THE O’JAYS-WHEN WILL I SEE YOU AGAIN.

THE O’JAYS-WHEN WILL I SEE YOU AGAIN.

Any group that celebrate twenty-five years in the music business must be doing something right. For The O’Jays, they’d been formed in 1958 and released their debut album Comin’ Through in 1965. It was when The O’Jays signed to Philadelphia International Records and released their first album for their new label Backstabbers, that their career took off. Backstabbers was certified gold in 1972, as were 1975s Survival, 1976s Message In the Music and Travelin’ At the Speed of Thought. As is this wasn’t impressive enough,1973s Ship Ahoy, 1975s Family Reunion, 1978s So Full of Love and 1979s Identify Yourself were all certified platinum. The O’Jays even managed to survive the loss of William Powell, who died of cancer in May 1977. Even the tragic loss of William didn’t affect the success of The O’Jays. Sammy Strain replaced William, making his O’Jays debut on Travelin’ At the Speed of Thought and the success continued. Much of this success can be credited to the Gamble and Huff’s songwriting and production skills. However, this success wouldn’t have been possible without the arrangers, producers, musicians and backing vocalists that worked at Philadelphia International Records. Sadly, when the eighties dawned and music changed, The O’Jays weren’t as successful. 1980s The Year 2000 only reached number thirty-six in the US Billboard 200 and number six in the US R&B Charts, while 1982s My Favorite Person only reached number forty-nine in the US Billboard 200 and number seven in the US R&B Charts. Would When Will I See You Again, released in 1983, and the album that celebrated The O’Jays’ twenty-fifth anniversary see a return to the success they enjoyed during the seventies?

After the disappointing sales of their two previous albums, The Year 2000 and My Favorite Person, The O’Jays were looking for a return to the commercial success of the seventies. Each of the eight albums The O’Jays released between 1972 and 1979 for Philadelphia International Records, had either been certified gold or platinum. So, with The O’Jays celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary, there was even more reason for a return to the commercial success of the seventies. What would become When Will I See You Again was their sixteenth album, their eleventh album for Philadelphia International Records. Gamble and Huff cowrote three of the album’s eight tracks and produced four tracks. Kenneth Gamble cowrote Put Our Heads Together with Keni Burke, while Leon Huff cowrote House of Fire with Stephanie Huff. Leon Huff would arrange a total of four tracks, one on his own, one with Jack Faith and two with Jiggs Faith. Recording took place at Philadelphia’s Sigma Sound Studios, along with M.F.S.B. Mk. 2.

Joining The O’Jays at Sigma Sound Studios were M.F.S.B. Mk. 2. This included drummers Quinton Joseph and Wendell Wayne Steward, bassists James Williams and Anthony G. Brown plus guitarists Dennis Harris and Willie Lee Ross. Lenny Pakula played organ, Leon Huff keyboards, Larry Washington and Leonard W. Gibbs percussion and Don Renaldo added strings. These are just a few of the musicians that played on When Will I See You Again. This shows just how many musicians were part of M.F.S.B’s constantly evolving lineup. During the seventies and eighties, around fifty musicians were part of M.F.S.B’s lineup. Considering M.F.S.B. lost many of its original members in 1976, when they went on to form The Salsoul Orchestra in 1976, this shows how many talented musicians were based in Philly during this time. Many of these musicians played on the eight tracks that comprise When Will I See You Again. Would When Will I See You Again see a return to the commercial success The O’Jays enjoyed during the seventies?

Before the release of When Will I See You Again, I Can’t Stand the Pain was released as a single, reaching number thirty-five in the US R&B Charts. On the release of When Will I See You Again in 1983, the album reached number 142 in the US Billboard 200 and number nineteen in the US R&B Charts. Rather than a return to the commercial success of the seventies, When Will I See You Again became The O’Jays least successful Philadelphia International Records’ album. Put Our Hands Together was the second single released from When Will I See You Again, reaching thirty-five in the US R&B Charts and number eleven in the US Dance Charts. Sadly, When Will I See You Again was an inaspicious way for The O’Jays to celebrate their twenty-fifth anniversary. However, was When Will I See You Again a case of the wrong type of album being released at the wrong time. After all, music was changing in the early eighties and changing fast. So is When Will I See You Again an album that deserved to have been a bigger commercial success? That’s what I’ll tell you, once I’ve told you about the music on When Will I See You Again.

