Although I’ve reviewed a number of The O’Jays albums from their Philadelphia International days, including Back Stabbers, Family Reunion and Ship Ahoy, there was much more to their music than music than the Philadelphia International years. Granted, it was by far, the most successful period of The O’Jays career, when Gamble and Huff worked their magic, transforming them into one of the most successful soul groups ever. However, before The O’Jays released their first album Back Stabbers in 1972, on Philadelphia International, they’d been releasing singles since 1960, firstly, as The Miracles and then as The O’Jays. During that period, The O’Jays released some memorable and majestic soul music for the Imperial Records. Twenty-six of these tracks can be found on a forthcoming compilation entitled We’ll Never Forget You-The Imperial Years 1963-66, which will be rereleased on Shout Records on April 2 2012. As if these twenty-six tracks aren’t a veritable feast of soul music, there are two tracks from The O’Jays hard-to-find debut album Comin’ Through. This compilation features some of the most memorable music of the early period of The O’Jays career. On We’ll Never Forget You-The Imperial Years 1963-66 are the Northern Soul classic I’ll Never Forget You, plus their first two US R&B hits Lonely Drifter and Stand Tall. Before I tell you about some of the highlights of We’ll Never Forget You-The Imperial Years 1963-66, I’ll tell you about The O’Jays career until 1966.

The O’Jays were founded in the late fifties, in Canton, Ohio at the Canton McKinley High School. This came after watching Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers during an episode of American Bandstand in 1957. This lead Edward “Eddie” Levert, Walter Williams, William Powell, Bill Isles, Bobby Massey and William Isles to form a group, which they called The Mascots. They performed locally, singing is schools and clubs, until in 1960, a local Greek grocer spotted the group singing, and arranged for The Mascots to head to Cincinnati, where they’d record for Sid Nathan’s King Records. Liking what he heard, Sid Nathan signed the group to King, where they’d record two singles in 1960, The Story of My Heart and Lonely Rain. Then when The Mascots were invited to perform at a concert by Eddie O’Jay, this would lead to the group changing their name and the next stage of their career unfolding.

Having performed at the concert, The Mascots decided that Eddie O’Jay was the man to manage their career. They also decided to change their name, naming the group after Eddie. Suddenly, The Mascots became The O’Jays. When Eddie moved to the new WUFO radio station, The O’Jays started meeting some big names in the music industry. Frankie Crocker and Herb Hamlett worked at WUFO, while later, The O’Jays would be introduced by Motown’s Berry Gordy. After this, The O’Jays established themselves in Cleveland’s R&B clubs, performing in various battles of the bands, including against The Temptations. Having now established themselves under their new name, The O’Jays would sign a new record deal, with Daco Records, where they’d record Miracles. The single gave the group a local hit, resulting in The O’Jays being whisked away to LA in 1963, where they’d record for H.B. Barnum’s Little Star label.

Now signed to the Little Star label, The O’Jays recorded a trio of singles. The first was How Does It Feel, followed by Dream Girl. Their third single for Little Star saw them back New York singer Jimmy Norman. These three singles sold well, leading to H.B. Barnum helping The O’Jays secure a recording contract with Imperial Records in 1963. 

Imperial Records quickly became a home from home for The O’Jays. They spend the next three years at Imperial Records, signing in 1963 and leaving the label in 1966. Straight away, Imperial was purchased by the Liberty label, who injected capital and new personnel into Imperial. It was at Imperial that The O’Jays would have their first hit single, Lonely Drifter which reached number ninety-three in the Billboard 100, while its follow-up Stand Tall reached number 131. Two years later, in 1965, The O’Jays would release their debut album Comin’ Through, the only album they released on Imperial. Two tracks from Comin’ Through can be found on We’ll Never Forget You-The Imperial Years 1963-66, I’m Gonna Make It and Time Is On My Side. The same year, 1965, The O’Jays had their third and biggest hit single, Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette), which reached number forty-eight in the US Billboard 100 and number twenty-eight in the US R&B Charts. I’ve Cried My Last Tear was the next single, reaching number ninety-four in the US R&B Charts. After such a successful year as 1965, The O’Jays would enter their final year with Imperial Records, when they’d have their biggest US R&B hit single.

1966 would prove to be a pivotal year in The O’Jays career. They’d release a trio of new singles. The first two, I’ll Never Forget You and then No Time For Love, failed to chart. However, Stand In For Love changed that, it reached number ninety-five in the US Billboard 100 and number twelve in the US R&B Charts. That would be The O’Jays last new single for Imperial. To coincide with their leaving Imperial, Lonely Lifter was rereleased. It failed to match the success of its original release, but was one the highlights of The O’Jays career. That single, plus twenty-five of The O’Jays other Imperial singles can be found on We’ll Never Forget You-The Imperial Years 1963-66, which I’ll now tell you about, by picking a few of the highlights from this compilation.

