After 60 years of showstopping and entertaining massive audiences, veteran vocal trio The O’Jays have decided to close the curtain. The elder statesmen of socially conscious soul music and gut-wrenching romantic ballads comprised of original members Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and their latest addition Eric Nolan Grant (since 1995) are releasing their swan song and first studio album in 15 years, The Last Word, this Friday, April 19th.
The sound of the record doesn’t drift too far from their Philly Sound messaging and arrangements. Yet, the group doesn’t want to come off as musical relics in an era of streaming music, Vevo and ProTools. “You always want to leave out with a bang,” a raspy-voiced but delightful Levert says. “This album covers the things we’ve always done; we got the message and the groovy songs in there. It’s only what we’ve been doing, but we’re bringing it into the hip-hop generation and hope that they can gravitate to it.”
Executive produced by Betty Wright, Steve Greenberg, Michael Mangini and Sam Hollander, The Last Word is a 36-minute nostalgic reminder of why The O’Jays are vocally superior crusaders for humanity. The Canton, Ohio natives’ nine-song collection heavily critiques the Trump administration and comments on contemporary world affairs. “Stand Up (Show Love)” is a toe-tapping, percussive and piano-heavy gospel number rich with harmonies, while “Pressure” showcases the group’s blues influences.
“I Got You” advocates for community, solidarity and unity. “Above the Law” interrogates racial prejudice and social injustice. The Latin-inspired “Enjoy Yourself” was penned by Grammy-winning hitmakers Bruno Mars and Train lead vocalist Patrick Monahan. The Rock & Roll, R&B Music and Vocal Group Hall of Famers whose name was inspired by iconic Cleveland disc jockey Eddie O’Jay weren’t physically in the studio with Mars or Monahan, but they knew the song’s lush string arrangements and subject matter were special when Hollander presented them with the material.
“We didn’t get a chance to work with them [Mars and Monahan],” Levert says, “but it’s the song that’s going to keep this album going for a long, long time.”
The O’Jays’ decision to retire encourages Levert to flashback to some pivotal memories, reminding him of the trio’s unprecedented ascension into popular music. The group’s initial incarnation, The Mascots (later The Triumphs), consisted of Levert, Williams, Bill Isles, Bobby Massey and William Powell. The quintet sang in the park and coming home from school until a Greek store owner in their neighborhood approached the young men, asking if they knew of anyone that could sing.
Almost instantly, the five members started practicing more and were shopped around to various record labels in New York until they landed at the Cincinnati-based imprint, King Records, home of James Brown. The guys auditioned and went right into the studio to cut records. By the time The O’Jays were signed to Philadelphia International Records (PIR) in 1972, the fivesome had downsized to a troika. They proceeded to craft a bevy of timeless classics, million sellers and massive chart successes such as “Back Stabbers,” “For the Love of Money,” “Love Train,” “Family Reunion,” “I Love Music,” “Use Ta Be My Girl,” “Cry Together,” “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby [Sweet Tender Love], “Livin’ For the Weekend” and “Stairway to Heaven.”
To this day, The O’Jays continue to wow audiences with those same songs and choreography. It was late Motown choreographer Cholly Atkins who conditioned The O’Jays to commit themselves to a seven-day practice regimen for six hours per day over an eight-week span. Atkins, Levert remembers, encouraged The O’Jays to be consistent in front of audiences through repetition.
Because the BET Lifetime Achievement Award honorees diligently worked to learn their discography and dance routines, Levert, a self-coined “straightforward singer who refrains from using a lot of runs and riffs,” believes muscle memory is the unspoken secret to The O’Jays’ success. “If you do music and you’ve done it long enough,” Levert said, “the feet, hands and vocals automatically go into doing what they’re supposed to do.”
Levert, who turns 77 this coming June, acknowledges that his body is aging, but he refuses to allow himself to get old. “I sing,” Levert proclaims, joking his pipes are “a little shaky and gets hoarse really quick if he sings too hard.” “I don’t rely on vocal tricks and how many runs I can do. I just wanna hold a note, keep it clean and make sure everybody understands what I’m saying.”
