All The Pain Is Gone: Eddie Levert Of The O’Jays Interviewed

John Doran talks to Eddie Levert of The O'Jays about five and a half decades of soul power

When it was announced that powerhouse Philly soul, funk and disco legends The O’Jays were playing live in London next month it sent a frisson of excitement sparking through certain types of music fan. After all this group who formed while teenagers in Canton, Ohio in 1958 are one of the last remaining classic vocal R&B groups worth a damn who are still performing live. And given that it is well over two decades since the group last played here, until this announcement it would have been reasonable to presume that they wouldn’t be returning to Britain again. But then the UK has always loved The O’Jays; the trio has scored nine hits here, four of them hitting the top twenty and their one and only live album was recorded on their first visit to these shores.

While probably most well-known for their sparkling cross-over pop hits such as ‘Love Train’ and ‘I Love Music’, they were equally as popular for silk smooth Philadelphia soul cuts such as ‘Back Stabbers’ and stone to the bone funk tracks like ‘For The Love Of Money’. Their flexibility, popularity and longevity has only really been shared with the likes of The Temptations. Perhaps one of the things that helped The O’Jays secure such longevity was the fact that real success was a long time coming and very hard won. After forming straight out of school 56 years ago, Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and William Powell moved from city to city looking for a sound they could call their own – trying their luck in Detroit, Cincinnati, New York and California but it was only when they arrived in Philadelphia in 1972 and joined forces with the mighty Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff did they truly realise their potential.

Their first recording for Philly International, Back Stabbers is an all-time great album that (as well as the mighty title track) introduced the world to the amazing ‘992 Arguments’ – a soul classic, hidden in plain sight. Their follow up album in 1973, Ship Ahoy was just as good and proved that when it came to mixing uplifting pop, with hard hitting social commentary and making music that was by turns innovative, classy and accessible, they really only had a rival in Curtis Mayfield in the early part of that decade.

The O’Jays are over in Europe soon to play some live dates. Is it a while since your last visit?

Eddie Levert: We haven’t been over for about 24 years.

When was the first time you came over to London?

EL: We came to England first in… wow… it was when we recorded a live album years ago. Yeah, it’s 40 years since we recorded The O’Jays Live In London in 1974.

What are going to be the main differences in the shows do you think?

EL: Well, I’ll tell you one thing we’re much older now [laughs] so we wont’ be dancing as hard but we will still be dancing. The show will be as energetic as it ever has been but we’re much classier guys now. [laughs]

Do you have any thoughts on why The O’Jays really struck a chord over in the UK? You had nine hit singles over here.

EL: You know what I think? Our music, Gamble and Huff’s style of writing and the way that we sing just struck a chord with people. Songs like ‘I Love Music’, ‘Love Train’, ‘For The Love Of Money’, that resonates with the way that people are thinking no matter where they are.

You’re in the 56th year of the group now, which is amazing longevity for any genre of music. How do you keep up your enthusiasm for revisiting your standards year in year out?

EL: It’s because I love what I do and I love people loving what I do. When I see people loving it as much as I do, this has a positive effect on me. Music has a therapeutic effect – I always tell people this. No matter what pain I’m feeling, the minute the announcer says, ‘The O’Jays’ and I walk on stage, the pain is gone, the trouble that I was worried about is then put on the backburner and for the next 70 or 90 minutes when we’re on the stage, all of that pain, all of that confrontation, all of the blues, all of that goes away and I’m just focusing on the music and on having a good time.

So all being well, you’ll be celebrating your 60th anniversary live?

EL: All being well we will. Then I’ll be as old as Paul McCartney, which is 72 years old.

