THE O’JAYS IN PHILADELPHIA.

THE O’JAYS IN PHILADELPHIA.

When Kenny Gamble saw first saw The O’Jays, they were on the same bill as The Intruders. This was October 1968. The Intruders just had the biggest hit of their career with Cowboys To Girls, which Kenny and Leon Huff cowrote. Despite this, it was The O’Jays that grabbed Kenny’s attention. He was transfixed. Here he realized, were a group with potential, one that he and Leon Huff could transform their career which seemed to have stalled. 

Now signed to Bell Records, The O’Jays career was following a familiar pattern, sporadic success followed by commercial failure. The O’Jays were in Philly promoting their latest single The Choice. It was the followup to their label debut I’ll Be Sweeter Than Tomorrow, which reached number eight in the US R&B Charts. Neither The Choice nor Look Over Your Shoulder were a commercial success. This was nothing new for The O’Jays. It had been the story of their career.

Founded in Carlton, Ohio in 1957, The O’Jays released their first single in 1963, and since then, had released a string of singles and four albums. Despite being blessed with an abundance of talent, The O’Jays weren’t consistent. Success was sporadic. This had lead to The O’Jays moving from label to label. Like musical nomads, The O’Jays searched for the right label. By 1968, they’d released singles or albums on five labels. Soon that would be six.

After the commercial failure of The Choice and Look Over Your Shoulder, The O’Jays decided they needed a change of label. Gamble and Huff just happened to be at the right place at the right time. They’d just founded a new label Neptune Records. The O’Jays would be their first signing. It didn’t take much to convince The O’Jays that Neptune Records was the label for them. All they had to do, was look at Gamble and Huff’s track record. They’d produced hits for Archie Bell and The Drells, Jerry Butler, The Intruders and The Soul Survivors. Convinced that Gamble and Huff could transform The O’Jays career, they signed to Neptune Records. Their first album for Neptune Records, was The O’Jays In Philadelphia, which was recently released by BBR Records. 

For The O’Jays In Philadelphia, seven of the tracks were penned by Gamble and Huff. They also cowrote Let Me In Your World with Alan Felder. The other two tracks were the Eugene Dozier and Keni St. Lewis composition You’re The Best Thing Since Candy, and a medley of Bob Russell’s Little Green Apples and George Harrison’s Something. The only track written by members of The O’Jays, was It’s Too Strong, written by Eddie Levert and Walter Williams. These eleven tracks were recorded in 1969 at Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound Studios.

At Sigma Sound Studios in 1969, lead vocalist Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, Bobby Massey and William Powell were joined by an early lineup of M.F.S.B. Like so many sessions, details are vague about who played on The O’Jays In Philadelphia. It’s thought the lineup included the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section plus guitarists Roland Chambers and Larry Washington. They were joined by percussionist Larry Washington, vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr. and pianist Eugene Dozier. Strings came courtesy of Don Renaldo while and Sam Reed provided the horns. Arrangers included Richard Rome, Thom Bell and Bobby Martin, while Gamble and Huff took charge of production. With The O’Jays In Philadelphia recorded, the lead single was released in June 1969.

The lead single from The O’Jays In Philadelphia was One Night Affair, which was released in June 1969. It reached number sixty-eight in the US Billboard 100 and number fifteen in the US R&B Charts. Branded Bad stalled at number forty-one in the US R&B Charts in October 1969. Deeper (In Love With You), released in February 1970, reached number sixty-four in the US Billboard 100 and number twenty-one in the US R&B Charts. The last singles was Looky Looky (Look At Me Girl) which reached number ninety-eight in the US Billboard 100 and number seventeen in the US R&B Charts in July 1970. That month, The O’Jays In Philadelphia was released, but failed to chart. For The O’Jays history was repeating itself. Many people must have thought The O’Jays were going nowhere. How wrong they would be.

Fast forward to April 1973, and The O’Jays fortunes had been transformed. Now signed to Gamble and Huff’s new label, Philadelphia International Records, The O’Jays 1972 album Back Stabbers had just been certified gold. The lead single, Back Stabbers had reached number one in the US R&B Charts. Then Love Train reached number one in the US Billboard 100 and US R&B Charts. This resulted in Love Train being certified gold. So, Gamble and Huff decided to rerelease The O’Jays In Philadelphia in April 1973. Although it charted, it stalled at number 156 in the US Billboard 200 and number thirty-seven in the US R&B Charts. The O’Jays In Philadelphia didn’t replicated the success of Back Stabbers. Did The O’Jays In Philadelphia replicate the quality of Back Stabbers?