Between cascades of chuckles and jokes, Levert goes on: “I’ve taken these legs, knees and hips through it. I refuse to sit down or go out there in a wheelchair. I don’t want to do that, and I’m praying to God that doesn’t happen to me. I love singing, but I don’t wanna go that far. I can’t give everything to music or to the people.”
Recording The Last Word was The O’Jays’ wakeup call to some of the changes in recording. When The O’Jays were under the direction of legendary composers and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at PIR, the songs were always conceived in Gamble’s office or in one of the rehearsal halls. The group would listen to demos with writers and producers like Bunny Sigler, Gene McFadden and John Whitehead, Thom Bell or Gamble and Huff, and pick the songs they liked.
“Huff was playing the piano like a one-man band,” Levert vividly remembers. “You could hear the drums with just him playing the piano. We had a hallelujah time well before we got into the studio.”
Also crediting exceptional session players for their musicianship, Levert says the Gamble and Huff sessions were “highly collaborative.” Gamble was the song’s “architect,” while Huff played piano “like Beethoven.” The O’Jays, Levert says, were “the preachers” for the songs.
“We were the pastors: the guys that delivered the message,” Levert explains. “We put the topping on it. I lived those songs. Those songs were in my heart, my mind, body and soul.” Levert continues: “With Gamble and Huff, we lived with those songs until we knew those songs backwards and forwards. We knew what words to put the emphasis on or what melody to be passionate with because we lived with the song. Once you hear the music, it takes you to another level. It was spiritual. It was almost like going to church. It was so satisfying; if we didn’t get a hit record, we knew we had something good.”
Nowadays, The O’Jays think of recording in the Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music era as “a conveyor belt.” “They don’t give you a chance to live with the song nowadays,” Levert reflects.
Offstage, Levert, the father of late singer-songwriters Gerald and Sean Levert, paints and writes in his spare time. The O’Jays recently suffered another loss to cancer with Isles, once The O’Jays’ tour manager who ended up with a career in pharmaceuticals, last March. Isles’ death resembled the same turn of events that claimed core member Powell’s life in 1977. “He’d gotten so sick, you could hardly understand what he was saying,” Levert says. “He’s always going to be a part of my life, my history and who I am.”
Levert maintains a high spirit and resilience that motivates him to press on when tragedy strikes. “I’ve had so much death in my family and in my life,” Levert confides. “I can only hurt so long. I must go on and help the people around me that are alive and help them have a better day.”
Toxic energy and negative attitudes, Levert says, also fuel his easygoing demeanor and unshakeable faith. “I have bad thoughts just like everybody else,” he alerts, “but I pray that the Lord forgives me of those thoughts, and I move on. He would not put anything on me I can’t handle. Consequently, I find pleasure in everything.”
Levert’s friendship and professional relationship with Williams, now a spokesperson and ambassador for multiple sclerosis, is going on 65 years strong. The smoky-voiced vocalist admits he and Williams agree to disagree but put the bigger picture before their personal issues. “The business of singing takes precedence over our personal feelings,” Levert said.
“This takes care of my family and his family. We have an entourage of people we have to take care of. We keep it all business. Yes, we don’t get along all of the time. We get a third person to sit in there and decide where the majority rules.”
By no means is the retirement of The O’Jays the end of music. Levert insists that a lot more is in store from him creatively: reiterating the changes in recording, his body and the music business has humbly encouraged him to relax.
“I still have to do this,” Levert proclaims. “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it. I’m retiring from the O’Jay thing, but I’m not retiring from music. I will always be in music. I’m still competitive. I still wanna win and be considered one of the best.”
“Music is my calling; that’s what the good Lord wanted me to do,” Levert concludes. “If I have inspired anybody or made them see some kind of light or a brighter light, I think I’ve fulfilled my purpose.”