A lot is said about The O’Jays from the Philly International years onward but you formed the group in 1958…

EL: What happened here was this: we started off our career in Ohio, we went to Cincinnati and King Records which was James Brown’s record label, then we went to Detroit because they had the Motown sound, then we went to New York and recorded with the New York sound… Then we went to California, to do beach music. We were hanging out with Jan and Dean and The Beach Boys and all of those guys. We were doing beach music like ‘Lipstick Traces’, ‘Lonely Drifter’ all of those tunes. A lot of these records did reasonably but there were no big hits. It was a wide ranging trip to find ourselves. And when we went to Philadelphia we finally found ourselves. We found out how we were supposed to go about making records and how to make hit records with people like Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

You mentioned ‘Lipstick Traces’, which was originally written by Allen Toussaint, a gentleman who I’ve interviewed before and the king of New Orleans R&B, which is a different tradition.

EL: We were part of that Southern tradition. The Muscle Shoals sound. The Memphis sound. We were part of that tradition. We found ourselves via these places. In all of these places we went we learned something. We found a little bit of success in each place but just not the success we found in Philadelphia with Kenny and Leon. They found that gospel thing that we had and were able to put it into popular music. They created a sound for us that almost sounded gospel but was in fact rhythm and blues.

Detroit and Philly are similar in some respects but why do you think they had such different musical traditions when it came to soul music?

EL: It was because of the gospel and spiritual influence in Philly. The O’Jays came from the church and when we came to Philly they hadn’t yet ventured into that kind of sound yet but when we got there and we got those things in tandem we hit a great run and this sound affected a lot of other artists. It was given to such artists as Harold Melvin And The Blue Notes… Teddy Pendergrass and even The Intruders.

So I read that you thought about quitting in 1972, what was it that made you keep on going?

EL: Gamble and Huff. I’d never been with any other people who had touched my soul and who made me want to sing like they did.

And did they ever tell you what they felt they saw in The O’Jays?

EL: We had a relationship that I guess you could say was a mutual admiration society. I loved the way they made music and the way they wrote. I loved the way Leon played the piano and I loved Kenny’s lyrics. And they loved the way that me and Walter sang. That we could appear on those records was unbelievable. Do you know what I’m saying? It was unbelievable to us. When we did those vocals and heard them played back to us, we could not believe it.

Philly International had such an amazing roster of artists when you look at Harold Melvin And The Bluenotes, Billy Paul, The Three Degrees, The Intruders… Was it a busy time? Was there a lot of pressure to get in and out of the studio as quickly as possible?

EL: Do you know, that if they gave us all the rhythm tracks – if all of them were finished – because we rehearsed songs so much, that we could record an entire album in one night.

Wow. So around the time of the Back Stabbers album, was there a set way of how you did tracks?

EL: Absolutely, there was a formula. You had people who lived with that music from the time you started rehearsing it. People like Bobby Martin was there from the absolute beginning and he’d be arranging the tracks. He lived with that music every step of the way. Thom Bell [string arranger] would be there from the time we started rehearsing, from starting work on the rhythm track to the end. Vince Montana [percussion, vibes] and all of those guys would be there from the first note to the final note.

For me Back Stabbers is one of the all time great soul albums. Every song is a classic. But like with quite a lot of soul and funk it’s got a thick seam of darkness and unease to it. Not ‘Love Train’ but the rest of the tracks…

EL: Sometimes when you deal with truth, when you deal with things that are real, they have a certain darkness to them. And other times when you deal with things that are real, they have a bright future to them. Like with ‘Love Train’ – it was so positive that people still celebrate that song like it was just out. The same with ‘I Love Music’. It was just an expression of the fact that we love what we do. Now ‘Back Stabbers’ was one of my favourite songs. We started out with the sheet music. We started out with the piano and me, Walter, William and [Gene] McFadden and [John] Whitehead [composer] standing around the piano. And then when they did the rhythm track it became special. And then when we recorded the vocals it became extra special. And then when they put the top on it, it became extra, extra, extra special. And then when I heard it [for the first time] on the radio in the middle of Colorado and it became extra, extra, extra, extra super special.

Is the song autobiographical to anyone?

EL: No, I just think we were just relating to the world and what goes on in the world and what still goes on.

My favourite track on the album is ‘992 Arguments’.

