That The O’Jays released an album in 1975 entitled Survival, is almost ironic. 1975 would prove to be a traumatic year for The O’Jays’ label Philadelphia International Records. During 1975 Gamble and Huff were locked in a dispute with many of the members of their legendary house-band M.F.S.B. over money. Eventually, after the dispute couldn’t be resolved, many of M.F.S.B. left the label, heading to New York, becoming The Salsoul Orchestra. In one fell swoop, Philadelphia International Records lost some of its most important personnel. Gone were the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr, guitarist Bobby “Electronic” Eli and the legendary backing vocalists the Sweethearts of Sigma. These were no ordinary musicians, they were also arrangers, songwriters and producers. M.F.S.B. realizing they were worth much more, decided that Salsoul Records was the place to go. Disco was the future and The Salsoul Orchestra transformed Salsoul into disco’s premier label. During the long-running negotiations about money, Gamble and Huff still had a record label to run. Undoubtably, Philadelphia International Records’ biggest group were The O’Jays, who’d release two albums during 1975. These were Survival and Family Reunion. Survival was the followup to 1973s platinum certified Ship Ahoy, which gave The O’Jays their first US R&B number one album, which I’ll now tell you about.

Survival was The O’Jays third album for Philadelphia International Records. Their two previous albums had proved to be critically acclaimed and commercially successful. Backstabbers, released in 1972, had reached number ten in the US Billboard 200 and number three in the US R&B Charts, resulting in The O’Jays’ first gold disc. Ship Ahoy, released in 1973, surpassed the success of Backstabbers, reaching number eleven in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R&B Charts. This gave The O’Jays their first platinum album, after Ship Ahoy sold over a million copies. So the pressure was on Gamble and Huff to replicate the success of The O’Jays first two albums. 

Gamble and Huff were up for the challenge, penning five of the eight tracks on Survival. Leon Huff wrote Never Break Us Up, while Bunny Sigler cowrote two tracks. He cowrote Let Me Make Love To You with Allan Felder and cowrote What Am I Waiting For with ex-Temptation Ron Tyson. These eight tracks were recorded at Sigma Sound, with Gamble and Huff producing Survival and Bobby Martin arranging the tracks.

Survival would prove to one of the final albums the original and classic lineup of M.F.S.B. While they’d also feature on Family Reunion later in 1975, by then they’d headed for New York and became The Salsoul Orchestra. So Survival is one of the last times musicians like the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr, guitarist Bobby “Electronic” Eli, percussionist Larry Washington, keyboardist Bunny Sigler and the legendary backing vocalists the Sweethearts of Sigma featured on an album recorded by a Philadelphia International Records’ artist. Equally poignant was that Survival was the penultimate album to feature Bill Powell, who two years later, in 1977, would die of cancer. It seemed the times and personnel were changing at Philadelphia International Records. Would this affect the success of Survival?

Give the People What They Want was released as a single in 1975, reaching number forty-five in the US Billboard 100 and number one in the US R&B Charts. This was The O’Jays third number one US R&B single, following Backstabbers and Love Train. Let Me Make Love To You was then released as a single, but stalled at number seventy-five in the US Billboard 100 and number ten in the US R&B Charts. On the release of Survival in April 1975, it was well received by critics, reaching number eleven in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R&B Charts. Survival had given The O’Jays their second gold disc, ensuring The O’Jays remained Philadelphia International Records’ biggest group. However, given the turbulence behind the scenes at Philadelphia International Records and William Powell’s failing health, did this affect Survival?

Opening Survival is the US R&B number one single Give the People What They Want, penned by Gamble and Huff. Earl Young’s thunderous drums and hissing hi-hats open the track, before Ron Baker’s funky bass, defiant harmonies and growling horns unite with searing guitars. Then comes Eddie Levert’s angry, frustrated vocal.  His vocal is filled with defiance, accompanied by harmonies that match his frustration and anger. Eddie demands that they “Give the People What They Want” and that’s the “truth.” M.F.S.B. provide a dramatic, equally angry, demanding backdrop. Horns growl and rasp, while the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section play dramatically, defiantly and with a sense of urgency. Along with the horns, they’re key to this much tougher funky sound. Like earlier O’Jays albums, this another of Gamble and Huff’s “message songs.” It’s like a wake up call, where The O’Jays protest at the inequality, injustice and unfairness like only The O’Jays can. Thirty-seven years later, this track is just as relevant and totally timeless.

