They’re the most successful group to emerge from the classic Philly Soul scene of the 1970s, but they’re not actually from Philadelphia. The O’Jays hail from Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They are now Hall of Famers themselves — Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, that is.
The O’Jays’ connection to Cleveland, home of the Rock Hall, stretches back more than a decade before the Philly era. Starting out in gospel in the late 1950s, the group soon moved into anonymous pop session work. Searching for an identity of their own, the founding members stumbled onto their name when the Cleveland DJ Eddie O’Jay made a suggestion: “Just call them O’Jay’s Boys.”
They first reached the charts with crossover efforts such as “Lonely Drifter” and “Lipstick Traces.” But the group didn’t really take off until it joined forces with Philadelphia producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. “Back Stabbers” was a blockbuster in the summer of 1972, followed the next year by “Love Train.” The O’Jays went on to record seven more Top Forty hits by the end of the decade, including “I Love Music” and “For the Love of Money.” That song, aptly featured in Donald Trump’s TV show The Apprentice, recently brought the group back to national attention.
We talked to founding members Eddie Levert and Walt Williams. Also included in the Hall of Fame version of the O’Jays are original members Bobby Massey (who retired in 1972) and William Powell (who died in 1977), as well as veteran Sammy Strain, a former member of Little Anthony and the Imperials.
How did you find out about your induction?
Williams: I remember saying something like “Whoo!” We’ve been nominated four times, and it was a running joke, that we’d be the answer to a trivia question — “What group was nominated the most and never made it in?” I realize it’s a prestigious group of people to be in company with, but we thought we qualified. It’s the big one, better than the Grammy, the American Music Award, Don Cornelius’ (Soul Train) Lifetime Acheivement Award. Not putting them down — all of that is fantastic, but this is the big one.
Levert: I was more excited than I thought I would be. When you get nominated, you sort of downplay it, but when you actually make it, you are flabbergasted . . . I still feel that the O’Jays are one of the best groups in the world for what we do, what you call soul music. For us to get in, it means we’ve taken soul to another plateau. It’s as American as apple pie. When we didn’t get in the first few times, I said, well, we’ll probably get in, but I won’t be alive to see it. I’m alive, and it’s good.
What songs will you play at the ceremony?
Williams: “Love Train” would definitely be one because when it came out, it went platinum so fast. Overseas, in Germany, Belgium, Holland — those people didn’t speak English, but they could sing “Love Train.” Then I’d say “For the Love of Money.” Donald Trump and The Apprentice certainly gave it new life. And people can relate — I mean, if you don’t have any [money], you can really relate!
Levert: First on my list would be “Back Stabbers.” On conception, it was a good song. And the proof is in the pudding — the people loved it also. Second I’d say “Family Reunion,” because it focused on a very positive message.
Williams: It’s all good.
Your music always seemed to alternate between the optimism of a “Love Train” and the bitterness of a “Back Stabbers.” Was that a sign of the times?
Levert: The messages were good. They still live today. Nothing has changed from that time until now. People will still lie and cheat. They’re doing the Enron thing and all that. And we’ve still got people hoping for peace and love amongst mankind. We’re still shouting these same words, and we haven’t gotten across the street yet.
Williams: Yeah — we’re still looking for weapons of mass destruction.
Levert: And then with “Love Train,” there’s the tsunami thing and how much the world has come together. We found out one thing — the bottom line is, if we could show a little love to one another, we could get past these things.
Williams: That’s basically what the Bible talks about. You can be the Grinch, or not.
You worked for years as a session group before finding your own success. Did that prepare you well for the long haul?
Levert: We pounded the pavement.
Williams: We were chitlin circuiters.
Levert: We went from beach music and pop to R&B. We started out doing crossover stuff. We were doing stuff with Jan and Dean, the surfing crowd.
Williams: We did stuff for Bob Eubanks, Wink Martindale. Los Angeles was where we met Casey Kasem. We did sessions for Phil Spector.
Levert: We were crossover before it became fashionable. And we gained a workmanlike attitude about it. It was like going to school. We learned how to perform onstage.
Williams: I think, because of our long struggle, we had the pieces, and we found out where to put them. When we started getting hits, it all came together.
Levert: When we started having hits, it didn’t just blow our mind. We’d seen a lot of one-hit wonders. We knew one hit didn’t make a career.
How did your association with The Apprentice come about?
Williams: That was a publishing situation with Gamble and Huff. They didn’t come to us at all. But then management followed up and suggested that we sing it live on the show. It was tremendous. Any time you can get national recognition like that, it gives you a surge.
Tell me about the other members who are being inducted.
Levert: William Powell died of cancer about 1977. He sung the “Back Stabbers,” “Love Train” material. Sammy Strain is from the “Use Ta Be My Girl” era. He’s really the guy, as far as our personal appearances go, who took us to the next level. He had pizzazz. He was the ultimate showman. The guys who are going in, they’re really the meaty part of it . . . Me and Walt have mixed feelings about this. We stuck it out to the very end. Everybody else at one time or another quit. We never quit. And we’re gonna stay until they play “Goodnight Irene.”
Williams: Or “Taps.”