The mighty O’Jays returned to the UK for a one-off performance at London’s Theatre Royal.
There are few groups that can say they’ve been performing for six decades with the original lead singers. The O’Jays have done both.
For nearly 60 years, Eddie Levert and Walter Williams have performed together as co-leads of The O’Jays, one of the greatest vocal groups in music history. Along with the great writers and producers at Philadelphia International Records, they’ve crafted some of the best soul classics around, and became two of the greatest soul singers around in the process.
Today, both men are in their seventies but they’re still out on the road together and their voices, praise the Lord, are still as satisfying as ever.
The duo met at school when Levert was 7 and Williams was 6. They formed a group in their native Ohio, consisting of themselves and William Powell, Bob Massey and Bill Isles. In 1963, in a tribe to a radio DJ named Eddie O’Jay, the group renamed themselves The O’Jays.
Yet, despite their reputation for exhilarating live performances, commercial success largely eluded them throughout the sixties. Their fortunes would change when they signed with the new Philadelphia International Records label, but by this point the quintet were now a trio as Massey and Isles quit the business. That left Levert, Williams and Powell to continue.
Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, the masterminds behind Philadelphia International, were able to transform The O’Jays into a hit-making machine. While most groups of the era had one lead singer, The O’Jays benefitted from having two exceptional singers sharing lead on almost every hit song. The combination of the smooth and sultry vocals of Williams combined with the powerful growl of Levert gave the group a unique sound, separating them from the standard soul and R&B acts of the era.
Sadly, William Powell died in 1977 in cancer. Today his role in the middle of group is filled by Eric Nolan Grant, a talented singer who has been with Williams and Levert since 1995. Grant’s loyalty to Williams and Levert is endearing, and has helped him earn his own place in the history of The O’Jays. Powell was first replaced by Sammy Strain of Little Anthony & The Imperials, who later returned to Little Anthony for a reunion of The Imperials, before retiring.
The group have remained one of the top soul acts still touring America over the last few decades, and have even recorded some pretty good albums such as For The Love and Imagination (they even starred in a film with Beyonce). Yet, the group have been virtual strangers to Europe and the UK. Their last performance in the UK was back in 2014, but prior to that they hadn’t performed in the country for over 20 years. Thankfully, for those of us who attended the 2014 shows, we’ve only had to wait four years for Philly Soul’s finest to return, and they delivered an impressive hit-filled show at the elegant Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.
The theatre was mostly full, but the eye-wateringly high ticket prices for seats below the Grand Circle and Balcony no doubt put off potential fans from attending (a ticket in the stalls cost anywhere from £80 to £115). The O’Jays are obviously a top rate group, and with their backing band, featuring 8 regulars and 6 in the horn section, they are no doubt costly to hire. But the high ticket prices meant that The O’Jays didn’t receive a full house on what is likely to be their last ever UK performance.
Natasha Watts, a UK house/soul singer, was given the unenviable task of warming up the crowd. Performing to pre-recorded tracks, Watts did her best, trying to coax the audience out of their warm Sunday afternoon slumber. A fine vocalist, Watts was impressive despite the tough ask of opening for one of the biggest groups in soul.
Just as it was time for The O’Jays, darkness descended onto the stage and two smoke machines went into overdrive, covering the entire stage in smoke as the band struck up. On a screen above the stage, images of the slave-trade were shown, as each member of the group appeared, dressed fairly casually in trousers and shirts. They immediately opened with ‘Ship Ahoy’, which tells the story of Africans being transported across the Atlantic during the days of the slave trade. A dark and deeply emotive song, it did feel like an odd opener until, later in the set, Levert explained that in today’s political climate people need reminding about “where we’ve come from”. Fair point.
Then the group left the stage, only to be re-introduced individually (and this time in full suits) to a thunderous applause. From the dark tale to slavery to one of their up-tempo numbers, The O’Jays launched into ‘Time to Get Down’. Their backing band sounded great, although it took a few minutes for the person running the mixing board to turn up the horn section’s microphone.
Without missing a beat, the group went into ‘Livin’ For The Weekend’. True to the recording, the group started off-slow before building into the up-tempo early-disco frenzy of the original. The choreography was all there, even if it was a bit slower than back in the day. From there on the group breezed through a hit-packed 90 minute set featuring the best songs of their lengthy and illustrious career.
