The O’Jays

  • R&B and soul vocal group formed in 1958 from Canton Ohio. The original members of the group were Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, Bill Isles, Bobby Massey and William Powell. During the 70s and later, they performed as a trio, with Levert, Williams and Powell, with Sammy Strain replacing Powell in 1975 when Powell was diagnosed with cancer (Powell died in 1977). Levert and Williams are still active with the group today, along with Eric Grant, who joined in 1997.
  • The five founding members were all friends at the same high school in Canton. After seeing a performance by Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, they decided to form their own vocal group, calling themselves the Triumphs. In 1960, they renamed themselves the Mascots, and they recorded several singles that got some attention in the Cleveland area. An early fan of the group was Cleveland DJ Eddie O’Jay – O’Jay gave them some airplay and some advice on how to be successful. Thankful for the connection, the group changed its name in 1963 to the O’Jays.
  • They signed a recording contract in 1963, and their first single to chart was released – Lonely Drifter peaked at #93 on the Hot 100 chart. In 1965, Isles left the group, and they remained a quartet, recording their debut studio album, Comin’ Through. Two more albums were released in the 60s, with several songs reaching the charts – their most successful song was I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today), which reached #8 on the R&B chart.
  • They considered ending their run as a group, and Massey left the group, concerned that they could not produce hits. The trio of Levert, Williams and Powell met the production team of Gamble & Huff based in Philadelphia, and in 1972 they signed onto their record company. With the guidance of Gamble & Huff, they began to record songs that became known as Philadelphia Soul, and the O’Jays became superstars.
  • Their debut album under Gamble & Huff was Backstabbers. The group released seven more studio albums during the 70s, with four of them certified platinum. All of them charted in the top ten of the R&B album chart and three topped the chart. Singles from these albums included #1 R&B hits Back Stabbers, Love Train (which also topped the Hot 100 chart), Give the People What They Want, I Love Music, Livin’ For the Weekend, Message In Our Music, Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby and Use Ta Be My Girl. Another signature hit for the O’Jays during this time was For the Love of Money, which reached #3 on the R&B chart and #9 on the Hot 100 in 1974 – the song was the theme song to Donald Trump’s reality television show The Apprentice.
  • They continued to record in the 80s, releasing seven studio albums. While their songs were not as big of hits as their 70s music, they managed to have ten songs make the top 10 of the R&B chart, and they returned to the #1 spot after a ten year gap with 1987’s Lovin’ You and 1989’s Have You Had Your Love Today. Sammy Strain left the group in 1992 to return to Little Anthony and the Imperials (he had been a member of that group from 1958 to 1972, joining the O’Jays when Powell died). Strain was replaced by Nathaniel Best, who remained with the group until he was replaced in 1997 by Eric Grant.
  • Since 1990, the O’Jays released nine studio albums, most recently The Last Word in 2019, which they announced would be their final album. They continue to tour, with Lever and Williams approaching their eighties – they have three shows scheduled for October 2021 and one in March 2022.
  • The O’Jays were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 – Sammy Strain holds the unusual distinction of being in the HOF twice, included with the O’Jays as well as Little Anthony and the Imperials, who were inducted in 2009. Two songs by the O’Jays were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame – Love Train and For the Love of Money. I loved the smooth sound of the O’Jays when I was just getting into music in the 70s. When I build playlists for parties, I often include Love Train – some consider it  one of the first disco songs ever released. For me…it’s too smooth to be disco. Here’s the O’Jays performing it on Soul Train. “People all over the world, join in, start a love train, love train” – a great message for today as well as the early 70s.

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