Wilson and Alroy's Record Reviews We listen to the lousy records so you won't have to.

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The O'Jays

Reviewed on this page:
Back Stabbers - Ship Ahoy - Survival - Family Reunion - Message Is The Music - Identify Yourself - Love Fever - Let Me Touch You - Emotionally Yours

Perhaps the best known of the Philly Soul groups (them or the Spinners), the O'Jays endured a lengthy apprenticeship before finding stardom. The Ohio vocal group first formed as the Triumphs in 1958, and were briefly the Mascots before being renamed by Cleveland DJ Eddie O'Jay. Though they had charting singles as early as 1963, it wasn't until they joined forces with Philadelphia International Records and writers/producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff that they achieved national recognition. You could argue (and indeed, I will argue) that Gamble/Huff's sound was a watered-down combination of elements from 60s Motown, but the love songs were romantic ("Use Ta Be My Girl"), the dance tracks were danceable ("I Love Music"), and they came up with some fine protest songs ("For The Love Of Money"). Unlike many soul acts, the O'Jays flourished in the early days of disco, but they didn't have a hit single after 1978.

The group never really broke up, but lead singer Eddie Levert occasionally recorded with his son Gerald, whose band LeVert had a big hit in the 80s, "Casanova," before Gerald's 2006 death. I haven't found a fan site yet; if you know of one, please tell me. (DBW)

Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, William Powell, Bobby Massey and Bill Isles, all vocals. Isles quit, 1965; Massey quit, 1971. Powell died 1977, replaced by Sam Strain.

In Philadelphia (1971)

Back Stabbers (1972)
Out of everyone who tried, Philly producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff were the only ones to successfully copy the Motown sound, and this was their biggest commercial hit: "Love Train" topped the charts, the title track went to #3, and three other singles charted ("Time To Get Down," "992 Arguments," "Sunshine"). But it's all so derivative it's scary: both the title track and "Shiftless, Shady, Jealous Kind of People" are ripoffs - thematically and musically - from Norman Whitfield's "Smiling Faces Sometimes"; "When The World's At Peace" is recycled Sly Stone by way of the Temptations; "Love Train" recalls a million late 60s pop/soul anthems; lead singer Eddie LeVert sounds like he's listened to way too many Four Tops records. So it's enjoyable - carefully written and lushly produced, without any of the embarrassing experiments Whitfield fell victim to - but uninventive. The crew of Philly musicians includes Vince Montana Jr.. (DBW)

Ship Ahoy (1973)
Probably the group's high point. Two more Top Ten hits: "Put Your Hands Together" is another Four Tops imitation, but "For The Love Of Money" is phenomenal funk, with compelling group vocals and an unforgettable phased bass line played by Anthony Jackson. Then there's the anthem "Now That We've Found Love," which was later recorded by Martha Reeves and still later became a smash hit for Heavy D. And though they're still copying Norm Whitfield's epic production style (in turn copied from Isaac Hayes), Gamble and Huff tackle an overlooked subject with the title track, a sound effect-laden meditation on the Middle Passage which brought Africans to the New World - a powerful if low-key mood piece that puts its ten-minute running time to good use. On the other hand, the nine minutes allotted to the bluesy "Don't Call Me Brother" is just excessive. Even the negligible tunes have nice touches: "People Keep Tellin' Me" has a propulsive bass line; the soulful "You Got Your Hooks In Me" is spiced with blues guitar licks. Mostly arranged by Bobby Martin; Norman Harris arranged two tracks and Lenny Pakula arranged the Latin-tinged "This Air I Breathe." (DBW)

Live In London (1974)

Survival (1975)
Along the lines of the previous studio albums, but much less ambitious: all the tracks run between three and five minutes, the adornments that made Ship Ahoy so enjoyable are replaced by dashed off, ordinary orchestrations (generally mellow, except for the repetitive guitar lick on the title track). The two singles hit Gamble/Huff's two main concerns without adding anything to what had been said before: the cry for social justice "Give The People What They Want" (#1 R&B) and the romantic plea "Let Me Make Love To You." "Rich Gets Richer" gets off to a promising start, pledging to tell us about "the rich and the super-rich, the poor and the super-poor" but it doesn't follow through. Aside from the sweet ballad "Where Did We Go Wrong," the melodies aren't up to scratch either, and I can't understand how some people rank the album as a high point. Arranged by Martin. (DBW)

Family Reunion (1975)
Once again, a mix of sweeping string-backed epics ("Unity," like Norm Whitfield without the psychedelic guitars) and downtempo mood music (title track, with prominent vibes and an embarrassing spoken guide to family roles), but this time it's all so mellow nothing makes a lasting impression. The one unqualified success is "I Love Music," driving pop with a rumbling keyboard hook, soaring vocals and that famous "get it on" refrain - it was a Top Ten hit. That track and two others were arranged by Norman Harris; Tony Bell and Martin arranged two tunes each. Lyrically it's the usual Gamble/Huff mix of vague social awareness ("She's Only A Woman," which is confusedly pro-woman) and love songs. "Livin' For The Weekend" (also a successful single) starts as a ripoff of Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man," before kicking into a gospelly dance tune. As would become customary, the liner notes include a rambling, platitudinous social message from Kenneth Gamble ("The generation gap is another evil plan... Remember the family that prays together stays together") - it's actually more entertaining than the music. (DBW)