My personal highlight early on was the back-to-back performance of two of my absolute favourites, the fabulous ‘Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby’ and the early proto-disco classic ‘I Love Music’. Both great Philly Soul bangers, and The O’Jays showed they still had it: vocally, they sounded just as good as they did on the originals.
Giving the audience (and themselves) a chance for a breather, the group slowed things down with a medley of love songs, including ‘Let Me Make Love to You’, ‘Cry Together’ and ‘Stairway to Heaven’. It was on the slow jams that Eddie Levert really impressed. He may be 76, but his voice remains as powerful as ever, using his trademark moans and groans to seduce the audience.
Then it was time for the big one: ‘Love Train’. Probably the group’s most popular song (and a firm favourite at this year’s World Cup), the song is one of the most idealistic to come out of Philadelphia International. On a screen above the stage, a clip of the group performing the song on Soul Train some forty years earlier was played on a loop, as if to remind Williams and Levert (and no doubt some of the audience) just how old they are.
By now the group were looking warm and sweaty; after all, it was 30 degrees Celsius outside. A couple of stage hands emerged with three stools, giving the The O’Jays a chance to rest their feet. It also gave Levert a chance to talk to the crowd. An impressive singer, Levert also possesses a sharp and dry sense of humour. He jokingly berated their musical director for starting off a song too soon (“Do you mind if we could sing with you” he ribbed), as well as congratulating London on it’s “warm welcome for our president”.
Queue laughs, but one person wasn’t enjoying the mocking of Trump, and shouted “NO POLITICS!” The irony of telling The O’Jays, a group who’ve recorded such songs as ‘Message in our Music’, ‘Ship Ahoy’ and even ‘Love Train’, to be apolitical aside, Levert’s retort put the heckler in his place. As he rightly reminded the rude gentlemen, The O’Jays started performing before African-Americans had the vote. They’ve seen this sort of thing before.
A now slightly-pissed off Levert then introduced the next medley, a rundown of songs that weren’t hits but were nonetheless great tunes. Starting with ‘Message in our Music’, the medley also featured the jams of ‘Work On Me’ and ‘My Favourite Person’, as well as the ballad ‘Brandy’, the song about a dog who ran away. Also included was ‘Now That We Found Love’; originally recorded by The O’Jays for the Ship Ahoy album, the song was a hit for the reggae outfit Third World, a fact that Levert recalled dryly.
As the end of the set drew near, The O’Jays launched into three of their biggest: ‘Backstabbers’, ‘Used To Be My Girl’ and ‘For the Love of Money’ (used famously, as the opening song for Donald Trump’s version of The Apprentice). With everyone on their feet dancing, those of us in the Grand Circle (not quite the cheap seats, but the cheaper seats) could feel the stand wobble as the dancing grew more frantic. I doubt the Theatre Royal’s circle seating were designed nor tested for dancing middle-aged Philly Soul fans.
Nevertheless, the songs were joyous, the band were outstanding, and The O’Jays (and their two female backing singers) sounded great. Leaving the stage to a thunderous applause, the group returned to give us another performance of ‘Love Train’. No one seemed to care that they’d heard it about 40 minutes prior, instead they lapped up their remaining minutes with these titans of soul with joy.
The show is likely to be the last The O’Jays will ever perform in the UK. Earlier this year, they announced on American television that they plan to retire in a few years. And fair enough, they’ve earned their right to a happy retirement.
There are rumours that a final album is being recorded, and no doubt they’ll squeeze in some final farewell performances in the US, but it’s unlikely they’ll make the trip back to the UK again as The O’Jays. That knowledge made their performance all the more special, savouring a great performance knowing that this will probably be the last time we’ll get to see The O’Jays. But we couldn’t have asked for better. A memorable performance in an elegant setting, it was the perfect farewell.
The story of The O’Jays is a fascinating one. In an industry littered with bands who split up over any and every minor issue, it’s remarkable that Williams and Levert have kept it together for so long. Perhaps their deep friendship, bonded when they were just kids, keeps them together today. Both have had their challenges. Williams has battled MS since 1983 (although you’d never tell) and Levert has somehow endured the deaths of his sons Gerald and Sean, both of whom inherited their father’s musical gifts. Their resilience and persistence is inspiring.
How much longer the Love Train will continue on is unknown, but we were fortunate enough to enjoy it one final time.
You can read our in depth interview with Eddie Levert here.