Opening The O’Jays In Philadelphia, is One Night Affair, one of seven Gamble and Huff penned tracks. Arranged by Thom Bell and Bobby Martin, the track is driven along by piano and the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section. Having set the scene, Eddie’s pleading, needy vocal enters. It’s swept away amidst lush strings. Stabs of piano and rasping horns join bursts of sweeping harmonies in adding to the sense of urgency. Eddie’s vocal takes center-stage. Power, passion, sass and feisty, he struts, bravado giving way to pleas and desperation. No strings attached, all he wants is a One Night Affair.

You’re The Best Thing Since Candy has an understated, Bobby Martin arrangement. Just Ron Baker’s bass, a subtle sprinkling of Vince Montana Jr’s vibes and lush strings combine. A sharp burst of Earl Young’s drums signal the arrival of Norman Harris’ chiming guitar and Eddie’s heartfelt, joyous vocal. Eddie throws himself into the lyrics. Despite his best efforts, he’s let down by the somewhat saccharine lyrics. The arrangement more than makes up for this. Here, the nascent lineup of M.F.S.B. demonstrate they’re a tight, slick and well-schooled band, that can transform a mediocre track. 

As Branded Bad opens, it sounds as if it belongs on the soundtrack to a western. It’s the strummed guitars and flourishes of strings that lead to this comparison. Soon, it’s all change. The O’Jays and M.F.S.B. hit their stride. Eddie, his vocal welling up with emotion and frustration, mixes raw power as passion, as he probes and questions. Why despite all he’s achieved is he: “Branded Bad?” All he did was fall in love and marry you. Sympathetic harmonies sweep in, adding to the drama.  Baker, Harris, Young, waves of Hammond organ, swirling strings and growling horns add to, and reinforce the drama, complimenting Eddie’s soul-baring vocal.

Thom Bell, who arranged Should Be Your Love seems to determined to build the drama and sense of anticipation. Rolls of timpani, Ron Baker’s bass and braying horns combine with harmonies and strings are all deployed. Then Eddie’s vocal soars above the arrangement, a fusion of power, sadness and regret. It works. However, throughout the track, The O’Jays’ harmonies are reminiscent of The Temptations. Despite that, Eddie and the other O’Jays drive each other to greater heights. Feeding off each other, it’s as if they’re saying: “let’s take this higher.” They do. M.F.S.B. get in on the act. Just like The O’Jays, they demonstrate what they were capable of. 

The piano which opens Looky Looky (Look At Me Girl) seems like a reminder of another musical age. In truth, it’s an amuse bouche that teases your musical palette. What follows is a delicious dish best tasted often. Bursting into life, it’s a joyous, hook-laden, explosion. Eddie’s vocal bristles with energy and enthusiasm, before Baker, Harris, Young and a piano drive the arrangement along. Horns growl, strings dance and harmonies sweep in and out. Eddie’s vocal becomes a strutting, preening vamp, as The O’Jays and M.F.S.B. unite to demonstrate their inconsiderable talent and versatility on this truly irresistible track. 

Deeper (In Love With You) is another delicious dance track, which showcases The O’Jays vocal prowess as they mix Philly Soul, jazz and doo wop. Eddie’s lead vocal and William, Bobby and Walter’s doo wop harmonies unite seamlessly. Meanwhile, Bobby Martin’ arrangement has a stomping Motown beat, which is powered along by Ron Baker’s jazz-tinged, standup bass. Swathes of strings and rasping horns add the finishing touch, to a track that’s reminiscent of Jackie Wilson’s Higher and Higher. That’s how infectiously catchy this seamless fusion of musical genres is.

Let Me In Your World sees The O’Jays drop the tempo, as they become masters of the bedroom ballad. The lushest of strings, Norman Harris’ jazz-tinged guitar and dramatic bursts of Earl Young’s drums provide the backdrop for Eddie’s pleading, needy vocal. Desperation filling his voice, which is filled with emotion: “Let Me In Your World” is his plea on this beautiful, heartbreaking, ballad.

