It was a packed house at the Grammy Museum Aug, 29 when the legendary R&B group the O’Jays — Eddie Levert Sr., 77, Walter Williams Sr., 74, and Eric Nolan Grant — took to the stage to talk about their new album and to reflect on their 61 years in the music business.
Moderated by Grammy Museum Executive Director Scott Goldman, a love fest quickly enveloped the room as fans shouted out accolades to the group and promptly sang along with the trio’s hits that were played in between the interview.
For nearly six decades, the trio has been performing, turning out hits like “Backstabbers,” “Family Reunion,” “992 Arguments” “Love Train” and “For the Love of Money.” Along the way, they racked up 15 gold and platinum records and were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
To the surprise of the audience, the O’Jay’s announced that their first CD recording in 15 years, “The Last Word,” will be their final studio album, and they have been spending the summer touring the country one last time.
“I’m 77 years old,” Levert has told the media. “How many times can I keep bending my back? How many times can I fall my knees? How many times can I run across a stage?”
Williams has revealed that he is battling multiple sclerosis, but that it never stopped him from doing what he loves — performing on stage. He said having a positive attitude and taking advantage of treatments has helped him to manage the disease.
He’s also been vocal about the political climate, urging people to get out and vote in the next election.
“It’s up to us because everybody needs to get involved and express themselves,” he said. “You have to participate in the movement that makes change.”
Known for their strong, inspirational messages, the trio said that “The Last Word” is full of socially conscious songs that cover such topics as police abuse, women’s rights, the political climate, the current administration and the younger generation.
“The album was instigated by (executive producers) Toby Ludwick and Steve Greenberg,” Levert said. “They kept telling us, ‘You need to cut a record to let fans know that you are still in the business.”
The trio said the album delivers a message of hope during these troubled times.
“We felt like this was something that needed to be said because it feels like the country is taking a step backward,” Levert said.
“We see what’s been going on. Why do we want to go back there? Where are we going? We’ve done this already and we’re not going to stand for that,” he added.
The nine-track album, released by S-Curve Records/BMG and produced by Greenberg and Mike Mangini, also features contributions from songwriter Sam Hollander, Bruno Mars and Pat Monahan from the rock group Train, who penned the song “Enjoy Yourselves.”
“We feel the goodness and freshness in that song. It’s something that catches the ear and makes you want to jump on it,” Levert said.
Singer/songwriter Betty “The Cleanup Woman” Wright and Angelo Morris co-wrote “Above the Law,” the politically charged lead single from “The Last Word.”
“Betty is a great performer and a great singer,” Levert said. “She taught us the melody. The song is very well written, lyrically solid, so she knew what she wanted.”
Despite a slew of hits that ruled the charts in the 1970s, the legendary trio noted that the music industry has drastically changed from when they began recording.
“You had the Spinners, the Chilites, and the Temptations. Nowadays, it’s a popularity contest — you become the flavor of the month,” Levert said, noting how the new generation’s musical tastes have changed.
“You guys have been doing this for 61 years,” Goldman pointed out. “Sometimes it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.”
“I don’t know who you’re calling a dog — and an old dog at that,” Levert said as the audience chuckled.
Levert and Williams said they grew up in Canton, Ohio and met as children.
“These boys moved into the neighborhood,” Williams recalled, referring to Eddie and his brothers. “They had boxing gloves and they were [constantly] boxing each other. They tried to beat me up — and we became friends.”
In their teen years, they formed a group called the Triumphs and they sang gospel and do-wop. Back then, the place to sing was a club called The Baby Grand.
“We were too young to enter the club — we were about 16 or 17 years old — but we used to climb on boxes and crates and stare in the windows to watch B. B. King and Bo Diddley perform at the club,” Levert said.
Apparently, watching the musical giants paid off, because it wasn’t long before the trio was doing gigs at the Baby Grand.
“We packed it out every night on the weekend — there would be about 350 people a night at the club,” Levert said.
“During the course of your career, it wasn’t easy. You weren’t exactly killing it,” Goldman pointed out.
But the group’s fortunes changed when they met writers and producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and signed with Philadelphia International Records.
“They came to Akron to see the Intruders and the Intruders introduced us to them,” Williams said. “They liked the gospel feeling and flavor in how we addressed a song.”
“We want you to come to Philly to start recording,” Williams recalls Gamble and Huff saying.
The trio said they struggled to record a hit.
“We spent a lot of time trying to determine if we should be doing what we’re supposed to be doing or if we should go get a job,” Williams said.
It wasn’t until the group recorded “Backstabbers” in 1972 that their careers took off.
“We were on vacation and this song comes on the radio. ‘Hell, that’s us!’” Levert recalled. “The song highlighted what’s been happening in life and has been going on for years. Everybody could relate to it.”
“In our heart, we knew that we had officially arrived and done something that was really great,” Williams added.
Then the trio recorded “Love Train,” a song about peace, love and understanding.
“We get in the studio, but nobody in that room knew that that song would be as big as it was,” Levert said. “To this day, ‘Love Train’ is the biggest record we have ever made.”
The group is proud to have been inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and received the BET Lifetime Achievement Award.
After decades of recording music, the trio also talked about finally being inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.
“Justin Timberlake inducted us,” Williams said. “We had been nominated so many times and didn’t make it. I attribute (our being inducted) to the fact that there were people who really wanted us to be in the Hall of Fame.”
“I feel like I grew up with them,” said Carolyn Williams, 66, a fan sitting in the audience who had been listening to the O’Jays since she was a teen.
“I just loved all of their music. One of my favorite songs is ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ Listening to them is so amazing and they still sound good today because they sing from their heart.”
Despite the fact that the O’Jays have announced their retirement, Grant, who joined the group in 1995, still has his doubts.
“Eddie has a Rolls Royce, a house as big as a shopping mall and another one as big as a shopping center. So we might have to still do this for a while,” he chuckled.
By Shirley Hawkins