THE O’JAYS-TRAVELIN’ AT THE SPEED OF THOUGHT.
THE O’JAYS-TRAVELIN’ AT THE SPEED OF THOUGHT.
A year after The O’Jays released Message In the Music, their final album to feature William Powell, The O’Jays would release Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought, their first album featuring their new vocalist Sammy Strain. Given how successful The O’Jays had been since releasing their first album for Philadelphia International Records in 1972, the remaining members of The O’Jays must have wondered how this would affect their continued success. Sammy Strain had a hard act to follow in William Powell, who tragically, was terminally ill. He’d been at the helm of The O’Jays during the most successful period of their career. Since the release of Backstabbers in 1972, The O’Jays had released five albums, three of which were certified gold and two platinum. This had lead to The O’Jays becoming Philadelphia International Records biggest group. However, would their first album without William Powell Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought, continue this run of critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums?
For The O’Jays sixth album for Philadelphia International Records, Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought, Gamble and Huff cowrote and produced six of the album’s eight track. One of Philadelphia International Records’ most successful songwriting and production teams, Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Victor Castarphen cowrote and produced These Lies (Done Caught Up With You This Time). The other track chosen for Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought was a cover of Feelings, which Morris Albert cowrote. These eight tracks would be recorded at Sigma Sound Studios, where all of Philadelphia International Records’ recordings were recorded.
With the original version of M.F.S.B. having left Philadelphia International Records over a dispute regarding finances, it was M.F.S.B. Mk 2 that would accompany The O’Jays. Gone were the legendary Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, plus vibes player Vince Montana. Replacing musicians of this calibre wasn’t easy, but some hugely talented musicians would accompany The O’Jays. Drummer Charles Collins, bassist Michael “Sugar Bear” Foreman and guitarists Roland Chambers, T.J. Tindall and Dennis Harris. Larry Washington would add percussion, while Carlton Kent played organ and Dennis Williams played piano. Arranging the eight tracks were Jack Faith, one of the best arrangers at Philadelphia International Records, plus Dexter Wansel and Dennis Williams. Soon, the eight tracks that made up Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought were recorded. Would Travellin’ At the Speed of Light continue the success of The O’Jays five previous Philadelphia International Records’ albums?
Before Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought was released, unusually, Philadelphia International Records never released a single. This didn’t affect sales of Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought when it was released in May 1977. It reached number twenty-seven on the US Billboard and number six on the US R&B Charts, resulting in The O’Jays fourth gold album. The first single and only released from the album was Gamble and Huff penned and produced Work On Me, which reached number seven in the US R&B Charts. Even with a new member, The O’Jays’ success story continued on Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought, which I’ll now tell you about.
Opening Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought is the title-track Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought, one of six which Gamble and Huff cowrote and produced. Arranged by Dexter Wansel, the track has a meandering, hesitant start, which leaves you wondering what direction the track is heading? Then once a pulsating beat enters, joining the percussion, reverberating guitars and congas, the track begins to reveal its secrets. Eddie’s confident vocal enter, with the track building. The rhythm section, keyboards, swathes of sizzling guitars and percussion accompany the vocal, which quickly, changes hands. Tight harmonies accompany the vocal, while jagged guitars add bursts of drama. Later, the harmonies are delivered in sharp bursts, in keeping with the arrangement’s somewhat “space-age” sound. While this suits the lyrics, it’s not what you’d expect from The O’Jays or Gamble and Huff. Having said that, it has the quality you’d expect from them both.
We’re All In This Together, has a much more O’Jays sound. Jack Faith takes over arranging duties, while Gamble and Huff wrote and produced the track. It has a much more “Philly Sound.” Layers of lush strings, M.F’S.B.‘s rhythm section and bursts of rasping horns punctuate the arrangement, before Eddie’s impassioned, heartfelt vocal enters. Subtle, gentle harmonies augment his vocal, while the strings are key to the track’s sound and success. As the horns are used sparingly and subtly, percussion and the rhythm section provide the track’s beautiful heartbeat. Eddie’s vocal is one of his best on the album. The interplay between Eddie and the other O’Jays is peerless, laden with emotion and sincerity and made all the better by Jack Faith’s stunning arrangement.
So Glad I Got You Girl is another of the Gamble and Huff penned tracks. What never ceases to amaze me, is how they could consistently write and produce so many great tracks. From the opening bars, with its blazing horns, swirling strings and punchy rhythm section you realize this another winner from Gamble and Huff. Eddie’s vocal is joyful, and swept along on swathes of cascading strings. The other O’Jays match Eddie stride for stride, producing some equally, joyful, uplifting and inspirational harmonies. Meanwhile, the arrangement, like the vocal is irresistible, arriving in waves and transporting you along in its hook-laden wake. Why this track wasn’t released as a single seems strange, given its irresistible, uplifting and joyful sound?
