By 1976, Philadelphia International Records four years after Gamble and Huff founded the label, their label had become the biggest label on the planet. Philadelphia International Records’ success story had at its heart, the meeting of a number of hugely creative minds. While Gamble and Huff played the biggest part in the labels success, this wouldn’t have been possible without all the songwriters, arrangers, producers and musicians. Songwriting teams included Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Victor Carstarphen and Dexter Wansel and Cynthia Biggs. Arrangers included Jack Faith and Bobby Martin, while Dexter Wansel and Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Victor Carstarphen were successful producers. The musicians were M.F.S.B., Philadelphia International Records’ legendary house-band.   Then there was the label’s unenviable roster of artists that included Billy Paul, Teddy Pendergrass, Jean Carn and the label’s most successful group The O’Jays. Although by 1976 Philadelphia International Records were at the height of their success, two things would happen that changed the label. Both of these would an effect on The O’Jays’ music, either directly or indirectly. William Powell of The O’Jays had tragically, been diagnosed with cancer and Message In the Music, released in 1976, would be the last album to feature William Powell’s vocals. He’d be replaced by Sammy Strain for their next album Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought. The other problem concerned M.F.S.B. They’d leave Philadelphia International Records in 1976, after a dispute about finances, leaving to become the Salsoul Orchestra. So, one of the last albums the original M.F.S.B. would play on would be The O’Jays album Message In the Music. Before I tell you about the music on The O’Jays fifth album for Philadelphia International Records, I’ll tell you about the making of the album.

Message In the music was the follow-up to 1975s Family Reunion, which had been certified platinum. This was The O’Jays second album certified platinum, with their other two albums for Philadelphia International certified gold. This started with Backstabbers in 1972, which reached number ten in the US Billboard 200 and number three in the US R&B Charts. Ship Ahoy released in 1973, reached number eleven in the US Billboard 200 and gave the group the first of three consecutive number one albums in the US R&B Charts. The O’Jays released two albums in 1975,   Survival and Family Reunion which reached numbers eleven and seven in the US Billboard 200, both reaching number one in the US R&B charts. Could Message In the Music match this success?

It seems that Gamble and Huff were determined to keep up this run of gold and platinum albums and US R&B number one albums. They used their best songwriters, arrangers and producers, plus of course the legendary M.F.S.B. Gamble and Huff cowrote six songs, with Bunny Sigler and the Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Victor Carstarphen songwriting team contributing the album’s other track. Recording would take place as usual, at the Sigma Sound Studios in Philly.

Sigma Sound Studios were where every Philadelphia International Records recording took place. Joining The O’Jays were M.F.S.B., including the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, Don Renaldo’s strings and horns, guitarist Bobby Eli and Vince Montana on vibes. Arranging the eight tracks were Bobby Martin, Jack Faith and Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey. Producing the eight tracks were Gamble and Huff, who produced the six tracks they cowrote. Bunny Sigler produced I Swear I Love No-One But You, which he wrote. Similarly, Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Victor Carstarphen produced Let Life Flow, which they cowrote. Together, the helped get across Message In the Music’s message of peace, love, wisdom, understanding and unity. Would that message and ultimately Message In the Music, continue The O’Jays run of hugely commercially successful albums?

The answer to that question is yes and no. While Message In the Music reached number twenty in the US Billboard 200 and number three in the US R&B Charts, this gave The O’Jays their third gold disc. This broke their run of consecutive number one US R&B albums. However, two US R&B number one singles made up for this. These two singles were the title-track Message In the Music and the classic Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby (Sweet Tender Love). Message In the Music reached number forty-nine in the US Billboard 100 and number one in the US R&B Charts. Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby (Sweet Tender Love) reached number seventy-two in the US Billboard 100 and number one in the US R&B Charts. Overall, Message In the Music and its two number one US R&B singles meant The O’Jays’ success story continued. Sadly, it was the last album to feature William Powell, and Message In the Music  and its message is a fitting farewell to a true legend of soul, which I’ll now tell you about.

Opening Message In the Music is the title-track and US R&B number one single Message In the Music. It was written and produced by Gamble and Huff, with Bobby Martin arranging the track. Tight, punchy harmonies are accompanied by the rhythm section, keyboards, lush strings that glide in and blazing horns. Suddenly, the arrangement literally explodes. It’s a case of hold on and enjoy the ride. However, don’t forget to listen to the Message In the Music. Eddie Levert sings lead, while the rest of the group add soaring, almost dramatic harmonies. Sometimes, the lead vocal changes hands. Never does the quality drop, with The O’Jays and M.F.S.B. hitting their stride. Bursts of rasping horns, strings swirl and sweep, while the rhythm section and funky guitars provide the track’s heartbeat. Later, subtle acoustic guitars produce a contrast, as M.F.S.B. provide a pulsating arrangement. Add to this Gamble and Huff’s lyrics, Bobby Martin’s arrangement and of course, The O’Jays joyous, emotive vocals and the result is a glorious, uplifting and hook-laden Philly classic.

After the storming opening track, A Prayer sees the style and tempo drop way down. Eddie delivers his heartfelt, impassioned vocal against an understated arrangement. A piano is key to the sound, before the rhythm section, guitars and percussion join. They’re added by lush strings, which are just the finishing touch. Earl Young and the rest of the rhythm section add drama to Bobby Martin’s emotive arrangement. Throughout the track, the rest of The O’Jays deliver tight, heartfelt harmonies. They match Eddie’s sincere delivery, as he gets across the song’s spiritual lyrics. He sounds as he means every word he sings, his voice quivering in emotion. By the end of the track, you realize that you’ve been spellbound by Eddie’s delivery and some very beautiful, thoughtful lyrics.

