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Last stop on the ‘Love Train’: O’Jays in Tampa Friday

Bill DeYoung



The O'Jays 2022, from left: Eddie Levert, Eric Grant and Walter Williams. Photo: 21st Century Artists.

Walter Williams, one of the founding members of the platinum-selling vocal group the O’Jays, will celebrate his 79th birthday Thursday. The very next night, he’ll be onstage at the Straz Center in Tampa, singing “Love Train,” “For the Love of Money,” “Back Stabbers,” “Use ta Be My Girl” and all the other hits that made the O’Jays synonymous with rhythm ‘n’ blues and Top 40 radio in the 1970s.

It’s part of a short jaunt being billed as the O’Jays Farewell Tour, and the last show the venerated trio will play in Tampa Bay.

And it will be bittersweet because Williams’ co-founder, Eddie Levert, is home in Las Vegas recovering from Covid pneumonia. Relative newcomer Eric Grant (he’s been with Williams and Levert since 1995) will perform the show with Williams and the O’Jays band.

The bill also includes Gerald Alston and the Manhattans, and Shirley Murdock.

Don’t close the door on the O’Jays just yet, Williams tells the Catalyst.

“Eddie’s 80, I’ll be 79, and it’s time,” he says. “It’s time to start preparing to get out. Although it’s going to take a wind-down; we’re not just going to quit after this tour. But because my partner is sick, I don’t really know how to play it right now. I don’t know exactly when he’s gonna make it back; I don’t think it’ll be this year.

“I had Covid pneumonia, so I know what he’s going through. It takes a minute.”

Still, singing and doing those cool choreographed steps for an hour or more onstage will take it out of anyone of a certain age. “We both think it’s time. It becomes a task to get up there and do it like we used to do it.”

From Ohio, the group – originally a quartet – became proteges of Philadelphia songwriters/producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff in the late 1960s.

Levert, Williams and William Powell became one of the top recording groups of the ‘70s with a string of Gamble & Huff-created hits. They scored nine consecutive platinum albums.

Powell died in 1977 and was replaced by Sammy Strain, who would stay through the early ‘90s.

Gamble & Huff (along with frequent collaborator Thom Bell, who produced the Spinners, the Delfonics and others) are credited with creating something distinctive in ‘70s soul music – TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia).

“The Sound of Philadelphia,” explains Williams, “is the way Gamble and Huff record music, and the way Eddie and I sing the songs that they write. And all of the monster hits that we’ve had, plus the other acts that they recorded. That’s the Philadelphia sound, the MFSB Orchestra that goes along with that rhythm that they put together.

“Huff’s a hell of a piano player, Gamble writes a certain way, and Eddie and I came straight out of St. Mark Baptist Church in Canton Ohio, where my dad was the choir director. My stepmother was the pianist, and her sister was the organist.

“So we came with gospel flair, the flavor that was added to those songs that they wrote, and they liked it. And then they started tailoring those kinds of materials for us. And to me, that made The Sound of Philadelphia.”

The O’Jays were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, in 2005. They received BET’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009.

Williams was 18 when the O’Jays (named after a popular Cleveland DJ named Eddie O’Jay) cut their first record. You could not have convinced him, he says, that he’d still be singing at 79.

“I thought I would have retired by now. But this thing is addictive. I enjoy doing it. And I certainly enjoy doing it if I’m healthy enough to do it. I’ve always said that I would never be in that group they call the Old Jays.”

“I think we did what we needed and wanted to do. And hopefully left a really, really good legacy.”

And what about that legacy? “I want to leave a good clean record. I want to leave a lot of admiration for how we did what we did … and it’s squeaky clean! But most of all, I want them to have enjoyed what we did and accepted and practiced the message that we left. We were called the Messengers. Gamble & Huff wrote that message stuff: ‘Love Train,’ ‘Give the People What They Want.’”

Even today, he explains, the message is clear: “The message is: Love. Love is the key, to the whole existence. Of living, of life – love is it. That’s what we have to do as human beings. It’s hard, because of the greed of power and success, but there has to be love or we destroy each other.”

Tickets for Friday’s concert are available here.

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