The O’Jays were at the forefront of Seventies soul music. Racking up a lengthy string of modern R&B classics, including “Back Stabbers,” “Love Train,” “For the Love of Money,” “I Love Music” and “Use Ta Be My Girl,” they helped put the “Philly Soul” sound (so named for Philadelphia-based producers, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff) on the map. In fact, the O’Jays were the backbone of Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label, which released some of the greatest and most influential Seventies records.
During a fifteen-year run from “Back Stabbers” (1972) to “Lovin’ You” (1987), the O’Jays placed 35 singles on the R&B chart, nine of which went to #1. The vast majority of the group’s hits were made with Gamble and Huff for their various labels - Neptune, Philadelphia International, TSOP - in a relationship dating back to 1969.
The O’Jays’ story dates back further still, beginning in the late Fifties when founding members Eddie Levert and Walter Williams began singing gospel on a radio station in their hometown of Canton, Ohio. Joined by fellow high-schoolers William Powell, Bobby Massey and Bill Isles, they became the Triumphs, an R&B vocal group, in 1959. Their popularity as a live act got them signed to Syd Nathan’s King label, where they released a pair of singles as the Mascots.
They were then taken under the wing of Cleveland disc jockey Eddie O’Jay and renamed the O’Jays – a name that stuck. In 1961 they headed to Los Angeles, where they honed their craft with producer H.B. Barnum. They recorded for Barnum’s Little Star label and then got signed to Imperial Records. The O’Jays spent much of the Sixties on the Imperial and Bell labels, enjoying chart success on the R&B side with such hits as “Stand in For Love” (#12) and “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today)” (#8).
The group’s fortunes took a leap when they met producers Gamble and Huff backstage at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in 1968. The O’Jays signed to the duo’s fledgling Neptune label, for which they recorded seven singles, including the R&B hit “One Night Affair” (#15). The relationship really took off when Columbia Records gave Gamble and Huff their own imprint, Philadelphia International, in 1972. Writers, producers and label impresarios, this dynamic duo honed the Philly Soul sound with the O’Jays. Philly Soul - a.k.a. “The Sound of Philadelphia” or “TSOP,” for short - was a churchy yet contemporary melange of strings, keyboards, octave-leaping guitars and propulsive dance rhythms, crowned by rich, gospel-drenched vocal harmonies. Such O’Jays records as “Back Stabbers” and “Love Train” - both from Back Stabbers, their stunning 1972 debut album for Philadelphia International - apotheosized Seventies soul in general and Philly Soul in particular.
“The day we signed [with Philadelphia International] was the day we finally came in from the rain,” Walter Williams said. The group was now down to a trio of Levert, Williams and Powell, with original members Isles and Massey having left in 1966 and 1971, respectively.
“Back Stabbers” kicked off a hit streak that finally made crossover stars of the O’Jays. With Gamble and Huff, they cut consistently strong records and tore up the R&B and pop charts with high-spirited and often message-minded songs. Highlights include such soul essentials as “Time to Get Down” (#2 R&B, #33 pop), “Put Your Hands Together (#2 R&B, #10 pop), “For the Love of Money” (#3 R&B, #9 pop), “Give the People What They Want” (#1 R&B), “I Love Music” (#1 R&B, #5 pop), “Livin’ for the Weekend” (#1 R&B, #20 pop), “Message in Our Music (#1 R&B), “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby” (#1 R&B), “Use Ta Be My Girl” (#1 R&B, #4 pop), “Forever Mine” (#4 R&B, #28 pop) and “Lovin’ You” (#1 R&B). However, the O’Jays were more than just a hot singles act, as they released such solid albums as Back Stabbers (1972), Ship Ahoy(1973), Survival (1975), Family Reunion (1975), Message in the Music (1976) and So Full of Love (1978).
Founding member Powell dropped out in 1975 due to health reasons, dying two years later of cancer. He was replaced by Sammy Strain, who’d previously sung with Little Anthony and the Imperials. Strain lasted with O’Jays until 1993, when he was replaced by Nathaniel West. Meanwhile, Eddie Levert’s sons, Gerald and Sean, had begun enjoying success with their own R&B group, Levert, in the mid-Eighties, and this multigenerational link helped keep the O’Jays in the public eye.
The O’Jays’ historic run with Gamble and Huff continued until 1988. Even after switching labels and producers, the trio kept having hits. The O’Jays scored their ninth R&B chart-topper, “Have You Had Your Love Today,” in 1989. Emotionally Yours (1991) yielded three R&B smashes, including their choir-filled arrangement of the Bob Dylan-penned title track. The group’s latest album of new material, Love You to Tears, appeared in 1997. The O’Jays received the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 1998, and they remain a popular performing entity.