Stand Up closed Side One of Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought. This was another Gamble and Huff track, which Dexter Wansel arranged. When the track opens, it’s to acclaim and applause. Eddie is like a cheerleader, encouraging everyone to Stand Up. His vocal is delivered powerfully, sometimes, with a growl, while the rest of the group add bursts of soaring harmonies. M.F.S.B. provide a pounding backdrop that’s just a little funky. Layers and stabs of Hammond organ, blazing horns and the driving rhythm section help The O’Jays bring Side One of Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought to a blistering close.
The songwriting and production team of Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Victor Castarphen cowrote and produced These Lies (Done Caught Up With You This Time). It’s just the latest in a long line of fantastic tracks they wrote for The O’Jays and reveals a quite different O’Jays. Here, their sound is much more funky, with Eddie’s vocal is full of emotion, while a punchy, pounding rhythm section, sweeping strings and braying horns accompany him. The bass line from Michael “Sugar Bear” Foreman pounds throughout the track, matching Charles Collins drums beat for beat. However, what would the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section made the track sound like? Sometimes, The O’Jays sound like The Temptations, albeit with a crack rhythm section accompanying them. This reveals a very different, funky O’Jays, with Eddie Levert producing one of his best vocals on the album.
Feelings is one of these standards that’s been covered by so many artists. However, The O’Jays’ version is one of the very best. Just a piano opens the track, before tight, beautiful harmonies enter, giving way to Eddie’s lead vocal. His vocal is not just emotive and impassioned, but deeply beautiful. The harmonies, flourishes of guitar, percussion and the lushest of strings combine beautifully, as Eddie gives a truly heartfelt performance. Later, bursts of rasping horns add to the emotion of Eddie’s delivery. The longer the track progresses, the more the drama and emotion builds, resulting in a peerless cover version of an oft covered standard, that can’t fail to move you.
Work On Me was the only single released from Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought. It’s a track whose funky side is revealed straight away. Bursts of punchy blazing horns, a pounding rhythm section, keyboards and percussion accompany Eddie’s vocal. He delivers his vocal with bravado, a real swagger in his delivery. The other O’Jays add soaring harmonies, while flourishes of keyboards, braying horns and the pounding rhythm section are key to the track’s sound and success. Here, The O’Jays mix funk and Philly Soul seamlessly, with Eddie swaggering his way through the song.
Closing Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought is Let’s Spend Some Time Together, written and produced by Gamble and Huff, with Jack Faith responsible for the vintage sounding arrangement. It’s a track where jazz, big band music and doo-wop have influenced the arrangement. Lush strings accompany M.F.S.B. as they’re transformed into a big band. They play with a similar subtlety as Eddie delivers his vocal. Just as M.F.S.B. seem to revel in their role, the rest of The O’Jays deliver doo-wop style vocals. This is perfect for the track and is a brilliant way to end the album. Key to the track’s sound and success was Jack Faith’s arrangement, plus of course, Eddie’s vintage style vocal and M.F.S.B., who were seamlessly transformed into a big band. What a way to end Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought. Just perfect.
Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought saw The O’Jays continue their run of successful albums. It was certified gold and contained a top ten US R&B single in Work On Me. Gamble and Huff cowrote and produced six of the album’s eight tracks, while the songwriting and production team of Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Victor Castarphen cowrote and produced These Lies (Done Caught Up With You This Time). The other track was a peerless cover of Morris Albert’s Feelings, which can’t fail to move you. Although the original M.F.S.B. had left Philadelphia International Records, to continue their success as the Salsoul Orchestra, M.F.S.B Mk 2, provided the perfect backdrop for The O’Jays. This saw them fuse everything from Philly Soul, funk, jazz and doo-wop. On Let’s Spend Some Time Together, Jack Faith’s vintage sounding arrangement sees M.F.S.B Mk 2 transformed into a big band, providing the perfect backdrop for Eddie’s vocal and the other O’Jays doo-wop style harmonies. For me, this was the perfect way to close Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought, and the song’s success is Jack Faith. He was one of the best arrangers at Philadelphia International Records, along with Bobby Martin and John L. Usry. These three men are among the many unsung heroes of Philadelphia International Records’ success. While people remember groups like The O’Jays, plus top musicians like the legendary Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, vibes player Vince Montana and Don Renaldo’s strings and horns, the arrangers are often forgotten. Here, Jack Faith and Dexter Wansel played important roles in the sound and success of Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought.
After Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought, The O’Jays’ success story continued apace, with their next two albums 1978s So Full of Love and 1979s Identify Yourself being certified platinum. Unlike their one time label-mates Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, The O’Jays survived the loss of a key member in William Powell. Sadly, as Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought was released, William died from cancer. The loss of William must have meant the success of Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought was tinged with sadness. However, he played a huge part in The O’Jays’ success story, featuring on their first five Philadelphia International Records’ albums. Their first without him, Travellin’ At the Speed of Thought is a fitting tribute to such talented singer. Standout Tracks: We’re All In This Together, So Glad I Got You Girl, These Lies (Done Caught Up With You This Time) and Let’s Spend Some Time Together.
THE O’JAYS-TRAVELIN’ AT THE SPEED OF THOUGHT.