Let Me Make Love To You was the second single released from Survival. It was one of two songs Bunny Sigler cowrote, this time with Allan Felder. Eddie’s pleading vocal is sung against a wailing, atmposheric Hammond organ, before Earl Young’s drums add drama. Norman Harris’ thoughtful, jazz-tinged guitar reflects the emotion in Eddie’s vocal, while slow, lush strings, rasping horns and tight, impassioned harmonies play their part in an arrangement where beauty, emotion and drama unite. Baker, Harris, Young play their part, Norman’s guitar adding beauty and Earl’s drums adding both beauty and drama. The longer the track progresses, the more the emotion and sincerity in Eddie’s vocal grows. He pleas and begs, delivering a vocal that’s emotive, heartfelt and needy. This makes this easily, one of the highlights of Survival.

The title-track Survival, is one of five tracks written by Gamble and Huff. Blazing, cascading horns join the Baker, Harris, Young in driving the arrangement along. Punchy harmonies join the mix, with Eddie delivering a vocal that’s filled with desperation, sadness and resignation. This is another Gamble and Huff song with a message. Given the perilous economic state and the social problems, Eddie gives a voice for those that are struggling: “it’s survival of the fittest,”  but some people aren’t fit enough. People, Eddie realizes are struggling to keep from drowning in a sea of despair and poverty. There’s no safety net to catch them. Again, anger fills his vocal, at the suffering he sees every day. M.F.S.B. reflect this anger, adding a dramatic, searing arrangement, that unfolds in waves. The rhythm section and horns play vital rolls, while Vince Montana Jr, adds his trademark vibes, providing a contrast to the drama and power. Punchy, soaring harmonies join Eddie’s scathing vocal, which brings to life the tragedy, drama and despair in the lyrics.

Where Did We Go Wrong closes Side One of Survival. It’s another of the slower songs. Lush, sweeping strings join Vince Montana Jr’s subtle vibes and piano. Harmonies full of sadness and regret wonder “Where Did We Go Wrong.” The vocal is filled with heartache and hurt, harmonies cascading, while strings reflect the emotion, sadness and heartache. Norman Harris’ pensive, sparse guitar playing adds to the sadness, as does the piano, vibes and strings. Here, each of The O’Jays plays their part in the songs success, their vocals tender, heartfelt and filled with a hurt that seems real.

Rich Get Richer opens Side Two of Survival and sees Gamble and Huff continue their message songs. Here, their lyrics are filled with social comment at life’s injustice. However, given their dispute with M.F.S.B. there’s an irony to the song. Stabs of slow, melodic keyboards provide a backdrop for Eddie’s vocal. He’s almost like a preacher, before M.F.S.B. kick loose. Maybe they saw the irony too? Strings sweep and swirl, horns bray and rasp, Baker, Harris, Young produce an angry, powerful backdrop and Eddie unleashes a vocal full of anger and frustration at the exploitation of people living in ghettos. They remain living in poverty, while “the folks that live on the hill Rich Get Richer.” Eddie’s anger and frustration seems real, as do the harmonies, which are filled with emotion. M.F.S.B. somehow, seem to raise their game again. Baker, Harris, Young provide the heartbeat, while strings cascade, horns growl and Vince Montana Jr, adds his vibes. They provide a perfect and fitting backdrop for The O’Jays anger, frustration and despair. The lyrics are still as relevant and true today as in 1975.

