Cleveland’s own O’Jays just wrapped up a 20-city tour, and they acted in the upcoming film The Fighting Temptations with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Beyonce Knowles. JoAnne Allen interviewed them for Reuters:
- It is not the first time the O’Jays have appeared in a movie, but it is the first one that matters to them.
“It’s the first time we’ve done one where we’ve had speaking lines (and) that we were playing characters,” Levert said. He thinks everyone will want to see this movie “because we’re in it and we sang some great songs.”
“And it’s a family movie,” Williams chimes in.
It also takes them back to their musical roots.
“Gospel is our background,” Williams said. “My father was the choir director at St. Mark’s Baptist Church. He had Eddie and I (in the choir) at very young ages so that’s pretty much where our soul started.”
Doing the movie was part of the trio’s ongoing effort to stay current and in the public eye. All three say they would like to do more films.
They are also writing a book about their lives, which is due out in about a year, and Williams reveals that he is working on a solo project that he has long dreamed of.
“I want to sing Nat Cole. I want to do an album singing Nat Cole. ‘Walt sings Nat Cole,”‘ said Williams. I’d like to do it real soon.”
The one thing they are not thinking about doing any time soon is retire.
“Should I retire at 59?” Williams asks. “I don’t think so.”
He explains that despite the frustrations of competing with younger artists who have huge radio audiences and having to hunt for their music “in the back, undercover” in record stores, “overall, it’s still a joy.”
Levert adds that for him performing is therapeutic and that he’s not about to give it up. “I’m 61 and I’ve been doing this 43 years, so the legs are probably the first thing that start going on you and your back,” he said, making clear that there are days when he doesn’t feel up to going on stage.
“But you make yourself get up… and you get in the limo and you go to the venue and the man says ‘The O’Jays’ and all of a sudden all of that goes away,” Levert said. “You’ve been healed by this music.”
I spoke with legendary songwriter Leon Huff, of Gamble and Huff, about their salad days in the ’70s with the O’Jays and Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes.
By ’71 G&H were tired of moving their tent from label to label and approached CBS president Clive Davis about a deal for an imprint of their own, to be distributed by CBS.
Recalls Huff, “Clive was blown away by our talent, and it was a great move for us and them. Our company (Philadelphia International) really took off after we signed the O’Jays.
“I remember flying into Cleveland – a disc jockey had called to say ‘Man there’s a group in Cleveland that’s raising hell’ – so we took a flight out to Cleveland and went to see them at a club. They had lines around the corner. Those guys were tearing that club up. We stayed in Cleveland until we signed them. We took them back to Philadelphia and recorded and recorded and recorded.”
With the O’Jays, and Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, the world of Gamble and Huff came together. In the ’70s G&H scored ten No. 1 R&B and nine Top 40 pop hits with the O’Jays; four No. 1 R&B and four Top 20 hits with Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes.
But more importantly, all the disparate elements of the G&H sound coalesced into something new: music with rhythmic muscle, melodic sophistication and orchestral leavening, combined with a newfound social and interpersonal awareness, all funneled through the great pipes of the O’Jays’ Eddie Levert and the Bluesnotes’ Teddy Pendergrass.
Recorded at G&H’s Sigma Sound with engineer Joe Tarsia, the roll began with the O’Jays’ “Backstabbers,” a remarkable combination of shimmering strings, Latin percussion, post-modern paranoia and a palpable sense of “this is it – there is nothing any of us could or should be doing other than making this music.”
G&H weren’t following Motown (where Norman Whitfield was making parallel strides) or anyone else (Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes were independently exploring some of the same terrain) – G&B were leading.
In addition to making hits, G&H allowed house band MFSB to stretch out in the grooves of the songs, laying a funky foundation for the extended disco remixes of the later-’70s. Album cuts of such uptempo masterworks as the Bluenotes’ “Bad Luck” and “The Love I Lost”; MFSB’s “TSOP” (The Soul Train theme song) and “Love Is the Message”; and the O’Jays’ “992 Arguments,” “I Love Music” and (best) “For the Love of Money” reached lengths of up to 10-minutes of dance floor ecstasy.
“Money” is Huff’s all-time favorite “for the [anti-greed] message and for the song. I used to go the O’Jays concerts and they would drive people insane when they would close the show with that song.”