EL: [laughs] Now, on that song you might be talking about somebody’s story…

Can you tell me more?

EL: [laughs] No… I can’t do that. Ha ha ha! Look, it’s like with any man woman relationship. "I can’t even go down to the store and get myself a cold, cold beer because when I come out to the house, your mouth I’m going to hear. It’s a shame all this fussing and fighting we’re doing. You know it’s got to stop. We can’t go on like this. Our love affair is a total flop. [singing] 992 arguments." You do it every day with your woman or with whoever your mate is. It’s about relationships.

The production on that track is nuts. It’s absolutely genius the way the vocals fade out at the end and the music’s still going… With ‘Love Train’ was it a conscious decision to end the album with it? It’s so different in pace and tone to the rest of the record.

EL: It was last on the record because it literally was the last song we recorded. We were there in the studio and we had no music or lyrics. So we started making up lyrics and that’s where the song developed from. The message was so tremendous after we’d done it, that we felt it deserved to be the closing track.

So you’d been going since 1958 and then Back Stabbers was this massive, massive hit album in 1972. It must have been gratifying to make it big after so long of trying.

EL: Absolutely man. Because I was at that point where I was thinking, ‘Are we ever going to get there? Are we ever going to make it happen?’ When that record came along all of our dreams came true. It was like we were living in a dream. That was the end of the struggle and the beginning of something great. I am so humbled by it. ‘Back Stabbers’ is my all time favourite O’Jays song because it opened up a new era and new door for us.

The O’Jays have been working through so many massive changes in modern popular music, including soul, funk and disco. For example, the Tom Moulton remix of ‘Back Stabbers’ is a classic and very early example of the disco re-edit.

EL: To be innovative, to know which way the world is going, these are two of the things which The O’Jays have been able to achieve. We’ve been able to keep on reinventing ourselves and to keep on giving good music. You can’t beat that man. Good music is a love and we’re just spreading that love.

Did the success of Back Stabbers give you a lot of options?

EL: Back Stabbers opened the door but once you’re through the door it’s up to you to take care of business and make sure that it lasts. We were through the door but we still had to deliver as artists.

Did you feel like you were taking a risk with Ship Ahoy given some of the strong, political material on that album? You had almost like a dual existence going on as soul musicians but also as pop stars. Was there any talk of whether it might alienate some of your audience?

EL: Er, no. I say no because we at that time we were trying to be conscious, to be aware, we were trying to teach our audience, the people who loved our music, where we were from and what we were about. We weren’t just making music, we were trying to send out messages about where we came from, what our heritage was and where we needed to go. And Ship Ahoy was part of a process of trying to convey to the world of who we were.

Ship Ahoy has got my favourite O’Jays track on it. For The Love Of Money is such a bad ass number.

EL: [laughs] Bad ass… that is a bad asssssss song. [laughs]

When you record a track like that, is it immediately apparent that you’ve got something special on your hands?

EL: They did so much to that track. Joe Tarsia, the things that he did to that track, engineering wise… the things that we did vocally, turning the backing vocals around, playing them backwards and then forwards, using phase shifting… that was a very innovative record. We knew it was a smash because we knew it was different to anything the world had heard before. And the message was so great.

Around this period, who did you keep your eyes on? Who did you see as rivals? Who would you always be checking out to see what they were up to?

EL: The Temptations, The Manhattans, The Delfonics, Harold Melvin And The Bluenotes for sure, The Stylistics, Sly And The Family Stone, The Isley Brothers, The Spinners… you were always competing with these people. Those were the people you were in competition with so you always had to keep your stuff on the same level.

And do you think there’s a key to longevity as a musician?

EL: Yes. The key is to remember at all times that your fans are very important to you and you are their entertainment for the evening. You’re not a diva. You’re not the wherewithal. They have hired you to entertain them for the evening. That’s what you are: the entertainment for the evening.

The O’Jays play at London O2 Indigo on September 18 and 19. Back Stabbers and Ship Ahoy are included in the Philadelphia Internationals Records Collection box set, out now

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