Few R&B vocal groups command as much respect as the O'Jays, inducted in both the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. Eddie Levert attributes the group's longevity and why everyone from Don Cornelius to Donald Trump has licensed their music to "the marriage of my voice and [Walter Williams'] voice." Throw in a tenor that acts like butter between those two voices and you have what Levert calls the O'Jays' "sweet, mellow, rough sound."
A generation of soul fans were introduced to the O'Jays from those Philadelphia International smashes like "Backstabbers," "Love Train," "For the Love of Money," "Use Ta Be My Girl" and "I Love Music," but a decade before that the group subsisted on regional hits, like "Lipstick Traces (From a Cigarette)" and "Lonely Drifter."
"The very first time I played the Celebrity Theatre, it may have been in 1963, when Eddie O'Jay [for whom the group was named] was a DJ in Phoenix. He was playing our records down there, and we got a lot of regional smashes," Levert says.
Eddie O'Jay not only brought the O'Jays to Phoenix from Buffalo but he also brought over Carl LaRue and His Crew to provide the O'Jays with instrumental backup. When Eddie O'Jay and the O'Jays went back east in 1965, LaRue's crew stayed behind, forming Dyke and the Blazers and inadvertently writing a further chapter of this city's soul scene.
The O'Jays, originally from Canton, Ohio, also did stints in California, Detroit, and Cincinnati before striking up a winning formula with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Philadelphia International Records.
"After doing it so many times, it became scientific," says Levert. "That's when you find out we need Walt with his soft, smooth, mellow style, and then for the buildup, we need Eddie to come in here give it the grit to take it on home."
If anyone wonders whether it's a harder landscape to start out in business today than the early days of the O'Jays, Eddie Levert remembers that groups used to travel with a gun to make sure they would get paid.
"The promoter might run off with all the money, or you might be stuck in a town with no money and no hotel and sleeping in the car. When you played in Philadelphia at the Uptown Theater, they paid you a thousand dollars for 10 days, that's 100 dollars a day. When you've got 10 people, where's the money for the hotel and gas?" he laughs.
"That's how you wound up with girls and relationships. Because you've got to make it for 10 days, you find a girl who likes you. Now, you're caught up with her and baby mama drama, you know what I'm saying? It's like a snowball effect. You find out how much trouble you got into that you're gonna end up paying for," he laughs.
In the decade before "Love Train" topped the charts, the group subsisted playing a type of R&B known as "beach music." You may ask, what's beach music?
"It's hard for me to classify. You got surf music, and then you had Myrtle Beach music, like
The Tams with "What Kind of Fool (Do You Think I Am)."The Tams were bigger than the Beatles in Myrtle Beach."
So when it's white guys shooting the curl, it's surf music. But when its black guys screwing chicks under the boardwalk, it's beach music.
"I think you hit it dead on the head," Levert says.
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