In August 1972, when The O’Jays’ released Back Stabbers, little did they realize how important an album it would become. Back Stabbers was certified gold, and fourteen years after The O’Jays were formed, were on their way to becoming one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful groups in the history of Philly Soul. Between 1972s Back Stabbers and 1979s Identify Yourself, The O’Jays released eight studio albums. Three were certified gold and five platinum.

Back Stabbers helped launch Gamble and Huff and their newly founded label, Philadelphia International Records as one of soul music’s premier labels. In the process, it established Gamble and Huff’s reputation as one of the most innovative, influential and pioneering production and songwriting teams. Indeed, The O’Jays followup to Back Stabbers, Ship Ahoy, released in October 1973, cemented Gamble and Huff’s reputation not just innovators and pioneers, but with a social conscience.

Ship Ahoy featured songs about slavery, racism, greed and pollution. Side-by-side on Ship Ahoy, sat love songs and songs with a social conscience. While The O’Jays may have sung sweetly about love, but they weren’t afraid to become the conscience of a nation, using their music to shame those who they thought were bringing their country to its knees, by their actions. Through the medium of music, politicians, corporate America and race, were all subjects that they dealt with in the music on Ship Ahoy, which will be rereleased on vinyl by Music On Vinyl on 26th January 2015. Before I tell you about some of the most powerful, potent and moving songs The O’Jays recorded, I’ll tell you about the background to Ship Ahoy.

By 1973, Philadelphia International Records had established its reputation as a pioneering label, who’d released critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums. During 1972, Philadelphia International Records had released Billy Paul’s 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes’ I Miss You and The O’Jays’ Back Stabbers. Further success had come Philadelphia International Records’ way with Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes’ Black and Blue M.F.S.B’s sophomore album Love Is The Message and The Three Degrees’ eponymous album The Three Degrees. Gamble and Huff and Philadelphia International Records were on a roll by the time The O’Jays released Ship Ahoy.

Ship Ahoy featured four tracks penned by Gamble and Huff. They wrote Put Your Hands Together, Ship Ahoy and Now That We Found Love, while they cowrote the seven minute epic For The Love Of Money With Anthony Jackson. Kenny Gamble cowrote The Air That I Breathe and Don’t Call Me Brother with Bunny Sigler, who also contributed You Got Your Hooks Into Me. The songwriting team of Gene McFadden, John Whitehead and Victor Castarphen cowrote People Who Keep Tellin’ Me, which closes Ship Ahoy. Recording of Ship Ahoy took place at the familiar surroundings of Joe Tarsia’s Sigma Sound Studios.

At Philly’s Sigma Sound Studios, Gamble and Huff were joined by the classic lineup of M.F.S.B, Philadelphia International Records’ legendary house-band. This included the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section, plus bassist Anthony Jackson and guitarist Bobby “Electronic” Eli. They were joined by organist Lenny Pakula, percussionist Larry Washington, vibes virtuoso Vince Montana Jr and violinist Don Renaldo, who was part of the trademark string and horn sound that featured on many Philadelphia International Records’ recordings. Arrangers who worked on Ship Ahoy included Norman Harris, Dennis Williams, Lenny Pakula and Bobby Martin. Producing Ship Ahoy at Sigma Sound Studios were Gamble and Huff. Once Ship Ahoy was recorded, it was released in October 1973. Would Ship Ahoy match the success of 1972s Back Stabbers?

On the release of Ship Ahoy in October 1973, it surpassed the success of Back Stabbers, reaching number eleven in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R&B Charts, resulting in The O’Jays first platinum disc. Put Your Hands Together was the lead single, released in November 1973. It reached number ten in the US Billboard 100 and number two in the US R&B Charts. For The Love Of Money was released in March 1974, reaching number nine in the US Billboard 100 and number three in the US R&B Charts. In the UK, three singles were released, Put Your Hands in November 1973, For The Love Of Money in March 1974 and Now That We Found Love in August 1974. Unbelievably, they all failed to chart. However, Ship Ahoy had surpassed the success of Back Stabbers, and in the process, transformed The O’Jays’ career. Why was that? That’s what I’ll tell you, when I tell you about the music on Ship Ahoy.