My first choice from We’ll Never Forget You-The Imperial Years 1963-66, is The O’Jays first hit single for Imperial Records, Lonely Drifter. Released in 1963, it reached number ninety-three in the US Billboards 100. Opening with the sound of the beach, it’s a slow, dramatic and sad track. After the rhythm section enter, The O’Jays enter singing their trademark close harmonies. When Eddie Levert’s lead vocal enters, it’s impassioned, full of hurt and regret, while the harmonies are punchy, as the sound of the desolate beach drifts in and out. It’s two and a half minutes of pain and hurt, so much so, that you feel for Eddie’s loneliness.

Stand Tall was the follow up to Lonely Drifter, reaching number 131 in the US R&B Charts. This track has a very different sound, with the arrangement faster, driven along by the rhythm section and punchy guitars. When Eddie’s vocal enters, gone is the sadness and regret, replaced by pride and confidence. Meanwhile, the harmonies and tight and soulful, before later, blazing horns soar above the arrangement and the harmonies also soar. By the end of the track, it’s almost impossible but to resist the defiance and confidence in Eddie’s vocal and soulful harmonies that accompany him.

When Lipstick Traces (On My Cigarette) was released in 1965, it gave The O’Jays the biggest single of their career to date. It was written by Allen Toussaint, under the pseudonym Naomi Nevill and reached number forty-eight in the US Billboard 100 and number twenty-eight in the US R&B Charts. This song would go onto become a Mod anthem. Listen to it, and you’ll realize just why. With the impassioned, insecure backing vocals drifting in, they’re accompanied by just the rhythm section. Then when Eddie’s vocal enters, it’s self-assured, as he sings of his love for his girlfriend. Later, a horn drifts in, soaring above the arrangement, as one of the highlights of The O’Jays imperial Records career and We’ll Never Forget You-The Imperial Years 1963-66, draws to a close.

From Mod anthems to the beautiful Think It Over, Baby released in 1965. Arranged by Nick De Caro, who wrote the song, it’s co-produced by Tom LiPuma and Joe Saraceno. It’s one of the most impassioned songs on We’ll Never Forget You-The Imperial Years 1963-66. Here, Eddie demonstrates his versatility and talent as a vocalist, delivering the lyrics slowly, with his voice heartfelt and emotive. The slow tempo is perfect for the track. Strings, the rhythm section and guitars combine with the punchy harmonies, as the track is full of drama and emotion. This drama builds as the song reaches its dramatic conclusion, with Eddie’s vocal impassioned and full of sadness, as he contemplates life alone. With all this and more, it’s easily one of the most emotional and saddest tracks on We’ll Never Forget You-The Imperial Years 1963-66.

I’ll Never Stop Loving You is a track that went on to become a Northern Soul favorite, which even today, is a prize for collectors. Like many Northern Soul tracks, the original single never troubled the charts, but is guaranteed to fill a dance-floor. As the track opens, you realize why it’s a much prized Northern Soul track. With its rasping horns, handclaps, percussion and rhythm section combining with Eddie’s lead vocal the track has you hooked from the opening bars. Add to this the soulful backing vocals from the rest of the group, and the result is a true hidden gem of a track, one with a real Northern Soul sound.

Let It All Out written by the legendary Van McCoy reached number twenty-nine in the US R&B Charts in 1965. Produced by Nick De Caro, we hear the beauty of William Powell’s falsetto combining perfectly with Eddie’s much more powerful vocal. They sing against a backdrop that combines lush strings, rasping horns, piano and a rhythm. When the rhythm section is combined with the horns, they provide a dramatic backdrop for the vocal for the grace and power of William and Eddie’s vocals.

 I’ll Never Let You Go is another track that has a Northern Soul sound. It was released in 1965, and like I’ll Never Stop Loving You, failed to chart. Like I’ll Never Stop Loving You, it grabs your attention as the track opens. Dramatic drums and percussion open the track, before The O’Jays sing the saddest of backing vocals. When the lead vocal enters, it’s impassioned and heartfelt, as the repeated strains of “I’ll never let you go” are laden with emotion and sadness. Later, a piano and rasping, dramatic horns adds to the effectiveness and sadness of what’s ultimately, a song full of emotion and beauty.

One of the two bonus tracks on We’ll Never Forget You-The Imperial Years 1963-66, from The O’Jays debut album Comin’ Through is a compelling cover of Time Is On My Side. Here, they transform the track, turning it from a rock track into something soulful and laden with drama. When the track opens, The O’Jays contribute intense, emotive backing vocals. Behind them, the arrangement plays second fiddle to their vocals. It’s just the rhythm section, which accompanies Eddie’s impassioned, powerful lead, while the rest of the group contribute similar backing vocals. This version of Time Is On My Side brings something that I’ve always thought is missing from the rocky covers of this track, some much needed soul. 

