’ll change the name.’ But we never thought of anything else and it seemed like as soon as we became the O’Jays, things started to happen.”
As the O’Jays, the group released their second single, ‘Miracles’ – eventually issued via the New York indie, Apollo – in 1960 but it wasn’t until 1963, when they had switched to Imperial that they scored their first US R&B hit, ‘Lonely Drifter.’ After three more chart hits for Imperial, including 1965’s ‘Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette), they joined Bell Records in 1967 and scored their first US R&B Top 10 smash, ‘I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today).’ A year later, the O’Jays came on the radar of aspiring Philly songwriters and producer, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Recalling how Gamble & Huff came across the group – which by this time had slimmed down to a trio consisting of Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, and William Powell – Eddie Levert says: “What happened, we were playing the Apollo Theatre and (Philly group) The Intruders had this song, ‘Cowboys To Girls’ (a 1968 US R&B chart-topper written and produced by Gamble & Huff) and it was a tremendous smash at that time. Gamble and Huff came up to see them perform and in the interim, they saw us perform and they wanted to sign us. Then they came to Cleveland to see us perform at a club and they liked what they saw and we went to Philly to record, and that’s how that relationship started.”
This was before the production and songwriting duo had begun Philadelphia International, though they had their own label, Neptune. “Leonard Chess was distributing their records,” remembers Eddie, “and when he died, everything fell apart.” The O’Jays scored four US R&B chart entries for Neptune, their biggest being ‘One Night Affair’ but when Chess Records was sold to the GRT corporation at the end of 1969, Neptune went under. Undeterred, Gamble & Huff (pictured below) sought to start a new label and in 1971, with backing from the monied major label, CBS, they started Philadelphia International Records. It was a major turning point for the O’Jays career.
“We had never before been with people who produced records and who could write songs which were suitable to us like Gamble & Huff,” says Eddie Levert. “They were fabulous producers. Everything they did for us just embodied what we were on the inside. We were their messengers.” Eddie believes that the group’s gospel-inflected vocals exerted a powerful effect on Gamble & Huff. “I think our gospel influence on them took them to another place,” he states, “and that’s when they got people like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and Billy Paul, which started them writing in another vein.”
In the USA, the O’Jays notched up eight number one records, with ‘Love Train’ – also their biggest UK hit – topping both the R&B and pop charts. The song’s enduring popularity still continues to surprise Eddie Levert and it remains the centrepiece of their live set. “It still amazes me, man. They get up and dance around the concert hall. When we finish it, we just joke around and say ‘you want us to do it again?’ and the crowd are like “yeah, do it again!” It’s the only song we have in our repertoire that we can do at least three or four times in a row and no one complains. They love it.”
What’s even more astonishing about the song is that Eddie describes it as “a five-minute record,” referring to the speed at which it came together and was recorded. “Gamble & Huff did the track but it had no words,” he explains. “When we came in to record our parts, they had the backgrounds – the sing-along part “people all over the world, join hands” – but no lyrics on the inside. So we were sitting there and Gamble started his brain working and we came up with all of these lines about people over in England, London, and China too, all of that stuff. That took just five minutes in the studio.”
But at the height of their success, tragedy struck – in 1977, William Powell (above), then just 37, succumbed to cancer. But his passing didn’t derail the ‘Love Train.’ “That was a terrible loss because we had been together since high school,” admits Eddie. “But we never thought of giving up because we thought if the worst comes to the worst, me and Walt could handle it as a duo because we felt we were the nucleus of the group anyway, because we were doing all the lead singing. But we were close like brothers and William’s loss was so devastating that we even thought ‘okay, we don’t want nobody else in here,’ but along comes Sammy Strain.”
A former member of Little Anthony & The Imperials, the addition of Sammy Strain (pictured right) helped to take the group to another level. “We became superstars with Sammy because he was such an entertainer,” remembers Eddie. “He was such an energetic person. You know when you add that last piece to the puzzle and you’re so happy that you’ve finally finished it? That’s what he was to the O’Jays.”
Strain stayed with the group until 1994. He was superseded by Nathaniel Best and his role is now taken by Eric Nolan Grant (pictured below, in the middle). Despite the changes – which are very few compared with The Temptations and Four Tops – the group continues onwards and manages to maintain their high standards of old, though they haven’t released an album since 2010.
“I think it’s because we love what we’re doing… and we’re good at it,” answers Eddie Levert when I ask him what has kept the group going for sixty years. “I still admire Walt’s talent and I think he admires my talent,” he laughs, and then adds, “but he wonders why all the girls love me. I tell him all the time, it’s just because I’ve got that ‘it’ thing, man. It’s not because I’m handsome or nothing.” Eddie guffaws heartily. Indeed, his readily apparent humour is an endearing quality of his character and it’s also, perhaps, a feature of his personality that has helped to insulate him from tragedy. I’m referring, of course, to the death of his two sons, Gerald and Sean, who were in the successful ’90s group, Levert. Eddie says that the duet album (‘Something To Talk About’) that he recorded with Gerald in 2006, just before the latter’s death, is the main highlight of his career. “I’ve had some great, high, high times with the O’Jays, and I can’t beat that, but the proudest moment was when I started doing stuff with my son, Gerald,” says Eddie. “The father and son trip to me was so gratifying. It was so great that I was able to do that with my kid. That was really the high point in my career.”
In life, all good things must come to an end, of course, and now, in the late twilight of his career, Eddie Levert is acutely aware that the O’Jays can’t go on forever and that their end is drawing ever nearer. “I’m seventy-five… how much more can I do?” he asks. “I’m telling people now that I’m going to give it my all for the next two or three years, and then I’m going to hang it up. I just don’t want to be a casualty on stage.”
Eddie Levert didn’t anticipate that the O’Jays would enjoy such a long and illustrious career. “I never imagined that we would last as long,” he says, “because the music business is very fickle, so a lot of acts come and go. But to be able to still go out and draw people at this age – we’re going on sixty years in this game – still amazes me. I never thought or imagined that we’d go this far. People still react to our old songs like they were released yesterday.”
CATCH THE O’JAYS AT LONDON’S THEATRE ROYAL DRURY LANE ON SUNDAY JULY 15TH
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