Put Your Hands Together opens Ship Ahoy. It’s  a paean to cooperation and optimism in the face of hard times. Forty years later, The O’Jays message is just as relevant. When the track reveals its secrets, the sound is dramatic, moody and funky. The Baker, Harris, Young the rhythm section, guitars and keyboards combine drive the arrangement along. Having set the scene, Eddie Levert’s growling, vampish vocal enters. It soars passionately and emotively. Urgent harmonies sweep, sweetly and soulfully in. Meanwhile, strings dance and growl, while Earl Young’s drums and stabs of keyboards and percussion add to the drama. A funky bass and wah-wah guitar accompany The O’Jays, as they spread their message of optimism, in the face of adversity. Emotive and impassioned, filled hope and optimism The O’Jays, helped no end by M.F.S.B. create an uptempo, hook-laden track with a social message.

The title track, Ship Ahoy deals with a shameful subject, slavery. It tells the story African people being taken captive, transported on a ship as part of the slave trade. Originally, Gamble and Huff had hoped the track would be part of the soundtrack for the film Shaft In Africa, but this never happened. Complete with the sound of crashing waves and whips cracking this powerful track unfolds. They’re joined  by keyboards, a slow plodding bass and a guitar, before deliberate strings enter. When Eddie’s emotive vocal enters, The O’Jays sing tight harmonies. Their voices are tinged in anger, as the drama builds and grows. Stirring, dramatic and pounding drums join strings that sweep in loud and grand. Blazing horns add to the drama and emotion. Later, guitars soar, screaming and screeching, as if empathising with the pain suffered.  It’s impossible not to be moved by the lyrics, and their delivery. Like Norman Harris’ arrangement, they bring the lyrics to life. Such is the power of the music, that by the end, you feel moved, angry and upset. To be able to achieve these emotions through the power of soul music, is testament to the talent of The O’Jays and Gamble and Huff.

The Air That I Breathe has a slightly Latin sound and feel. Norman Harris’ chiming guitar, percussion, piano and rasping horns uniting. The Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section provide the heartbeat, as this anthemic, hooky song with a message unfolds. When Eddie’s vocal enters, it’s laden with emotion. Almost with disbelief he powerfully rages at the pollution around him. Still there’s a joyous sound, as M.F.S.B. and The O’Jays kick loose. His vocal soars heavenwards, his vocal tinged anger and resentment. As if spurred on, the harmonies are tighter, sweeter and more soulful. M.F.S.B. are similarly spurred on. Braying horns, Baker, Harris, Young, percussion and piano provide the backdrop for Eddie’s moving, emotive and soulful masterclass. Like Put Your Hands Together, their message is one of optimism, hoping things will improve. By the end of the track, you can only salute The O’Jays for managing to get their message across in such a deeply soulful and melodic way.

Bunny Sigler and Kenny Gamble cowrote You Got the Hooks In Me, which Bobby Martin arranged. A piano slowly and subtly plays, before Eddie’s vocal enters. It’s accompanied by Earl Young’s drums and short sharp bursts of organ. The tempo is slow, the playing subtle. Soon, the arrangement reveals is soulful secrets. Eddie’s heartfelt, heartbroken vocal soars, and soothing, soulful harmonies sweep in. They’re enveloped by melancholy horns, lush strings and Lenny Pakula’s Hammond organ. By now, The O’Jays are at their soulful best, delivering a track that’s heartbreakingly sad, where Eddie lays bare his soul, hurt and heartbreak to hear.

For the Love Of Money is another protest song, this time against materialism, that was and is, contributing to the world’s problems. During the track, Anthony Jackson contributes one of the most famous bass lines in popular music. It was played through a phaser, then  bathed in echo. Since then, it’s been sampled by many hip hop artists. Originally, the track was written around the bass line. Straight away, that bass line pounds, weaving its way across the arrangement. It’s fast and funky, surrounded by crisp crashing cymbals, pounding drums, angry horns and harmonies. They yell “money” over and over. When Eddie’s vocal enters, it’s strong, angry and filled with frustration. His ire is directed at people’s “Love Of Money. Bobby Martin’s arrangement mixes elements of soul and funk masterfully. A combination of searing, soaring guitars solos, loud, angry, drums, percussion and grizzled horns accompany a vocal that’s angry, frustrated and impassioned. Like other tracks on Ship Ahoy, the lyrics, are still relevant today. Oh and that bass line sounds just as good, forty years on.

Now That We’ve Found Love is a beautiful, heartfelt love song, arranged by Norman Harris. This is what many people think of when The O’Jays are mentioned, beautiful love songs. They aren’t aware of their socially aware protest songs. Keyboards, percussion and the Baker, Harris, Young rhythm section unite, before tight, tender harmonies enter. Eddie’s vocal takes centre-stage, with a heartfelt delivery of the lyrics, which preach forgiveness. His vocal is swathed in lush strings and rasping horns. Like other tracks, the arrangement veers between lush and dramatic, as The O’Jays deliver another beautiful, heartfelt and impassioned love song. Indeed, it’s one of the most beautiful love songs The O’Jays ever recorded.

