The legendary O’Jays lead singer speaks exclusively with TFSR about his new music, his career, and Brandy the dog.
How do you react when you get an email that Eddie Levert, co-founder and co-lead singer of The O’Jays, would very much like to do an interview with you? Well, for us, we immediately turned to our vinyl collection and put ‘Love Train’ on repeat. As soulies everywhere know, Eddie Levert is one of the greatest singers and performers of all-time. Along with friend and bandmate Walter Williams, Levert has been recording and performing with The O’Jays for over half a century. Together they have crafted hit aft hit, creating classics such as ‘Backstabbers’, ‘For The Love of Money’, and ‘I Love Music’. They’ve released eight top twenty albums, they’ve been awarded the BET Lifetime Achievement Award, and they’ve been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And now, one of them wanted to speak to us.
(The O’Jays (L-R): Eddie Levert, William Powell and Walter Williams)
By the magic medium of Skype we’re connected with Eddie. We start by talking about his new music, and the fact that his latest single ‘Say It Ain’t So‘ has reached number 25 on one of the US charts: “I feel like a pioneer, I just got to be number twenty five on the charts here. I feel that old school artists don’t get much airplay anymore, so I feel like I’m exploring, discovering new territory for old school music.”
In fact, Eddie has two more singles out: the brilliant ballad ‘Did I Make You Go Ooh‘, and the political ‘Shit Starter‘. But, for Eddie, along with many other artists of his generation, getting momentum for a new record and airplay is an ever increasingly difficult thing. Understandably, Eddie is annoyed with the state of the musical industry, saying that:
“I think, you know, we’ve had a time where it seems they were trying to bury us and trying to through us in the background and just making room for new artists, which is great because you got to keep evolving. But I don’t think you should just throw away the people who have helped trail blaze this music. They want you to feel that you’re old and you should make room for the new. That’s all well and good, but I don’t think you should kill someone off.”
If Eddie’s latest work wasn’t very good, then perhaps we would argue differently. However, his new singles are really rather good. ‘Shit Starter’ is probably our favourite, if only because the music video is so good. For those who haven’t seen it, Eddie has spliced himself into an interview with Fox News’ aggravator-in-chief Bill O’Reilly, with Eddie advising O’Reilly to ‘get a better suit, and a better haircut’. On asking Eddie about it, he says that:
“I was trying to make a statement about what’s going on politically right now, with some of the newscasters and the news stations, and how they were so negative as far as our president is concerned. So, it seems like they were always looking for bad things to say about him, so I made this record called ‘Shit Starter’ because they never had anything good to say.”
But what about his singling out of Bill O’Reilly? Would Bill, famous for his seemingly un-ironic use of the slogan ‘no spin-zone’ , be welcome at an O’Jays concert?
“Listen, we were just playing the Beacon Theatre in New York, and you want to know who was on the front row? O’Reilly! I mean I couldn’t believe it you know, and I was on stage and doing the show, and I kept walking over there and I had to stop the performance and say, ‘You know man, you look like Bill O’Reilly!” And he gave me the peace sign! It was really great. Above and beyond doing the CD and to focus on him primarily, it only says that he is the man that I recognise that you are a guy sitting in a position that you can make the news or break the news. So I do admire the man a great deal, I just don’t like the things he’s saying. And since I did the video he’s changed his haircut and got a new suit!”
Since Eddie released the video last summer things in American politics have, of course, become much darker thanks to the rise of poorly made wig enthusiast Donald J. Trump. Eddie laughs when I suggest the video needs re-filming, chuckling that “I regret I didn’t put him in the video!” Then he turns serious, for, as Eddie puts it, The O’Jays and the Donald do “have some history”:
“[H]e used our ‘For The Love of Money’ for the theme song for his Apprentice show. You know, now that he has surfaced as a candidate for president, you got to be careful who you take money from. I think it’s really scary the things he represents and says. Then he says them, then he comes back, well I didn’t mean that I mean this, how can you get a beat on a guy like that? How can you know what he really means?”
We quickly decide to leave Donald Trump in the past, coincidentally where his views belong. We return to the music and The O’Jays, and Eddie gave us a very thorough background on how the group began:
“We were all in school together and we were doing semester exams, and doing those exams you only go to school half a day. So we were messing around after that half day in school, we got in the hallway, you know just goofing off, and we started harmonising together. Then because of the how sound resonated in the hallway it started really great, so we all go together: me, Walt Williams, William Powell, Bill Isles and Bobby Massey. So we started out practicing at Bobby’s house and we ran into a DJ by the name of Eddie O’Jay, and we went to Cincinnati and recorded some music down there in James Brown’s country. We did a song called Lonely Rain and that was the first record we did as The O’Jays.
“Then we started doing what they called ‘Beach Music’, that was when we did Lipstick Traces and Lonely Drifter and that stuff. We were categorised alongside Jan & Dean and The Beach Boys. We were pop before we were R&B. We were not doing a lot of black gigs, what I mean is that we were not performing for a lot of black people, we were doing more crossover, white audiences and selling most of our records there.
“So we wanted to get into R&B, and we went to New York to record with George Kerr and did the song I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow Than I Was Yesterday. That started us off in the R&B thing. Its a shame that no one new who we were in the black community until we started doing R&B records. Then we went from George Kerr to Philly International, and started doing stuff with Gamble and Huff. They were able to capitalise on our gospel background and brought us into R&B music.
“Before that we lost Bill Isles to love. He fell in love with a girl in California and we went on vacation and we said we would meet back in like two weeks, and he never came back. Love got him! Bobby Massey went to learn about the industry, about how publishing and all that worked he wanted to be more involved in the business side. He tried to incorporate us into that, but we wanted to be stars on stage and weren’t thinking about the business. So we lost him to the business.
