Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The O’Jays.  We’ll Never Forget You: The Imperial Years, 1963-1966.  
Shout! Records, 2012  The O’Jays:  http://theojayshomepage.com/

Anyone who listened to the radio in the 1970s or 1980s knows the O’Jays.  They were a prime exponent of the Philadelphia Sound, and one of the biggest R&B acts of the time.  But before their first big hit, “Back Stabbers” (1972) and the later “Love Train,” they kicked around for more than a decade, honing their skills, going through name changes, personnel changes, and putting out records that occasionally cracked the Billboard Hot 100.  And they weren’t from Philadelphia.  It started instead in Canton, Ohio.

There were lots of teenage vocal groups back in the mid-1950s in Northeast Ohio, and every big high school had several, including McKinley High in Canton.  Most of them faded, but a group called the Triumphs came together there and didn’t disappear.  The original members were Eddie Levert, Bobby Massey, Walter Williams, Bill Isles, and William Powell.  Influenced by Frankie Lyman & the Teenagers, they began their career in the doo-wop style popular at the time.  As musical tastes changed, they switched to a more soul/pop sound that occasionally reflected other groups such as the Drifters and the Temptations.  They played local clubs, and eventually saw a lot of the “Chitlin’ Circuit,” the network of African American nightclubs where R&B acts of the era spent a lot of their time.  After changing their name to the Mascots, then to the O’Jays (after Cleveland radio DJ Eddie O’Jay) they bounced between a couple of record labels before landing at Imperial Records.  There they began churning out singles in earnest, some placing well on the Billboard R&B charts.  After 1966, they moved again, eventually ending up working with the team of Gamble and Huff, the masterminds behind the sound of Philly Soul.

This CD presents nearly all their output for Imperial Records, A and B sides, and it shows an O’Jays that most people haven’t heard.  Their sound, beginning with a re-release of their early doo-wop song, “Crack Up Laughing,”  is like nothing they did in the 1970s, but has a sound that is solidly 60s, R&B heading for soul, with major elements of pop music thrown in.  They sound great to these ears, but then I was a kid in that decade, glued to the radio and crazy about the music I heard.  While I never heard one of these 28 tracks, they sound oddly familiar, fitting right in with the spirit of the times and feel like long lost friends I vaguely remember.  It’s easy to hear the Temptations in their first charting single, “Lonely Drifter,” and later releases, such as “I’ll Never Forget You.”  The Drifters are hanging in the air, ghostlike, in half the songs here.  Other influences are less obvious, but they tried their hand at dance/pop music, New Orleans R&B, more bluesy material, and songs that make me think of the British Invasion years.  While a lot of what they did was derivative, the music was done at a high level of professionalism, and they didn’t just imitate.  One can hear something else developing over time, an identity forming.  

Production values on the remastered recordings are excellent.  John Reed’s fine liner notes present the details of a group struggling to find itself and sometimes succeeding.  Anyone who enjoys 60s soul and R&B is likely to find a great deal of interest.  It’s all here, and it all sounds like summer, from 1963 to 1966.

Personnel:  Eddie Levert, Bobby Massey, Walter Williams, Bill Isles, William Powell
Tracks:  Crack Up Laughing; How Does It Feel; Lonely Drifter; That’s Enough; Stand Tall; The Storm is Over; I’ll Never Stop Loving You; My Dearest Beloved; You’re on Top; Lovely Dee; Girl Machine; Oh, How You Hurt Me; Lipstick Traces (on a Cigarette); Think It Over, Baby; Whip It on Me Baby; I’ve Cried My Last Tear; You’re the One; Let It All Out; I’ll Never Let You Go; It Won’t Hurt; I’ll Never Forget You; Pretty Words; No Time for You; A Blowing Wind; Stand in for Love; Friday Night; I’m Gonna Make It; Time is on My Side.

The Grand Wazoo

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