In 1958, in Canton, Ohio five young cats named Eddie, Walter, William, Bobby and Bill, from Canton’s McKinley High School, were inspired to start a group after harmonizing together at school between classes and after seeing a performance by the Drifters, at the Canton Auditorium. They first started calling themselves the Emeralds and later the Triumphs, after performing for a few parties, cabarets, and talent shows. Eddie and Bill By their own admission said they began performing at local YMCA shows and hops just to hear the girls scream.
In 1961 after a recording called “Miracles” got the attention of a Cleveland disc jockey by the name of Eddie O’Jay. O’Jay not only played their single often but featured them at several sockhops and also gave them career advices. Later the quintet changed their name to The Mascots after watching a local performance by Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. That year Eddie O’Jay took the Mascots to Detroit where he discovered there was another group called the Mascots, so he suggested they changed their name to “O’Jay’s boys.” Later the name was modified to the O’Jays and the modified name stuck. That year they were recording under it for Apollo and, later, the L.A. based Imperial label. They had some success, but no breakout hit.
In 1963, the O’Jays moved to Imperial Records and in the summer charted the number one single in Cleveland, Ohio
After signing to the Chess distributed Neptune label owned by Gamble and Huff. Their debut for Neptune with, “One Night Affair” then followed that up with “Deeper in Love”. Over the next year & a half, the O’Jays placed four of their six Neptune releases on the chart. The sweet harmony of The O’Jays made them much in demand as session singers, backing artists including Nat ‘King’ Cole and the Ronettes. After Neptune folded in 1971, Bobby Massey decided to leave the group, but the remaining trio followed Gamble and Huff to Philadelphia International Records where they recorded what was to be their break through number, “Back Stabbers”, which rose to number 3 on the Pop chart and number 1 on the R&B chart in the U.S.
Between 1972 and 1978, the O’Jays scored eight No. 1 R&B singles including “Back Stabbers,” (1972), “Love Train” (1973), “Give the People What They Want” (1974) “Message In Our Music” (1976) “Use To Be My Girl” (1977) and “So Full Of Love” (1978). They also had five albums that went gold and three that attained platinum status. Unfortunately, there were also some rough spots in this successful era. In 1975, William Powell was diagnosed with terminal cancer and was forced to leave the band. He died in Canton two years later. Sammy Strain, a 12-year veteran of Little Anthony and the Imperials, became his replacement.
The O’Jays continued to release R&B hits all the way through the ’80s and into the ’90s including “Love Fever” (1985) and “Let Me Touch You” (1987), before topping the soul chart with “Lovin’ You”, also in 1987. The group continued to place hits on the R&B charts with “Serious” (1989) and “Emotionally Yours” (1991). Another line-up change came about when Strain left the band in 1993. He was replaced by Nathaniel Best before the release of yet another R&B Top 10 album, “Heartbreaker”.
The O’Jays have earned their place in music history, putting more than 50 singles on the record charts in their 40 year career. The band continued to tour and record and were nominated for a Grammy Award in 2002 for their album “For The Love Of”. They are one of soul music’s most popular and long-lived vocal groups, among soul music fans they are at the same level as, Temptations, Dells. Spinners, Four Tops, etc. Lead singers Eddie Levert and Walter Williams’s voices are as recognizable to soul music fans as Marvin Gaye, Levi Stubbs, Al Green, etc. Their songs resonate not only with the message of love, but also with the message of social change that showed the way for a generation of Americans.
The O’Jays are:
· The main artists around which legendary label Philadelphia International was built
· The most successful of the “Philly Soul” groups, scoring a dozen R&B #1 hits from 1972-1989
· The most socially conscious of the Seventies soul groups, seamlessly merging protest messages and sweet soul
· Able to function equally well in soul, funk, R&B, and disco, and still cross over to the pop charts
· One of the longest-lived vocal groups in history, placing single on the charts for over four decades
· Levert and Williams sang gospel on Cleveland radio in the late Fifties as the Levert Brothers The group’s first chart hit was 1965’s “Lipstick Traces,” a cover of a New Orleans soul classic by Benny Spellman
· The group’s first Gamble-Huff production, 1968’s “One Night Affair,” was banned from AM radio due to its salacious lyrics
· In 2007, Sammy Strain sued the group, as well as the Gamble-Huff team, for over $15 million in back royalties
· Eddie Levert’s late son Gerald was the founder of the hit Nineties urban R&B group Levert
· “For The Love Of Money” is used as the theme for the hit TV show The Apprentice