Flourishes of urgent strings, urgent waves of piano and rolls of timpani open Just Can’t Get Enough. Having set the scene, Eddie struts centre-stage. Soon, he’s pleading, his desperation and infatuation there for all to see. Behind him, the arrangement is dramatic. It’s a mass of blazing horns, dancing strings, flourishes of piano and powerhouse of a rhythm section. They provide the perfect backdrop for Eddie who: isn’t too proud to beg

I’ve Got The Groove sees The O’Jays In Philadelphia head in the direction of funk, and even psychedelic soul. Philly Soul isn’t forsaken though. Nor is drama. Baker, Harris, Young are at the heart of the drama. So too are waves of Hammond organ and Vince Montana Jr’s vibes. Eddie’s vocal is a mixture of power, sass, confidence and power. Waves of harmonies sweep in, while flourishes of strings add to the drama, of this innovative track, which sees musical genes melt into one.

A medley of Little Green Apples and Something seems an unlikely pairing. Just a subtle, understated arrangement featuring Norman Harris’ jazzy guitar and occasional bursts of drums combine. Almost unaccompanied, Eddie transforms Little Green Apples. Then, suddenly, it’s all change. Something sees the drama increase. Soon, M.F.S.B. have kicked loose. Baker, Harris, Young, growling horns, keyboards and vibes combine as Eddie and the rest of O’Jays match M.F.S.B. for drama, power and passion. The result is a compelling pairing of cover versions that are polar opposites. 

Closing The O’Jays In Philadelphia is It’s Too Strong, written by Eddie Levert and Walter Williams. Just wistful strings, Earl Young’s drums and urgent harmonies combine before a heartbroken Eddie enters. Norman Harris’ chiming guitar and strings add to the sense of heartbreak and hurt. Meanwhile, the rest of the rhythm section and O’Jays provide the necessary drama to a track that occasionally, reminds me of The Four Tops It’s The Same Old Song.

While The O’Jays In Philadelphia didn’t exactly see a Damascan transformation in The O’Jays fortunes, it marked an improvement in everything they’d previously released. The O’Jays In Philadelphia was a much more slicker, accomplished album. That’s no surprise. Look at the quality of personnel involved. Previously, The O’Jays hadn’t been blessed with the same quality of songs or worked with such talented musicians, arrangers and producers.

One thing any artist needs is quality songs. That wasn’t lack on The O’Jays In Philadelphia. Seven were penned by Gamble and Huff, who also cowrote cowrote Let Me In Your World Alan Fender. Gamble and Huff would enjoy unrivaled success as songwriters and producers, as would Alan Fender would work closely and successfully with Norman Harris. Then there were was the early lineup of M.F.S.B. who accompanied The O’Jays. This was an all-star band. Featuring Baker, Harris, Young, Roland Chambers, Vince Montana Jr. and Larry Washington, this lineup provided the soundtrack to the late-sixties and seventies.Arrangers included Thom Bell and Bobby Martin, while Gamble and Huff, who took charge of the production desk. As you can see, the scene was set for The O’Jays. All they had to do, was produce the performance of their career.

There’s no denying it, The O’Jays In Philadelphia wasn’t a commercial success. It did result in a quartet of minor hit singles. With its combination of irresistible, hook-laden dance tracks and heartfelt, heartbreaking ballads, The O’Jays didn’t let Gamble and Huff down. Drawing upon twelve years of experience, they surpassed everything they’d released previously. With more killer than filler, The O’Jays In Philadelphia didn’t disappoint. Gamble and Huff must have realized that The O’Jays could be moulded into one of their new label’s flagship acts. That didn’t quite turn out to be the case. 

Rather than The O’Jays becoming one of the flagship acts for Neptune Records, it was at Philadelphia International Records that commercial success and critical acclaim came their way. Two years after the release of The O’Jays In Philadelphia, Gamble and Huff were rewarded for their patience. Back Stabbers, released in 1972 transformed The O’Jays’ faltering career. It was certified gold and featured two number one US R&B singles, including Back Stabbers and Love Train, which was also certified gold. The O’Jays In Philadelphia proved to be just the first step in transforming The O’Jays career, where with Gamble and Huff’s help, three of their albums were certified gold and five platinum. Standout Tracks: One Night Affair, Looky Looky (Look At Me Girl), Deeper (In Love With You) and I’ve Got The Groove.

THE O’JAYS IN PHILADELPHIA. 

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