The O'Jays Biography

The core of this long-standing soul group, Eddie LeVert (16 June 1942, Birmingham, Alabama, USA) and Walter Williams (b. 25 August 1942, USA), sang together as a gospel duo prior to forming the Triumphs in 1958. This doo-wop-influenced quintet was completed by William Powell (b. 20 January 1942, USA, d. 26 May 1977), Bill Isles and Bobby Massey and quickly grew popular around its home town of Canton, Ohio, USA. The same line-up then recorded as the Mascots before taking the name the O’Jays after Cleveland disc jockey Eddie O’Jay, who had given them considerable help and advice. Having signed to Imperial Records in 1963, the O’Jays secured their first R&B hit with ‘Lonely Drifter’, which was followed by an imaginative reworking of Benny Spellman’s ‘Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette)’, ‘Let It All Out’ and ‘Stand In For Love’. Despite gaining their first R&B Top 10 entry with ‘I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today)’ (1967), their first release for Bell Records, the group found it difficult to maintain a consistent profile, and were reduced to a four-piece following Isles’ departure. However, they were in demand as session singers, backing artists including Nat ‘King’ Cole and the Ronettes.

In 1968 the O’Jays met producers Gamble And Huff with whom they recorded on the duo’s short-lived Neptune label, enjoying minor R&B hits with ‘One Night Affair’, ‘Branded Bad’, ‘Deeper (In Love With You)’ and ‘Looky Looky (Look At Me Girl)’. The line-up was reduced further in 1972 when Bobby Massey left. Paradoxically, the O’Jays then began their most fertile period when Gamble And Huff signed them to Philadelphia International Records. The vibrant ‘Back Stabbers’, a US R&B chart-topper and pop Top 3 hit, established the group’s style, but the preachy ‘Love Train’ (which topped both the R&B and pop charts), with its plea for world harmony, introduced the protest lyrics that would be a feature of their later releases ‘Time To Get Down’, ‘Put Your Hands Together’ and ‘For The Love Of Money’. The long-playing Back Stabbers and Ship Ahoy, meanwhile, rapidly achieved classic status and are regarded by many as among Gamble And Huff’s most outstanding work.

In 1975 Sammy Strain joined the line-up from Little Anthony And The Imperials when ill health forced William Powell to retire from live performances. This founder member continued to record with the group until his death on 26 May 1977. ‘Give The People What They Want’, ‘I Love Music (Part 1)’, ‘Livin’ For The Weekend’, ‘Message In Our Music’, ‘Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby (Sweet, Tender, Love)’ and ‘Use Ta Be My Girl’ confirmed the group’s continued popularity as they survived Philly soul’s changing fortunes, with So Full Of Love (1978) achieving platinum sales. However, as the genre felt the ravages of fashion so the O’Jays also suffered. The early 80s were commercially fallow, until Love Fever (1985) restated their direction with its blend of funk and rap. Two years later, the O’Jays were unexpectedly back at the top of the R&B charts with ‘Lovin’ You’, confirming their status as one of soul music’s most durable groups. The commercial resurrection was due in no small part to the group’s renewed relationship with Gamble And Huff. They enjoyed further success with ‘Let Me Touch You’ and rewarded their new label EMI Records in 1989 when ‘Have You Had Your Love Today’ soared to the top of the R&B charts. Further hits followed with ‘Serious Hold On Me’, ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, the Bob Dylan -penned ‘Emotionally Yours’ and ‘Keep On Lovin’ Me’.

The O’Jays output in the mid-90s failed to match the success of their late 80s comeback, although Eddie’s son, Gerald LeVert, both as a member of LeVert and solo, helped keep the family name alive. By this point Strain had been replaced by Nathaniel Best who made his debut on 1993’s Heartbreaker. In 1995 Eddie, who had previously appeared alongside his son on several occasions, recorded an album of duets with Gerald for release as Father And Son. He also became the spokesperson for the social/business collective 100 Black Men, reaffirming the O’Jays’ long-standing commitment to social change. With LeVert and Williams now joined by Eric Grant, 1997’s Love You To Tears was the O’Jays best album in many years, probably because it echoed the lush romantic sound of their heyday with Gamble And Huff in the early 70s. The trio continued recording into the new millennium, releasing For The Love... for MCA in 2001 and Imagination for the Sanctuary imprint in 2004. In March 2005, the group was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.