July 7th, 2006
Title: The Essential O’Jays
Artist: The O’Jays
Catalog No.: EK 90632
The Essential O’Jays is a compilation of 15 songs, released during the groups’ heyday from 1972-1978, that transports the listener on a journey through several genres of black music from R&B, soul, funk and disco to songs inspired by gospel and jazz.
The liner notes essay, “Ride the Big Horse” by David Ritz, provides a history of the group, thereby offering insight into the foundation of the O’Jays’ diverse musical repertoire. Ritz notes that two of the members, Walter Williams and Eddie Levert, began their music careers as gospel singers when they were teenagers. Eventually they hired a manager, Eddie O’Jay (hence the group name), and along with a third member William Powell, began singing secular music (a fourth member, Bobby Massey, left the group in 1971). In the ‘70s they were signed by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff of Philadelphia International Records, whose production techniques allowed them to retain their gospel roots while incorporating unique sounds through the use of new technology. As a result, the O’Jays (originally from Canton, Ohio) quickly became known as one of the quintessential “Philly soul” groups.
Several tracks on the CD (“Put Your Hands Together” and “Stairway to Heaven”) display the O’Jays’ gospel roots, with lyrics that combine sacred and secular themes along with gospel-inspired vocal techniques and instrumentation: call and response patterns between the lead and background vocalists; the soloists’ “preaching style” of delivery; and the use of a Hammond organ, hand claps and tambourine. Their funkier side is represented in the album’s message songs, such as “Give the People What They Want” and “Survival,” replete with bass grooves and horns. “Message in Our Music” introduces a disco drum beat and Wah-wah pedal guitar riff, along with scat syllables and jazz vocal arrangements. Other tracks represent more of a cross-cultural aesthetic, combining the previously mentioned characteristics associated with black music genres with more mainstream ideals, including a smoother vocal delivery, lush string orchestrations, and lyrics that represent romantic or brotherly love (“Use Ta Be My Girl” and “I Love Music”).
Of the 15 songs on the compilation, several achieved “Top 10” status on both the R&B and/or Pop charts: “Back Stabbers” (#1 R&B), “Love Train” (#1 on both), “Put Your Hands Together”, “For The Love of Money”, “I Love Music” (#1 on R&B), and “Use To Be My Girl” (#1 on R&B). A few others songs charted #1 in the R&B category, but ranked much lower on the Pop charts: “Give the People What They Want” (#45 on Pop), “Livin’ For the Weekend” (#20 Pop), “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby” (#72 Pop), and “Message in Our Music” (#49 Pop).
It is interesting to note that all but one of the R&B chart toppers are message songs, which perhaps had less cross-cultural appeal.The Essential O’Jays is an excellent CD that represents the diversity of the group’s sound and engages the listener in a survey of black popular music styles of the ‘70s as represented by one of the most successful groups of this era─The O’Jays. Posted by Rhonda Baker
Review Genre(s): Rhythm & Blues, Soul, Funk