Recently, I wrote an article Sweet Soul Music, reviewing some of the best compilation albums which feature Philadelphia Soul. After writing that article, I decided to write some articles about my favorite albums on Philadelphia International Records, the label founded by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, which released so many great albums. However, I was spoiled for choice, so many great albums were there to choose from. Delving into my record collection, I decided to spend some time listening to some of my favorite albums on that great label. Having spent a considerable time listening to many great albums, my first choice is the second album that The O’Jays released, back in October 1973, Ship Ahoy. When the album was released, it was critically acclaimed, with critics loving the combination of love songs and socially aware songs. Critics thought this was one of the best albums that Gamble and Huff had produced. While The O’Jays may have sung sweetly about love, but they weren’t afraid to be the conscience of a nation, using their music to shame those who they thought were bringing their country to its knees, by their actions. Through the medium of music, politicians, corporate America and race, were all subjects that they dealt with in their music. It wasn’t just the critics that loved the album, so too did the record buying public. On Ship Ahoy’s release, it reached number one in the Black Albums’ Chart and number eleven in the Pop Albums’ Charts.  By October 1974, the album was certified gold, and in August 1992, nineteen years after its release, the album was certified platinum. So popular has the album been, that it has been rereleased numerous times, with new generations clamoring to discover the powerful music that can be found on Ship Ahoy. Even today, The O’Jays music is just as relevant, as it was in 1973, and I’ll now tell you just why that’s the case.

Ship Ahoy opens with Put Your Hands Together, one of the tracks that was released as a single. It reached number two in the Black Singles Charts and number ten in the Pop Singles Charts. The song is a paean to cooperation and better days, optimism in the face of hard times. Today, in such troubled times, economically, politically and socially, The O’Jays message is just as relevant. Unlike politicians however, The O’Jays delivery is much more sweet and hugely soulful. When the track opens, the sound is dramatic, the rhythm section, guitars and keyboards combining before the vocal enters, accompanied by strings. During the track, drums pound, Anthony Jackson’s funky bass is accompanied by a wah-wah guitar, while The O’Jays spread their message of optimism, in the face of adversity. While the lead vocal soars soulfully, laden in passion and emotion, sweet, tight vocal harmonies accompany it. Throughout the track, the tempo is quick, the arrangement tight and driven along by the rhythm section, percussion, strings and guitars. However, what make this such an outstanding track is the vocals. They’re full of optimism, delivered emotionally and passionately, and hugely soulful.

The title track, Ship Ahoy is next, and it’s a song that deals with a shameful subject, slavery. Here the theme track is African people being taken captive, and being on transported on a ship as part of what was the Middle Passage of Atlantic slave trade. Originally, Gamble and Huff had hoped the track would be part of the soundtrack for the film Shaft In Africa, but this never materialised. Instead, The O’Jays recorded the track, complete with the sound of crashing waves and whips cracking to give a sense of authenticity to the hugely powerful lyrics. It’s the sound of waves crashing and whips cracking that opens the track, together with keyboards, a slow plodding bass and eventually a guitar plays with strings and drums playing. However, by then, your almost disturbed at the sounds you’ve heard and can’t help but think what it must have been like on those ships, being kidnapped and brutalized in the name of commerce. It’s a barbaric , and when the vocal enters, the group sing tight harmonies, their voices loud, tinged in anger at what happened. Then, when the lead vocal enters, the arrangement takes a hugely dramatic turn. Stirring, dramatic and pounding drums, strings sweep in loud and grand, while horns punctuate the track, adding further drama and emotion. Later, guitars soar, screaming and screeching, as if empathizing with the pain suffered.  It’s impossible not to be moved by the lyrics, and the way they’re delivered. Like the arrangement, they bring the lyrics to life, and such is the power of the music, that by the end, you feel hugely moved, angry and ultimately ashamed. To be able to achieve these emotions through the power of soul music, is testament to the talent of The O’Jays and Gamble and Huff.

The Air That I Breathe has a slightly Latin sound and feel as percussion, horns, rhythm section and guitars open the track. This is a much brighter, uplifting song, after the hugely thoughtful and moving Ship Ahoy. When the vocal enters, it has a joyous quality, soaring heavenwards, punctuated by horns, drums and piano. However, there’s a message behind the track again, this time about pollution and the poor quality of the air they were breathing. Somehow, The O’Jays were able to get their message across in a way that the song has an uplifting and joyous sound. This is tinged in drama thanks to the drums and horns interjecting throughout the track. As usual, the vocal is hugely soulful, full of emotion and passion, with the lead vocal being accompanied by some beautiful tight vocal harmonies. However, just below the surface, is anger and resentment, at such a basic thing as air being unclean. Like the opening track, Put Your Hands Together, their message is one of optimism, hoping things will improve. By the end of the track, you can only salute The O’Jays for managing to get their message across in such a deeply soulful and melodic way, via such a great song. 

Bunny Sigler cowrote the previous track with Kenny Gamble, and he also wrote You Got the Hooks In Me, which was the track that closed side one of the original album.  A piano slowly and gently plays, before the vocal enters, accompanied by drums and short sharp bursts of organ. The tempo is slow, the playing subtle, before quickly, the track unfolds. When it does, the lead vocal soars, accompanied by some lovely vocal harmonies. They’re surrounded by horns, piano and the rhythm and string section. Together, they create an arrangement that’s both lush and dramatic. Meanwhile, a hugely emotional vocal appears. However, who or what has their in hooks in the character in the song? Given the emotion, passion and sadness, it’s obviously a song about love, and a relationship that’s gone south. Like the previous tracks, the arrangement and vocals are of the highest quality. Here, a mixture of a fulsome arrangement and vocal laden in drama, emotion and passion make this just the latest great song on Ship Ahoy.