“But when you think about it, the three, that was the nucleus of the group. That was the sound. And we capitalised on that sound, because there was nothing that we couldn’t do vocally as far as those three voices went. When we did Backstabbers, Love Train and all of that, we were able to catch that sound. It was just unbelievable.”
Interestingly, compared to other R&B/soul groups, mentioning no names, The O’Jay’s line-up has been remarkably consistent: both lead singers, Eddie and Walter, have remained since the group’s founding, bringing in a third singer when William Powell died in 1977, hiring Sammy Strain (an original member with Little Anthony & The Imperials) to replace him, and later Eric Nolan Grant to replace Strain, who left to rejoin The Imperials.
“I think me and Walt are really the sound of The O’Jays, and if you ever lose that you don’t really have The O’Jays, and we will be forever stuck together because of that. We realised that, so we try to, any differences that come up or anything like that, we always make sure we keep it business and don’t let personal things come between us and The O’Jays. “There’s nothing more important than that image. That’s why I think the Rolling Stones are going to be around forever because they keep the ingredients the same. I think the true ingredients must stay the same.”
For those of us based in the UK, seeing The O’Jays visit is a rarity. The last time the group performed on these shores was back in 2014 for two dates in London, their first UK dates in over twenty years. Yet, despite not regular visitor to the UK, Eddie enthuses about his UK fans and what they mean to him and The O’Jays. Indeed, he’s quick to point out that “[w]e recorded Live in London over there, a great great record for us”.
During the last UK dates The O’Jays performed a couple of songs that had been requested, the delicious ‘Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby‘ and the rare gem ‘My Favourite Person‘. Yet the group hadn’t performed these in a while, and on My Favourite Person Eddie had to pull out a piece of paper with the lyrics on:
“Look, I have to tell you, I’ll be honest, we haven’t done that song in so many years but because of all the request and the way the people in London wanted to hear that song, we had to refresh our memories and walk out there with the lyrics on a piece of paper, so we could remember what we were singing about! “It’s a great thing – where you have so many songs you have to work into your show at different times, and in different places those songs mean a lot to a lot of people. So you got to do research when you go to certain areas. And we still didn’t get to cover a lot of what you people wanted to hear!”
We mention that next time he and the group come over, which Eddie hopes will be sometime this year, (‘I would really love to come back sometime this year. I’ve been on my manager and promoters… I really want to spend more time there’) they should perform the eighties groove standard ‘Put Our Heads Together‘. It seems however, that we’re not the only one who has put in for that track: ‘we had a lot of requests for that, that’s what I think Im going to practice now and put it in the show.’
Now, it is no secret that we here at TFSR has a love affair with the O’Jays’ song ‘Brandy’. Walter Williams sings the lead, with Eddie providing backup. It’s a beautiful ballad written by Joseph B. Jefferson and Charles B. Simmons, but the rumour is that the song is not about a beautiful woman called Brandy, but about a dog who ran away. Is the rumour true? Eddie’s reply: “Yes it is!”
“Once people found out it was about a dog, I think it sort of hurt the sales because a lot of girls thought it was about a girl called Brandy. But when they found out it was about a dog, it was a turn off.”
An interesting factoid from the archives is that Eddie, along with Walter Williams, sang backup on Stevie Wonder’s Hotter Than July album with Michael Jackson:
“You know, Stevie, Walt and I go back a long way. He played on a song we did on Philly International. Anyway, he asked us to do this and we had a chance to do the background session with Michael Jackson and Betty Wright The funny thing is that Steve has no conception of what time is, I guess its because of his blindness. We were supposed to start at nine in the evening, be a three hour session and we’d be done. He didn’t get there until 3 in the morning and we didn’t finish until day break and you know, he’s like ‘what’s wrong with everybody? Are you sleepy?!’’
“Stevie loves to crack jokes. He’s just turning 66 and I think the passing of Prince really affected him, Steve is a humanitarian. He’s one of those people you just want to spend time with, and I’m so fortunate that as great as he is, as talented as he is, as legendary as he is I’m so grateful to be able to call him my friend.”
Of course, Eddie’s life has not been without tragedy and heartache. He was the father of two sons who followed him into the music industry, Gerald and Sean, two of the group nineties supergroup Levert. In an unbelievably sad turn of events, Gerald died in 2006 and Sean died just two years later. Eddie and Gerald had spent a lot of time together performing and recording, including the brilliant album Father & Son which features some of Eddie’s best vocal performances.
“Look, I think the Backstabbers album was a great album for the O’Jays, and I think the Father & Son album sits right in there, you know. Some of my greatest moments on stage were with that kid. I really miss him a lot. We were able to relate musically, and I think that helped our relationship as father and son. We were able to relate to one another to what life was dealing us. I really think that we were headed for greater things, but you know in retrospect, he wanted to be a single artists and I think that’s what his striving for. I think he wrote some great music for his own self and his own individual career, I think he was very prolific. He never got a chance to see how great he was.”
We just enjoyed one another. I really miss him. I wish we had made it to the UK. But when I do my Eddie Levert show when I’m away from The O’Jays, we do a lot of stuff that me and him did.”
So then, what does Eddie make of his legacy and the fact that his music is still being played and discovered today?
“That’s what’s so amazing about it George, these songs still resonate with the truth and what’s going on. It’s almost like things keep going 360, and keep coming back around. These songs are forever, they’re relative to what’s going on in everyday life. Isn’t that amazing?”
It sure is.