Don’t Call Me Brother is a protest song, and finds The O’Jays at their angriest and fieriest. A jazz-tinged backdrop, complete with Norman Harris’ chiming, jazz guitar, wistful horns and the lushest of strings cascades along. Dramatic bursts of Earl Young’s drums signal The O’Jays to unleash their anger. They do this is style that’s part Philly Soul, part doo wop. Close, impassioned and angry harmonies sing about the false claims of racial harmony from people who would just as soon stab you in the back. Eddie’s angry vocal rails against the hypocrisy and lies of politicians and leaders. Bobby Martin’s arrangement, like the anger and frustration, builds up, reaching a dramatic musical crescendo. Thunderous drums, blazing horns, strings and guitars unite. Then as if spent, returns to a much more gentle and melodic sound. For nearly nine minutes, The O’Jays vent their anger and frustration, passionately and peerlessly. By the end of the track, it’s impossible to not be touched and moved by their powerful, deeply moving message, where doo-wop, Philly Soul, jazz and gospel unite.

People Keep Tellin’ Me closes Ship Ahoy is People Keep Tellin’ Me. It’s an upbeat and uplifting track, arranged by Norman Harris. Strings sweep and swirl, horns rasp and growl and Baker, Harris, Young provide the track’s heartbeat. Harmonies sweep in soaring soulfully and joyously. Even the, you sense something special is unfolding. Washes of Hammond organ and Vince Montana Jr’s vibes join forces, before Eddie’s heartfelt, impassioned vocal enters. He and the other O’Jays drive each other to greater heights. M.F.S.B. are enjoying the opportunity to kick loose. Something very special has unfolded. Joyous and emotive describes this irresistible slice of Philly Soul. It features The O’Jays and M.F.S.B. at their very best, as they bookend Ship Ahoy perfectly. As the song closes, you can’t help but Put Your Hands Together for The O’Jays, as they close Ship Ahoy in a way that’s not just sweet and soulful, but uplifting, melodic and memorable.

Following up an album as critically acclaimed and commercially successful as Back Stabbers, wasn’t going to be easy for The O’Jays. However, they were no ordinary group. Even by their second album for Philadelphia International Records, The O’Jays had earned a reputation as one of Philly Soul’s great groups. By 1973, The O’Jays were seasoned performers, the group having been formed in 1957. Over the previous fifteen years, they’d refined their sound. A combination of Eddie Levert’s lead vocal and sweet, tight vocal harmonies becoming huge polished and deeply soulful. It was as if all these years of experience were coming to fruition on Back Stabbers and then Ship Ahoy. While Back Stabbers was critically acclaimed and commercially successful, Ship Ahoy surpassed its success.

During the eight tracks on Ship Ahoy, The O’Jays mixed beautiful love songs with songs filled with social comment. Ship Ahoy featured songs about slavery, racism, greed, materialism and pollution. Social comment and protest songs stood side by side, and the emotion, anger and frustration wells up in The O’Jays’ voices. They were also preaching a message of optimism and togetherness on Ship Ahoy. Many of the songs on Ship Ahoy, their messages are just as relevant forty years after the album’s release in 2013. Still people are seduced by materialism, greedy for money and willing to do anything to gain even more. Sadly, racial discrimination, like many other forms of discrimination is prevalent, and the backstabbers mentioned in Don’t Call Me Brother, are still around, still causing trouble, when they claim to be a force for good and harmony.  Ship Ahoy features The O’Jays sing emotionally and passionately. Just below the surface, tension, frustration and anger is palpable, at the various problems that faced society. Then when The O’Jays sing the love songs on Ship Ahoy, we hear the side of their music most people are aware of. Their delivery of these gorgeous love songs feature the peerless combination of Eddie Levert’s vocal, laden with emotion and passion and tight, sweet and soulful harmonies. These two sides of The O’Jays’ music come to the fore on Ship Ahoy.

Forty years after the release of The O’Jays sophomore album for Philadelphia International Records, the music Ship Ahoy is just as relevant in 2013, as it was in 1973. To celebrate the fortieth anniversary of one of The O’Jays’ classic albums Ship Ahoy,which will be rereleased on vinyl by Music On Vinyl on 26th January 2015. Ship Ahoy is a stonewall Philly Soul classic, where songs filled with social comment sit side-by-side with beautiful love songs. Indeed, the platinum certified Ship Ahoy is one of the best albums ever released, and is one of several classic albums The O’Jays released between 1972 and 1979.



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