Moody, cinematic strings, Vince Montana Jr’s vibes and keyboards join with a thoughtful Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section as How Time Flies unfolds. Eddie’s vocal is pensive, thoughtful and filled with emotion as he remembers the past. Strings add a beautiful backdrop, while the rest of M.F.S.B. give the track an understated, beautiful sound. Later, the tempo increases, giving the arrangement a jazzy sound, while high-kicking horns add a funky, dramatic sound. Norman Harris’ guitar provides an equally thoughtful, pensive sound to Eddie’s vocal and the harmonies. Here,The O’Jays deliver some of their tightest, most soulful and heartfelt harmonies, while Eddie Levert delivers one of his most moving and beautiful vocals.

What Am I Waiting For was penned by Bunny SIgler and ex-Temptation Ron Tyson. Dramatic flourishes of strings and blazing horns give way to soaring harmonies, Vince Montana Jr’s vibes and Norman Harris’ tender guitar. They provide an arrangement that veers between understated and dramatic, reflecting The O’Jays’ harmonies. Eddie’s vocal is laden with hurt, heartache and emotion. Bursts of Earl Young’s drums and keyboards add drama, while lush strings, Vince’s vibes, a Norman Harris’ jazz-tinged guitar provide a delicious contrast. This combination of drama and subtlety is the perfect accompaniment to one of Eddie’s most heartfelt, soul-baring deliveries.

Closing Survival is the Leon Huff composition Never Break Us Up, which has a jazzy sound when it opens. Rasping horns, cascading strings, keyboards and the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section combine to create this jazzy backdrop. A burst of drama from Earl’s drums signals Eddie’s impassioned vocal. Harmonies and sweeping, swirling strings and punchy horns ensure the arrangement swings along. The O’Jays’ harmonies and Eddie’s lead drive each other to greater heights of soulfulness. Meanwhile M.F.S.B. prove their versatility, seamlessly transformed into a big band as they ensure Survival swings to a memorable, jazzy close.

Survival survived the turbulent times that were unfolding at Philadelphia International Records unscathed. What with Gamble and Huff locked in a dispute with M.F.S.B. over money, plus William Powell’s failing health, it’s remarkable that Survival is such a good album. It gave The O’Jays their first US R&B number one album and their second gold disc. With its combination of socially conscious songs, slow songs and relationship songs, Survival was a worthy successor to Ship Ahoy. Certainly, The O’Jays hadn’t run aground with Survival. They remained, Philadelphia International Records’ biggest success story. Mind you, by 1975, groups like The Three Degrees and Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes were about to leave Philadelphia International Records. More worryingly, so were M.F.S.B. 

Although M.F.S.B. would feature on The O’Jays next album, somewhat ironically called Family Reunion, by then they’d have become The Salsoul Orchestra. Regardless of how people choose to spin this loss, this hurt Philadelphia International Records. M.F.S.B’s dispute with Philadelphia International Records reached a dramatic conclusion later in 1975. Unable to resolve their dispute, M.F.S.B. remembering that “the workman is worthy of their hire” headed to Salsoul, where the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr, guitarist Bobby “Electronic” Eli and the legendary backing vocalists the Sweethearts of Sigma transformed Salsoul into disco greatest label. Back in Philly, the name M.F.S.B. continued, but without the legends who’d made them one of Philadelphia International Records’ not just the greatest house band in soul, but a successful group in their own right.

While Philadelphia International Records continued to produce some of the greatest soul music of the seventies, Philly Soul’s popularity was overtaken. Disco became the most popular genre of the mid, to late seventies. Providing the soundtrack and accompanying many of its biggest stars were The Salsoul Orchestra. Meanwhile, Philadelphia International Records’ biggest stars continued were Teddy Pendergrass, Billy Paul and The O’Jays, who continued to enjoy the critical acclaim and commercial success they’d enjoyed since their Philadelphia International Records’ debut album Backstabbers. Their third album, Survival wasn’t just a matter of survival, but progress, that saw The O’Jays become one of the greatest groups in the history of Philly Soul, releasing eight albums, three of which were certified gold and five platinum. Standout Tracks: Give the People What They Want, Let Me Make Love To You, Where Did We Go Wrong and What Am I Waiting For.


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