After six decades The O’Jays are calling it a day. But they aren’t riding off into the sunset quietly, they’ve still got plenty more to say.
In an industry where groups split up and replace members on what seems like a daily basis, The O’Jays are a welcome anomaly. For six decades, Walter Williams and Eddie Levert have been singing together as co-lead singer of The O’Jays. Very few popular groups have enjoyed such a consistent line-up and a successful career.
But now, with old age beckoning, Williams and Levert have decided to retire The O’Jays. In a recent interview on NPR’s World Cafe, Levert said that at his age, “I want to quit while I’m ahead” and that “I don’t want to do it [perform] at this level any more”, suggesting he won’t be able to meet the “high expectations [people have] of The O’Jays” for much longer.
As The O’Jays near the end of their long road, Williams and Levert, along with band member Eric Nolan Grant (who joined the group in 1995), have released what is slated to be the group’s final album, The Last Word. It’s their last non-Christmas album since 2004’s Imagination, but it’s probably their best album in the past 20 years.
After watching The O’Jays recorded a segment on CBS TV announcing their retirement last year, producer Sam Hollander (writer and producer for the likes of One Direction and Panic! At The Disco) contacted the group asking who was producing their final album. He was told no album was planned, and eventually wound up leading the project himself.
In a wise move, Hollander and the album’s writers and co-producers have taken The O’Jays back to the lush Philadelphia Soul that made them household names.
Like the classic O’Jays albums of the past, The Last Word is both romantic and political.
The album’s first singe ‘Above The Law’ finds The O’Jays at their most political, drawing parallels with the social-political climate of today with that of the sixties and seventies, when the group first became successful. Written by soul icon Betty Wright and Angelo Morris, the song takes aim at President Trump and the Republican Party for the way they’ve changed the “lay and the law of the land”. If anything, the song is a depressing tale of inequality in America today.
The lyrics, touching on progress made (“Abe helped out a bit, Martin did what he could / And it might’ve worked out but evil exists”), poverty and inequality (“Re-invent slavery / Erase the war on poverty / Separate primarily by class”) and race (“Black boy on drugs imprisonment, and a heavy fine / White boy on drugs rehab and treatment to restore his mind”), are incredibly powerful. It’s even more powerful (and saddening) when you remember that The O’jays were singing about this stuff 40 years ago.
Similarly, on ‘Do You Really Know I Feel’, the group tackle inequality between black and white streets in America: “I hear the hungry babies crying / I see the poisoned rats dying… / Walk on the other side of town / Beautiful houses all around”. The punchline comes when Williams sings “it’s been 400 years” this way.
Things are a bit brighter on ‘Start Up (Show Love)’, but not a huge amount.
Even on the album’s standout track, “I Got You”, The O’Jays can’t resist another dig at the President, with Levert singing “Even if the sky begins to fall / Even if they try to build that wall / I Got You”.
“I Got You” is the album’s best track, returning The O’Jays to the lush, Philly Soul arrangements of the seventies. Close your eyes, and it could be 1975. The voices are older now, but for two guys nearing 80, Williams and Levert still sound like the perfect soul duo.
The rest of the album is more uplifting. Bruno Mars contributes a song, ‘Enjoy Yourself’, a cheeky little number that has Williams and Levert asking their lady if they’d enjoyed the previous night together. It’s breezy nature is a delight, and both Williams and Levert sound incredible.
The other stand-out is ‘Start Stoppin”, a disco-infused stomper somewhat reminiscent of ‘I Love Music’. There’s a great string arrangement, great vocals and a catchy hook. It’s a lovely piece of soulful pop.
The album closes on a remake of their 1967 recording, “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today)”. Levert gives us one of his trademark spoken-word intros, musing on how far he’s come since they first recorded the song: “I was just wild, I loved anything I saw in a skirt, had to have it… but I’ve learned, and I know how to act”. The song is a fitting farewell to a group that has come full circle, ending their recording career on the song that first set them on the path to stardom.
The Last Word succeeds as an album as it places The O’Jays right in their comfort zone. There’s no attempt to update their sound, no attempt to make them sound relevant in 2019. Let’s face it, The O’Jays and their music will always be relevant. So why force them to be something they’re not?
While other artists of The O’Jays ilk struggle to get record deals without either doing covers or duets (or both), we should give credit to Sam Hollander and the label for allowing The O’Jays to sound like The O’Jays on new material. There’s no gimmicks, no “special guests”, no covers and no attempt to update their sound. That’s the beauty of The Last Word.
So, will The Last Word really be The O’Jays final album? Probably. After all, it’s been while since Imagination was released in 2004. Williams and Levert both seem set on retiring from The O’Jays, even if they’re not committed to a specific end-date.
They’ve both spoken about doing their own things after The O’Jays name is retired. Both Williams and Levert have released solo albums (Levert also recorded albums with his late son Gerald), and Levert has done several solo shows in the past.
But whatever happens, it’ll be on their terms. The Last Word is a fantastic (and potentially final) album from The O’Jays, returning them to their glory days, one last time.