O'Jays ride 'Love Train' to Oregon
For more than six decades, The O'Jays have been entertaining audiences with what began as rhythm and blues and became "Philadelphia soul."
In a 7 p.m. show Saturday, Sept. 21, at Spirit Mountain Casino in Grand Ronde, the trio will deliver their uplifting music for one of the few times to an Oregon audience.
The O'Jays were formed in 1958 in Canton, Ohio, with current members Eddie Levert (77 years old) and Walter Williams (76) part of a quintet. By the early 1970s, the group had become a trio, and after signing with the Philadelphia International Records label, they began recording a string of hits, including "Back Stabbers," "I Love Music," "Use Ta Be My Girl" and "Love Train," the latter reaching No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in 1973.
In 1997, Levert and Williams added Eric Grant, and he has been part of the group since.
In all, the O'Jays had seven top-20 singles. They have been inducted into the Rock & Rock Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and will be enshrined in the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame in October.
The Portland Tribune caught up with Levert at his Las Vegas home for a question-and-answer session:
Tribune: How often have you played the state of Oregon through the years?
Levert: Very seldom. We've been to Portland maybe once or twice, but it's not a regular stop for us. It will be great to see if we have any fans up there.
Tribune: How does it feel to still be playing music and entertaining crowds after more than six decades?
Levert: Oh man, it's almost like this is a rebirth. When we were getting popular in the '70s, we were doing arenas and stadiums of 12,000 to 15,000 capacity. Now we're doing dates in smaller facilities where we're close to the audience, which I think is much better than playing the big arenas, where there is a big void in between you and the people. In the smaller venues, it's up close and personal. We get to know them and they get to know us.
Tribune: You took the name "O'Jays" from a Cleveland radio DJ named Eddie O'Jay. What's the backstory there?
Levert: Before we were the O'Jays, we were the Mascots. None of us really liked that name. Eddie was our de facto manager, though he couldn't be officially since that would have been a conflict of interest, so we called his wife our manager. We went to Detroit and recorded some music for Thelma Gordy, Berry's ex-wife. They wanted to put a record out, and everybody was trying to come up with another name. Finally, Eddie just said, "Call yourselves the O'Jays for now." We used that and never came up with another. It stuck. But it's cool. It almost sounds like a bird. We tell people it's a bird that sings.
Tribune: You and Walter have been playing music together for more than 60 years. What's it been like working with someone so long?
Levert: It's like a marriage. We have good days; we have bad days. We've come to a point where we agree to disagree. I wouldn't say it's lovey-dovey all the time, but we're still together. We're making it work.
Tribune: I caught part of the PBS special called "The O'Jays: Live in New York," a live show featuring your greatest hits that was filmed in March and is currently running.
Levert: We're getting seen by a lot of people who haven't seen us in awhile, or at all. Now they're gravitating to us. I appreciate the people at PBS who have gone along with it. We also did a Fourth of July gig at the National Mall in Washington D.C., which PBS sponsored. (President) Trump was at one end and we were at the other end.
Tribune: Ironic, in that "For the Love of Money" served as the theme song for our president's former TV show "The Apprentice."
Levert: I tell people every day, he can't be such a bad guy. I made a few bucks with him. He's a Gemini; I am, too.
Tribune: One of your songs on your new album, "The Last Word," is titled "Above the Law." Is that a statement about our current president?
Levert: It's not necessarily about him. There are a lot of people who think they are above the law and that they can get away with things. But no one is above the law. If you do something illegal or wrong, you're going to get caught. You're going to pay for it.
Tribune: This is your first new album in two decades. Why did you decide to come out with it?
Levert: Our manager, Steve Greenberg, felt it was time. We had some great writers and producers who were involved. The songs were right up our alley, saying things that provide positive messages. We reached back and did some oldies stuff that we've done before, like "I'll Be Sweeter Tomorrow." We had reservations about doing the album, but it's been accepted pretty well by our fan base, and they brought a few young people along to us. It helps us to be more relevant.
Tribune: Bruno Mars co-wrote another one of the songs on the album. What do you think of his music?
Levert: He brought rhythm and blues back to the forefront, with his own little twist. The young man is real good.
Tribune: How do you feel about being enshrined in the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame next month?
Levert: You have to remember, we're from Ohio. Our relationship with Gamble and Huff (of Philadelphia International) started when The Intruders introduced us to them. So we went from Ohio to Philly, and it became our second home. Philly is a mecca for music. Just to be included in that is a wonderful thing.
Tribune: What kind of music will the fans hear at Spirit Mountain?
Levert: They're going to hear all of it. Even some of it that they don't like (laughs).
Tribune: How much longer do you want to play music on tour?
Levert: As long as people buy tickets, you know what I'm saying? When they stop buying tickets, we'll pack our bags and I'll just go back to being a grandfather.
Tribune: Are you a grandfather?
Levert: Seven times. I'm even a great-grandfather, three times. Ain't that something? Then I go up there and sing and make the girls scream. Can you believe it?
For info/tickets about the O'Jays show, see www.spiritmountain.com.
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