The O’Jays have always been a part of my musical core. And so much personal understanding of the Philly sound came by way of this vocal trio. From the first time hearing “Back Stabbers” on the radio and singing along with my mom all the way to ringing in the new millennium to the tune of their song “The Year 2000”. When looking upon a single song or album to break down,it didn’t quite feel right. So with Eddie Levert turning 74,and so many his generations music peers dying off this year,I decided to break down my favorite O’Jays uptempo grooves-song by song. So here come the Philly jams!
Henrique Hopkins and I once discussed this and the Undisputed Truth’s “Smiling Faces Sometimes” as being Watergate era cinematic soul anthems of paranoia. With the sauntering,theatrical proto disco Philly soul “Back Stabbers” made the darker social climate of the early 70’s wiggle and wobble with a type of excitement and joy.
The first time I heard this song,it reminded me of the song “Poppy Girls” from Quincy Jones’s production of The Wiz. Turns out that was an instrumental recasting of this song’s classic bass line. The original hear is a whole different thing-a frank bit of people funk declaring “some people gotta have it/some people really need it”. No irony is lost that the group performed this song one time on Donald Trump’s reality show The Apprentice.
Always loved this fast paced slice of ultra fast tempo’d Philly dance music. It’s an anthem to the disco era of funk as representative of the love of music for both dancing to and playing it as well as for singing. The most humorous part is the first did I heard it-as part of a VH1 bumper featuring a stereotypical female librarian listening to it on an MP3 player on a subway. Really showcased the funky power of this groove.
The sheer drama of this Afro Cuban percussion/disco bass driven jam made an immediate impact on my ear holes. Hearing the trio sing to the tune of some serious space funk synthesizer’s lyrics like “Come with me/unsolve the mystery/the mystery of you and me” alone made my hairs stand up on end with funky emotion.
So Full Of Love was an album that was always available brand new from Borders Books & Music since they opened in 1995. That very same copy was still there when I finally picked it up on closeout when the Borders chain closed 15 years later. It was a big surprise to hear this hardcore rocking funk on the same album that delivered the sleek Philly jump of “She Used Ta Be My Girl” and the harmony drenched ballad “Brandy”. One of my favorites in a funk context on this wonderful 1978 album.
This song probably has the most personal resonance in my personal life. Musically,it’s light shuffle isn’t too big a deal for me. Vocally it has some of Eddie’s strongest vocals and the trios fine harmonies. Lyrically,this was a song my own mother often referenced to me (via my own record collection-this song turned into a favorite of hers at the time) when I was facing the difficulties of employment and a future on my own. Long story short,it’s an ongoing journey of many unexpected challenges. Still it’s sometimes good to hear Eddie Levert’s opening line of “oh man,I’ve got to get myself together” for perspective.
The only reason I found out about the O’Jays 1985 album Love Fever was because I found it in the $5.99 bin,again at Borders. Much to my surprise it showcased the O’Jays doing a style of music I’d never have expected to hear from them at that time: brittle synth/electro funk. The opener “Can’t Slow Down” was my favorite. Showcases how some of soul finest harmony singers can bring out at the best in vocal samplers and other mid 80’s technology.
There are many O’Jay’s albums that are not represented with songs on this particular list. That’s because the O’Jays discography is so large,I have yet to hear all of their studio albums. These are just some of the ones that stuck out to for me. What the O’Jays have always represented to me is Gamble & Huff parlaying their talent for writing message songs. Than utilizing their most powerful vocal trio to preach the gospel of humanism. And on Eddie Levert’s birthday this year,that is what I want to celebrate most about them.