Continuing the Gamble and Huff penned and produced tracks is Paradise, with Jack Faith taking over arranging duties. Spanish sounding acoustic guitars, percussion and flourishes of graceful strings combine, before Eddie’s joyful vocal enters. Quickly, the vocal changes hands, as Norman Harris adds guitar, while strings quiver and shiver and horns rasp. Meanwhile, the rest of The O’Jays add their peerless harmonies, as the arrangement grows and grows, with M.F.S.B. demonstrating not only their musical versatility but their virtuoso skills. Together, they help The O’Jays produce a track that’s quite simply, Musical paradise.

Eddie’s vocal soars emotively and powerfully as he takes on the roll of cheerleader, encouraging The O’Jays and M.F.S.B. to Make A Joyful Noise. They both rise to Eddie’s challenge. The O’Jays’ harmonies succeed in creating a joyful noise, while M.F.S.B. create an arrangement that’s uplifting and dramatic. Key to this is the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, who drive the track along, with Earl Young’s drumming dramatic and powerful. Ron Baker’s bass playing matches Earl’s drumming note for note, while Norman Harris jazz tinged guitar playing is augmented by Bobby Eli. Although his playing is different in style, it compliments Norman’s playing. Don Renaldo’s blazing horns punctuate the arrangement and his cascading string dance joyfully. With M.F.S.B’s help, The O’Jays Make A Joyful Noise, that’s also infectiously catchy and inspirational.

Stabs of Lenny Pakula’s Hammond organ open Desire Me, while subtle, beautiful acoustic guitar accompany Eddie’s vocal. He’s almost pleading, begging, before the vocal changes hands. Still, there’s the same feeling in the vocal, with the arrangement still having a subtle, understated sound. Swathes of strings are added by arranger Jack Faith, while guitars drift in and out, accompanying The O’Jays harmonies. Later, a sultry saxophone drifts in, as Eddie pleads. Its arrival signals the arrangement taking a jazz-drenched diversion. Instantly, M.F.S.B. are transformed into a big band. They provide the perfect accompaniment for Eddie’s emotive, heartfelt vocal and the equally emotional harmonies that accompany him. Although very different in style and sound, it’s an emotional roller coaster of a track, that demonstrates The O’Jays’ versatility and vocal prowess.

Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby is the sixth and last of the Gamble and Huff penned and produced tracks. It seems they’ve kept this classic track for last. How they continued to produce an endless supply of timeless tracks like this is remarkable. Bursts of punchy, blazing horns, sweeping swirling strings and the rhythm section create an arrangement that almost bounces into being. Straight away, you realize the track’s quality. A Hammond organ sits way down in the mix, playing an important roll in the sound. Eddie’s vocal is impassioned, accompanied by harmonies that glide in and out. The arrangement glides gracefully along, with waves of strings key to the sound and success. Sometimes, the arrangement almost pauses, adding to the drama, making you anticipate what’s still to come. What’s still to come, is more of this classic track, as it reveals its charms, beauty and joyful sound. So good is this track, that it’s worthy of being called a Philly classic and has become one of The O’Jays’ most popular singles.

When I Swear I Love No One But You opens, the drama builds and builds. Straight away, you hear the track is quite different from the previous six tracks. The reason for this is Bunny Sigler wrote and produced the track, while Ron Kersey arranged it. Here, the sound is bigger, bolder, with a slow, dramatic arrangement. Eddie’s vocal is emotive, heartfelt and accompanied by harmonies that soar dramatically. This bigger, bolder sound is created by the rhythm section, braying horns and shimmering strings. Later, stabs of Hammond organ and piano combine, joining the blazing horns and percussion as the track heads to its dramatic, impassioned crescendo.

Closing Message In the Music is Let Life Flow which sees the sound return to its previous sound in style. Here, Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Victor Carstarphen cowrote and produced the track, with Jack Faith adding one of his trademark arrangements. From the get-go, the sound is inspirational, with bursts of blazing horns, shivering, shimmering strings and the rhythm section driving the track along. Eddie’s voice is joyful and powerful, while The O’Jays lift their game one more time, adding soulful, soaring harmonies. While horns rasp, punctuating the piano, percussion and graceful strings succeed in creating an arrangement that flows along beautifully, helping The O’Jays get across the song’s inspirational lyrics. With such an inspirational sound and message, this is the perfect way to close Message In the Music, one of The O’Jays’ finest albums…ever.

Although Message In the Music didn’t give The O’Jays their fifth consecutive US R&B number one album, it was still certified gold and contained two US R&B number one singles. Not only that, but it’s chock full of quality music from the album’s opening bars to its closing notes. Sadly, Message In the Music would be the last album to feature William Powell’s vocals. He was dying of cancer, dying in May 26th 1977. His replaced was Sammy Strain, who’d make his O’Jays debut on their next album Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought. However, Message In the Music was a fitting farewell from one of soul music’s true legends, William Powell. Along with the rest of The O’Jays, their combined vocals create peerless harmonies, while Eddie Levert’s lead vocals combine variously, power, passion, emotion and sincerity. Together, The O’Jays brought life and meaning to the eight tracks on Message In the Music. SIx of the tracks were written and produced by Gamble and Huff, who were at the height of their success as songwriters and producers. Somehow, they created six stunning tracks, including the title-track two singles Message In the Music and Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby (Sweet Tender Love). Along with tracks penned and produced  by Bunny Sigler plus the songwriting and production team of Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Victor Carstarphen. With arrangers Jack Faith, Bobby Martin and Ron Kersey, plus M.F.S.B. making one of their last appearances on a Philadelphia International Records’ recording. These creative minds helped The O’Jays deliver the Message In The Music, which was peace, love, wisdom, understanding and unity. Standout Tracks: Message In The Music, Paradise, Make A Joyful Noise and Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby (Sweet Tender Love).


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