For the Love of Money was the other single released from Ship Ahoy, and it reached number three in the Black Singles’ Charts and number nine in the Pop Singles’ Charts. The track is another protest song, this time against the materialism that was blighting the US and other countries. During the track, Anthony Jackson contributes one of the most famous bass lines in popular music. It’s truly outstanding, funktastic, and since then, that bass line can be found on numerous tracks by rap and hip hop artists. Originally, the track was written around the bass line, and if you like good bass lines, then this a track you must hear. Straight away, that bass line can be heard, it’s fast and funky, surrounded by crisp crashing cymbals, pounding drums, horns and backing vocals, yelling “money” over and over. When the lead vocal enters, it’s strong, loud and angry, at people’s love of money. Meanwhile, a masterclass in funky bass playing is taking place, while the arrangement mixes elements of soul and fink masterfully. A combination of soaring guitars solos, loud, angry, drums, percussion and horns accompany a vocal that’s one part passion and one part restrained anger. Together, they create an arrangement where waves of music rise and fall. Three things make this such a powerful track, the lyrics, which are still relevant today, that outstanding bass line and a vocal laden in emotion and frustration at people’s greed.

After such a powerful track, Now That We’ve Found Love allows the listen to literally draw breath. It’s a beautiful, lush love song, with another great arrangement by Gamble and Huff, and one of the best vocals on the album. This is what many people think of when The O’Jays are mentioned, beautiful love songs. They aren’t aware of their socially aware protest songs. Keyboards, percussion and drums melodically play, before tight and sweet vocal harmonies enter. The lead vocal then takes centre-stage, with a heartfelt delivery of the lyrics, which preach forgiveness, and are swathed in lush strings and horns. Like previous tracks, the arrangement is a mixture of lush and dramatic, and together with those sweet vocal harmonies, this is a potent mixture, producing one of the most beautiful love songs The O’Jays ever recorded.

Don’t Call Me Brother is another protest song, and finds The O’Jays at their angriest, when they sing about the false claims of racial harmony from people who would just as soon stab you in the back. When the track opens, it’s a lovely gentle and melodic sound that greets you, an example of how to play subtly, with drums, guitars, keyboards and horns combining with lush strings. Then when loud drums, dramatically, punctuate the track, the group sings tight vocal harmonies bringing to mind both gospel and doo wop. Against a by now, much more subtle and melodic backdrop, the lead vocal angrily delivers the lyrics, singing about the hypocrites and falsities of politicians and leaders. The arrangement, like the anger and frustration, builds up, reaching a dramatic musical crescendo where drums, horns, strings and guitars punctuate the sound, before as if spent, it returns to a much more gentle and melodic sound. For nearly nine minutes, The O’Jays vent their anger and frustration brilliantly, using their brilliant soulful and melodic voices to get an important message across. Their voices soar, laden in passion, full of anger and frustration, at man’s inhumanity to man. By the end of the track, it’s impossible to not be touched and moved by their message, and in the process, they’ve produced a brilliant track, easily one of the album’s best.

The final track on Ship Ahoy is People Keep Tellin’ Me, a track that is an upbeat and uplifting track, very different from the preceding track, Don’t Call Me Brother. Strings, rhythm section, guitar and keyboards combine brightly and melodically as the track opens. Straight away, you can sense this song is something special, and that’s even before the sweet vocal harmonies enter. After that, the lead vocal takes over, giving a joyous and emotional delivery of the lyrics. This is made even better by some lovely tight harmonies accompanying it. Behind them, strings sweep, as a really fast and funky bass line sits at the bottom of the mix, and together with drums and chiming guitars drive the track along. A combination of a sweet, soulful vocals and an arrangement that’s catchy, melodic and hook laden make this an irresistible song. Just as Put Your Hands Together was the perfect way to open the album, this is the perfect way to close the album. It closes the album with a song that’s uplifting, melodic and totally memorable.

Ship Ahoy may only have been The O’Jays second album, but by then, they were seasoned performers, the group having been formed in 1963. Over the previous ten years, they’d refined their sound, with those sweet, tight vocal harmonies becoming huge polished and deeply soulful. On this album, The O’Jays mixed some beautiful love songs with songs that were full of social comment, protests and restrained anger. There were songs about slavery, racial discrimination materialism and greed and even the poor quality of air. However, they were also preaching a message of optimism and togetherness, and like the other subjects, these subjects and messages are just as relevant in 2011 as they were in 1973. Still people are seduced by materialism, greedy for money and willing to do anything to gain even more. Sadly, racial discrimination, like many other forms of discrimination is prevalent, and the backstabbers mentioned in Don’t Call Me Brother, are still around, still causing trouble, when they claim to be a force for good and harmony.  During the album, The O’Jays sing emotionally and passionately, but just below the surface, tension, frustration and anger is palpable, at the various problems that faced society. Thankfully, when they sing the love songs on the album, we hear the side of The O’Jays that most people are aware of. This is the side that sing the most beautiful love songs, with tight vocal harmonies and soaring lead vocal, laden with emotion and passion. There are several such songs on Ship Ahoy, and together with the more socially aware songs, this is an album that deserves a place in every record collection. It’s one of the best soul albums of the seventies, featuring one of the best bands in soul music The O’Jays. Standout Tracks: Put Your Hands Together, Ship Ahoy, Now That We’ve Found Love and Don’t Call Me Brother.


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