The O’Jays, originally a 5 man vocal group from Canton Ohio, came together as teenagers in high school in 1958. They made their first records, as the Mascots, in 1960. For the next 10 years there were regular single releases, 6 LPs, each on a different label. Their music followed the signs of the times, from Doo-Wop through Soul to Funk, always led by the strong, impassioned vocals of Eddie Levert, never finding a distinctive song or sound to capture a wider audience. Bill Isles left before the group’s biggest hit of the decade, 1967’s “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today). Subsequent releases barely troubled the Hot 100 & when Bobby Massey handed in his notice the remaining trio, Levert, Walter Williams & William Powell, were looking for yet another record label. Their next move had people all over the world joining hands & made them one of the most successful groups of the 1970s. “What they do !”
Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, an ambitious songwriting/production team based at Sigma Sound Studio in Philadelphia, were doing great things for Atlantic Records (“A Brand New Me” Dusty Springfield, “Gonna Take A Miracle” Laura Nyro/Labelle). Atlantic wouldn’t bankroll their plans for their own operation but CBS would & in 1972 Philadelphia International Records was busting out with hit singles & LPs for Billy Paul, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes & the O’Jays. The dramatic “Back Stabbers” is the title track of the O’Jays LP, written by Huff with Gene McFadden & John Whitehead, just two of a very talented team assembled in Philly. It & the uplifting “Love Train” became international hits. Gamble & Huff’s version of modern soul music, sweeping, swooping orchestral arrangements, sweet & still funky, supplanted Motown & Stax as the new Hit Factory of African-American music.
“Back Stabbers” is quite an achievement. Besides the 2 smashes the 6 minute long “992 Arguments”, cut to around 2.20 for radio play, & the smooth “Time To Get Down” sounded pretty good on the dancefloor & on the radio. The next time around there was no resting on their laurels, no more of the same formula from the production team. The title track of “Ship Ahoy” (1973) is almost 10 minutes long. Opening with crashing waves & cracking whips the dark & ominous theme is the transportation of slaves from Africa to America. This was 3 years before Alex Haley’s epic “Roots” became a literary sensation.
The LP is a mix of the political & the romantic. It opens with “Put Your Hands Together”, an exhortation to get on down to the dancefloor & get on up with the positivity. On “For the Love of Money” session man Anthony Jackson contributed a bassline of such definitive, irresistible funkiness that he gained a songwriting co-credit & the enduring gratitude of the listening public. The 9 minute long “Don’t Call Me Brother”, a warning against hypocritical backstabbers, is a dramatic triumph of orchestral soul arrangement. Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff were responsible for 22 Gold albums. “Ship Ahoy” by the O’Jays is their masterpiece.
Throughout the 1970s the group continued with Philadelphia International & there were 6 more gold or platinum LPs on the spin. There were some fine single releases. “I Love Music” (1975) & “Used Ta Be My Girl” (1978) both reached the US Top 10. The 2 LPs from 1975, “Survival” & “Family Reunion”, are good records which fall short of the dynamism & imagination of their 2 great records.
The growing influence of Disco, with it’s fuck Art & Politics, let’s dance credo, meant that the message in the music became less pronounced. Kenny Gamble’s lyrics were positive social commentary but often platitudinous. An exception is the urgent “Rich Get Richer”, based on the writings of Ferdinand Lundeberg. In his books about American wealth Lundeberg repeated his theories that America was really a plutocracy managed by oligarchs. Sounds familiar ? This great song is 40 years old !
While you’re here please check out the Philadelphia International All-Stars (Including O’Jays Eddie & Walter) & “Let’s Clean Up the Ghetto”, a compelling classic groove.
The combination of the vocal strength of the O’Jays with the multi-talented production team at Sigma Sound Studios carried the soul swing in the early 1970s. In 1977 William Powell unfortunately died from cancer aged just 35. Sammy Strain joined the group & they continued to record into the 21st century. Regular reissues & compilations kept the great songs around, if you hear them on the radio they make you smile. The Philadelphia International anthology is titled “Love Train..”. The O’Jays have their place in the premier league of American vocal groups & that Eddie Levert, boy he sure could sing !