The O'Jays were one of the most popular black vocal groups of the 1970s, when they were in effect the voice of producers Gamble and Huff.
Eddie Levert and Walter Williams sang together as a gospel duo before forming a doo-wop group, the Mascots, with William Powell, Bobby Massey, and Bill Isles in 1958. In 1961 the Mascots made their recording debut with "Miracles" for the Wayco label. Cleveland DJ Eddie O'Jay liked the group and gave it career advice. As a gesture of appreciation, the Mascots became the O'Jays. They cut some songs with producer Don Davis for Apollo Records before signing with Imperial and working with producer/writer H.B. Barnum. They recorded for Imperial from 1963 to 1967 and had some minor success. "Stand in for Love" (#12 R&B, 1966) was their biggest seller of the period.
In 1965 Isles left, and the group became a quartet. The O'Jays signed with Bell and had a #8 R&B hit, "I'll Be Sweeter Tomorrow," in 1967. The members were growing discouraged and contemplating retirement when Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff signed them to their Neptune label the next year. The O'Jays released four hits, including "One Night Affair" (#15 R&B, 1969) and "Looky Looky (Look at Me, Girl)" (#17 R&B, 1970). After Neptune folded in 1971, Massey quit to start producing records.
Levert, Williams, and Powell attempted self-production with a single for Saru Records, then signed with Gamble and Huff's new Columbia-distributed label, Philadelphia International. With Gamble and Huff supplying social-commentary songs, the O'Jays began an impressive string of gold and platinum records. They had eight #1 R&B singles from 1972 to 1978, a string that included "Back Stabbers" (#3) in 1972; "Love Train" (#1) in 1973; "For the Love of Money" (#9) in 1974; "Give the People What They Want" (#45) and "I Love Music (Part 1)" (#5) in 1975; "Livin' for the Weekend" b/w "Stairway to Heaven" (#20), "Message in Our Music" (#49), and "Darlin' Darlin' Baby" (#72) in 1976; and "Use ta Be My Girl" (#4 pop, #1 R&B) in 1978. Five of their LPs of this hot streak were certified gold; three went platinum.
In 1975 Powell was debilitated by cancer and could no longer tour. Two years later, he died in the O'Jays' hometown. Sammy Strain, a member of Little Anthony and the Imperials for 12 years, replaced him. Identify Yourself was certified platinum in 1979.
Increasingly during this time, Levert and Williams assumed more active roles in the production and writing. They continued working with Gamble and Huff through Love Fever; for Let Me Touch You, producer Thom Bell worked with Gamble and Huff. The latter album featured "Lovin' You" (#1 R&B, 1987) and "Let Me Touch You" (#5 R&B, 1987). "Have You Had Your Love Today" hit #1 on the R&B singles chart in 1989, as did "Out of My Mind" (#11 R&B) and "Serious Hold on Me" (#9 R&B), all from Serious (#4 R&B, 1989). In 1991 Emotionally Yours was certified gold; it included the hits "Keep On Lovin' Me" (#4 R&B), "Don't Let Me Down" (#2 R&B), and the Bob Dylan–penned "Emotionally Yours" (#5 R&B). In 1993 Sammy Strain returned to the re-formed Little Anthony and the Imperials [see entry] and was replaced by Nathaniel Best. That year's Heartbreaker was another R&B Top 10 album; its title track went to #7 R&B. Eric Grant replaced Best before 1997's Love You to Tears(#14 R&B, #75 pop), on which the O'Jays' vocals remain classic while their music is updated by producers Keith Sweat, Gerald Levert (son of Eddie Levert), and Tony Nicholas. (Gerald Levert and his brother Sean also sing with the hit R&B trio Levert [see entry].) The O'Jays remain an enduring live and recording unit and were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.
Portions of this biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).