The O’Jays (1958-2019)

The O'Jays, Arie Crown Theater, Chicago, April 2, 2010
Photo by RaymondBoyd51 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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The O’Jays, an R&B ensemble from Canton, Ohio, was formed in 1958 by childhood friends Eddie Levert, who was born in Bessemer, Alabama in 1942 and moved to Canton at the age of 8, and Walter Williams, Sr. born in Canton in 1942.  They became best friends and a singing duet in 1958. The duo invited other schoolmates who could sing, William Powell, born in Canton in 1942; Bobby Massey, born in Canton in 1942; and Bill Isles, born in 1941 in McAntenville, North Carolina, also joined.  The five, all of whom attended McKinley High School in Canton, first called themselves the Triumphs but in a1960 they changed their name to the Mascots.

In 1961, The Mascots released a single, “Miracles,” on the Cincinnati-based King label. Their song was actively promoted by Eddie O’Jay, a popular disc jockey in Cleveland, Ohio. As a tribute to him, they in 1963 rename themselves the O’Jays.

The group’s first chart hit was “Lonely Drifter” in 1963.  Two years later in 1965, they moved to Los Angeles, California and earned their first national R&B hit, “Lipstick Traces on a Cigarette, which peaked at # 28 on the R&B chart.  The next year, 1966, the group reached # 12 on the R&B chart with “Stand in for Love.”

Kenny Gamble & Leon A. Huff signed the O’Jays to their Philadelphia International label in 1972 and there they had their first and only million-selling single, “Back Stabbers” which reached #1 on the R&B chart and no. #3 pop on the US Billboard Hot 100 later that year.  In 1973, their hit “Love Train” followed, peaking at #9 on the R&B chart. Unusual for an R&B song, the lyrics of “Love Train” promoted global unity. While not as successful as “Back Stabbers,” it went gold, selling more than 500,000 copies. Many music critics considered it the birth of Philadelphia-style soul music.

The O’Jays received the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s Pioneer Award in 1997. In 2001, the O’Jays’ For the Love album released earlier in the year, was nominated for a Grammy in the category of Best Traditional R&B Vocal Album. Additionally, they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004 and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005. Four years later, in 2009, BET awarded the group the Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2011 they received the Trumpet Lifetime Achievement Award. The O’Jays were inducted into the National Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame in 2013, and in 2019, they receive the Soul Tracks Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 2019, it was discovered that much of the O’Jays original music scores and recording documents were destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire on the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles, California.