Opening When Will I See You Again was the lead single I Can’t Stand the Pain. Written and produced by Gamble and Huff, with Leon Huff arranging the track, is a track that shows Philadelphia International’s influence on house and garage music. Pounding beats, percussion and keyboards combine creating a dramatic backdrop for The O’Jays urgent harmonies. Then comes Eddie’s lead vocal. It has a similar urgency, full of heartache and hurt. Meanwhile, the rhythm section, guitars, keyboards and percussion create a bold and pulsating backdrop for Eddie’s pained vocal. His hurt is reflected by the tight, soaring and dramatic harmonies. The longer the track progresses, the more the drama, urgency and hurt grows. So much so, that when track ends, you’re left wondering why a track with such a contemporary, innovative sounding track wasn’t a bigger success? 

You don’t even need to check the sleeve-notes to realize that Betcha Don’t Know (What Comes After That) was written and produced by Gamble and Huff. It’s got their name written all over it. Growling horns, a funky, pounding rhythm section and percussion give way to Eddie’s vocal. It’s powerful and passionate, accompanied by punchy, soaring harmonies. The growling horns, keyboards, slap bass and guitars create an uplifting, joyous backdrop for The O’Jays. Spurred on by one of the best arrangements on the album, Eddie’s vocal and the harmonies are peerless during this heartfelt, punchy paean to love courtesy of Gamble and Huff.

Covering such a familiar track as When Will I See You Again isn’t an easy task, given The Three Degrees had already recorded the definitive version. The only way to do so, is to transform the track. Stabs of Lenny Pakula’s Hammond organ, swathes of Don Renaldo’s strings and the rhythm section create an arrangement that’s much more understated, The O’Jays add tender harmonies. By now the arrangement in gradually revealing its subtleties and secrets. Eventually, Eddie’s heartfelt vocal enters, with the lushest of strings for company. Like the arrangement, Eddie’s vocal grows in power and fervor. Horns enter, drums pound and strings sweep and swirl, while The O’Jays add a new twist to a familiar track. However, good as their version is, it comes up short of The Three Degrees’ definitive version.

House of Fire was written by Leon and Stephanie Huff, and makes a dramatic impact from the opening bars. Vibes and percussion give the track a floaty sound, before it’s all change. A pounding rhythm section drive the track along, The O’Jays matching M.F.S.B. Mk. 2 every step of the way. Eddie’s vocal is powerful, sassy and full of fire and fervor. The object of his desire is a devilish temptress who teases and tantalizes. Sweeping, punchy and dramatic harmonies augment Eddie’s vocal, while drummer Quinton Joseph and bassist James Williams provides the arrangement’s pulsating heartbeat. 

Percussion, piano and rhythm section provide a dramatic introduction to A Letter To My Friends. The arrangement is slightly stop, start, and you’re constantly wondering the direction the track is heading. A searing, sizzling guitar solo gives way to tight harmonies from The O’Jays. These are just curveballs. When Eddie’s impassioned vocal enters, it’s accompanied by lush strings and a dramatic rhythm section. From there, the arrangement meanders along, mixing drama, jaunty rhythms and Eddie’s impassioned vocal. However, the song doesn’t quite grab you like other tracks on the album. It’s a good track, but a long way from a great one.

The unmistakable sound of an early eighties synth opens Put Our Heads Together. It combines with drums, guitar and Moog bass creating a catchy, funky backdrop for The O’Jays’ uplifting, joyous vocals. Soon, you’re hooked. Eddie becomes like a cheerleader, encouraging people to “organize…put our heads together…let’s get on the move.” His vocal is inspirational, a call for action and change. Sammy and Walter do their part, adding encouragement and seconding Eddie’s call for action and change. So powerful is Eddie’s vocal and catchy is this hook-laden track, that resistance is impossible, better just organize…put our heads together…let’s get on the move.” 

Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With Good Lovin’ is a track with a real Philly Sound to it. Having said that, There’s a vintage jazz sound to parts of the arrangement. From Bunny Sigler’s keyboards that open the track, to tight harmonies, lush strings, rasping horns and a dramatic rhythm section, the track has made in Philly written all over it. Eddie delivers a heartfelt, fervent vocal, accompanied by punchy harmonies, strings, horns and keyboards are key to an arrangement’s elegant, dramatic and beautiful sound. Of all the songs on When Will I See You Again, this has to be one of the best.

Closing When Will I See You Again is Nice And Easy, a track written by Brenda Mitchell and Morris “Butch” Stewart. Like A Letter To My Friends, it’s a track where you’ve no idea where it’s heading. Bursts of blazing horns give way to doo wop style vocals, before Eddie delivers a sassy half-spoken vocal. After that, things get back on track. Eddie’s vocal is powerful and sassy, accompanied by dramatic drums, blazing horns and cascading strings. The rest of The O’Jays adds sweeping, soulful and sometimes, punchy harmonies, as Eddie vamps his way through the track, against a backdrop that sounds ironically, not unlike The Salsoul Orchestra. This is a quite different way to close When Will I See You Again. It doesn’t quite match the quality of other tracks, but having said, is full of sass, humor and not a little passion. 

When Will I See You Again didn’t provide The O’Jays with the commercial success that they’d hoped for to mark their twenty-fifth anniversary. Although When Will I See You Again deserved to fare better than number 142 in the US Billboard 200 and number nineteen in the US R&B Charts, it didn’t quite match the quality of their seventies albums. Of the eight tracks, six of them worked. Only Like A Letter To My Friends and Nice and Easy didn’t quite work. Neither track is a bad track, just not the standard you’ve come to expect from The O’Jays. Of these two tracks, Like A Letter To My Friends is a bit too stop, start and doesn’t quite hold your attention, grabbing your attention like I Can’t Stand the Pain and Betcha Don’t Know (What Comes After That) which are two of the highlights of When Will I See You Again. Mind you, they were penned and produced by Gamble and Huff, so enough said. Nice and Easy which closes the album is slightly contrived. It tries to hard to be clever and humorous, like a boy on first date. There are similarities with The Salsoul Orchestra, but this doesn’t quite work. Apart from these two tracks, the rest of When Will I See You Again sees The O’Jays delivering some peerless vocals and harmonies. Their take on The Three Degrees’ When Will I See You Again, works well, but they had a hard act to follow, with The Three Degrees version the definitive version. House of Fire written by Leon and Stephanie Huff was a fervent, fiery track, with Eddie proving why he was one of the best soul singers of his time. Put Our Heads Together is an inspirational track, one that’s a call for action, with Eddie transformed into a fervent cheerleader. The best track on Side Two was Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With Good Lovin,’ where the Philly Sound and jazz unite seamlessly. Along with I Can’t Stand the Pain, Betcha Don’t Know (What Comes After That) and Put Our Heads Together, this quartet are the best tracks on When Will I See You Again. They’re followed by the title-track and House of Fire. Overall, When Will I See You Again may have been a commercial failure, but rather than the music, the album was released at at the wrong time. People’s taste in music was changing rapidly, with The O’Jays and their contemporaries seen as yesterday’s men. That meant many people missed out on many great soul albums, including The O’Jays When Will I See You Again. To me, When Will I See You Again is an album that’s stood the test of time, and nearly thirty years later, has much to commend it. Standout Tracks: I Can’t Stand the Pain, Betcha Don’t Know (What Comes After That), Put Our Heads Together and Ain’t Nothin’ Wrong With Good Lovin.’

THE O’JAYS-WHEN WILL I SEE YOU AGAIN. 

 

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