With so many great tracks to choose from on We’ll Never Forget You-The Imperial Years 1963-66, choosing just one more wasn’t easy. In the end, I chose It Won’t Hurt, released in 1965. This is another slow track, with rasping horns and the rhythm section accompanying some of the most soulful harmonies you could wish to hear. Meanwhile, the lead vocal is full of emotion and sadness, sung in a heartfelt style, while the rhythm section adds punchy bursts of drama. They’re accompanied by a piano and percussion that are key to the song’s success. However, what makes this such a stunning, heartfelt and sad track are The O’Jays vocals. Although they deliver so many songs in a similar style, this is one of the best, and is totally irresistible.

Although the music on We’ll Never Forget You-The Imperial Years 1963-66 is quite different from The O’Jays Philadelphia International era music, their vocals have the same quality. Sometimes they’re heartfelt and emotional, other times dramatic, confident and full of power and passion. Each of the twenty-eight songs they bring to life, using their trademark harmonies and Eddie’s lead vocal. That’s what makes this such a great compilation. It shows what The O’Jays were like before they were given a Philly makeover by Gamble and Huff. Here, the arrangements can sometimes have a compelling rawness, fitting the emotion and passion of their music. Other times they’re full of grace and beauty. It’s quite a contrast to their later music for Philadelphia International, but has the same quality vocals you’d expect from The O’Jays. Unlike their Philadelphia International days, where their music took on a sophisticated and polished sound favored by Gamble and Huff is absent, it has a classic sixties soulful sound, a sound I’ve always loved and know many other people love. The music is emotive and beautiful, allowing you to concentrate on the quality of The O’Jays vocals. We’ll Never Forget You-The Imperial Years 1963-66 is a must-have compilation for anyone who loves The O’Jays music. Compiled by Glenn Gunton, We’ll Never Forget You-The Imperial Years 1963-66 will be released on 2 April 2012 on Shout Records. That’s a date for the diaries of all fans of The O’Jays. Standout Tracks: Lonely Drifter, Think It Over, Baby I’ll Never Let You Go and Let It All Out.


We'll Never Forget You - THE IMPERIAL YEARS 1963-66


  1. Maurice Rooks

    This is a similar selection such as the The Ultimate Collection that also had 28 songs. It’s too bad that Shout records could have gone a step futher and made this a more complete collection. There are a few songs missing such as Working on Your Case and a Rented Tuxedo which is a song no one can indentify who the lead singer is. Some speculation that the singer is HB Barnum. I’m sure the Shout CD is a much better quality than the Ultimate CD..

    • Hi Maurice,

      Thanks for your comments. The new O’Jays compilation is a really good compilation, with some classic tracks from their pre-Philly sound days. On the CD the sound quality has been remastered which really helps. I don’t have The Ultimate Collection, but can thoroughly recommend We’ll Never Forget You. If you get a copy I’m sure you’ll really enjoy it.

      There are a number of other O’Jays reviews on my blog, with a number having been rereleased by BBR Records last year. Thanks again for your comments.

      Best Wishes,
      Derek Anderson.

  2. jg hill

    Having been a DJ in Cleveland ,I know you omitted the late William Powell (the light skinned one one in the group) and Walter Williams sang lead on Lipstick Traces. I am lucky enough to have a autograped copy of Comin Though,I was at the O’Jays 25th annv in the music industry in Cleveland.I know most of the songs and I have one of the most complete library of The O’Jays,they are still my favorite group. I did pickup a copy of We’ll Never Forget You. For any O’Jays fan it is a must have in your collection

    • Hi Jg,

      I’m glad that you enjoyed my review of We’ll Never Forget You. I too am a huge fan of the Philly Sound and as a result The O’Jays. As a result I’m rather envious of your collection of O’Jays albums, especially the autographed copy of Comin’ Through. It must be some collection.

      Is it just US copies of The O’Jays albums and singles you collect? It’s just there’s an excellent 10 disc collection of Philadelphia International Records’ music. If you’re interested, it was released by the UK’s Harmless Records. There’s a review on my blog. To me, it’s the best $75 I’ve spent in a long time. Plus there’s a four disc box set of Tom Moulton’s Philadelphia International Records’ remixes. It features seventeen new remixes from Tom Moulton. As a former DJ maybe that would interest you. It’s less than $20, so good value. Again, I’ve reviewed it here.

      Anyway, I’m glad that you’ve added a copy of We’ll Never Forget You to your collection. I know a lot of time and effort was spent compiling it. Thanks for your comments.

      Best Wishes,

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