Message In The Music (1976)
Gamble and Huff made some effort to stretch this time: "Paradise" opens with acoustic guitar and conga backing that strangely recalls Dylan circa Desire, and the expansive "Message In Our Music" has unusually loud guitars (though it repeats the bass line from "I Love Music"). But there are still the usual mid-tempo grooves with cascading strings ("Let Life Flow") and 50's-style raveups ("Make A Joyful Noise"), and slow ballads ("Desire Me"), and none of it's terribly catchy. The gospelly Curtis Mayfield imitation "A Prayer" is solemn and moving, but Wilson's Truth #206 still stands: If you have to tell people you have a message in your music, you probably don't. I can't figure out what the singles were, but in any case, they missed the pop charts. (DBW)

Travelin' At The Speed Of Thought (1977)
Produced by Gamble & Huff as usual, but many of the arrangements are by Dexter Wansel, and more distressingly there's a cover of Morris Alpert's "Feelings." I think this was William Powell's last recording with the group. (DBW)

So Full Of Love (1978)
With the hit "Use Ta Be My Girl." Sam Strain (formerly of Little Anthony and The Imperials) replaced Powell around this time. (DBW)

Identify Yourself (1979)
One of the many late 70s albums ruined by studious copying of disco formulas: "Sing A Happy Song" starts with the same conga pattern as Vicki Sue Robinson's "Turn The Beat Around," then shifts to the late disco metronomic alternating high hat/bass guitar. "So Nice I Tried It Twice" and "Get On Out And Dance" are similar but even less memorable. Even the relatively funky "Identify" suffers from the simplistic production, guitar and clavinet licks clobbered by The Beat. So the ballad "Hurry Up And Come Back," with its psychedelic echoey guitars, is a breath of fresh air, though the melody is trite and the chorus contains the lukewarm assessment "Your lovin' is pretty good." Can't say the same for the album. (DBW)

The Year 2000 (1980)
By now Gamble & Huff were leaning more heavily on staff writers McFadden & Whitehead ("You'll Never Know (All There Is To Know 'Bout My Love)") and Bunny Sigler ("Once Is Not Enough") - Walter Williams even scored a couple of co-writes ("You Won't Fail"). (DBW)

My Favorite Person (1982)
Gamble only co-wrote two songs here, and only wrote one with Huff (title track). Into the vacuum marched Cecil Womack ("Your True Heart (And Shining Star)") as well as holdovers McFadden & Whitehead ("I Like To See Us Get Down"), Sigler ("Your Body's Here With Me (But Your Mind's On The Other Side Of Town)") and Williams ("One On One," featuring Bernie Worrell). (DBW)

When Will I See You Again? (1983)

Love And More (1984)
Gamble & Huff again wrote most of the tunes, though Sigler slipped in two ("Give My Love To The Ladies") and Wansel and Cynthia Biggs managed one ("I Really Need You Now"). Doug Wimbish plays bass on Sigler's tunes while David Williams plays guitar on "Love You Direct." (DBW)

Love Fever (1985)
Dreadful programmed drum and synth noise, with every period gimmick including the stuttering sampled vocal ("Dollar Bill"). They ought to put a damn warning label on these things. In this environment, the group's harmony skills are useless, and since the tunes aren't catchy either, there's absolutely nothing to listen for. Several tracks were produced by Reggie Griffin, who apparently specialized in tarnishing the careers of 70s R&B stars. But Gamble and Huff were responsible for the self-congratulatory patriotic "I Love America." That other 1985 pop staple, the Africa's-in-trouble anthem, is so loaded with programmed drums it's hard to hear the words ("All Eyes On Africa"). One of the only bright spots is a rare Walter Williams lead on the pleasant love song "What Good Are These Arms Of Mine." (DBW)

Let Me Touch You (1987)
The synth clatter is turned way down, and instead the O'Jays borrow from a variety of sources: "I Just Want Somebody To Love Me" is a fine imitation of Ronald Isley's sweet imploring tenor; the title track - another ballad - features a Barry White-style spoken seduction. Both tracks were produced by LeVert and Williams; Gamble and Huff contributed three including "Don't Take Your Love Away" and the retro "Lovin' You." Most of the record, though, is by Thom Bell with partners Casey James and LeRoy Bell, and it's depressing how run-of-the-mill his compositions have become ("Undercover Lover"). Still, the production isn't grating, and there are no egregious misfires. Too 80s-sounding for soul purists, too insubstantial for serious listening, but the band did rejoin the ranks of the passably entertaining. (DBW)

Serious (1989)

Emotionally Yours (1991)
Another embarassing attempt to keep up with trends: unimaginative synth/drum programming and simple catchphrases drive tracks like "Something For Nothing" and "Don't Let Me Down," and the love songs aren't much better ("Make It Feel Good"). "Lies" is a low point, a painful Minneapolis Sound exercise borrowing the hook from Prince's "Lady Cab Driver," and adding a Levert rap for bad measure; The Jaz adds a ridiculous rap to "Respect." Like many CD-era releases, the disc attempts to make up for a lack of hits with a long running time. The moving title track is present in two mixes: the dull, Narada Michael Walden-produced "R&B Mix" and the majestic "Gospel Mix," which features an underused all-star choir (James "J.T." Taylor, Evelyn "Champagne" King, Sarah Dash, Phyllis Hyman, Keith Sweat, and more). Najee drools sax on the seven-minute ballad "If I Find Love Again." Most tracks are written and produced by Levert, Williams, Terry Stubbs and Dwain Mitchell. (DBW)

Home For Christmas (1991)
After this release, Strain went back to the Imperials, and was replaced by Nathaniel Best. (DBW)

Heartbreaker (1993)

Love You To Tears (1997)
Producers include Keith Sweat, Edwin Nicholas, Joe Little III and Walter Williams. (DBW)

In 1998, Eddie LeVert appeared on Patti LaBelle's Live! One Night Only. (DBW)

For The Love... (2001)

Imagination (2004)

I'm just warming up.

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