Perhaps the most outlandish moment during the current Big Sell of Grease came when the O’Jays popped up on the hokey Grease Day, USA TV special. The sweet-singing R&B trio isn’t in the movie and doesn’t even do a guest shot on the sound track. But Paramount knows where the gold—and platinum—is buried. The O’Jays’ current So Full of Love LP and Use ta Be My Girl single are twin No. 1s on the soul charts and both are climbing into the pop Top Ten. So a Learjet, no less, was dispatched to fly in the gang for the Grease promotion. “We’ve never had this kind of lavish treatment before,” says vocalist and founder Eddie Levert. “You know something good must be happening to us.”
Actually, the O’Jays, all in their mid-30s, have more to do with the sound of the 1950s than any made-in-Hollywood imitation. The group has been together since 1957, outlasting even the Drifters and withstanding the depredations of disco. Their total of five gold and three platinum LPs is so awesome that when two recent albums only went gold, “Everyone thought our career was declining,” laughs Levert.
Just two years ago the future of the O’Jays was in jeopardy when one of the original members, Will Powell, was stricken with cancer. (He died last May.) Powell was replaced by Sammy Strain, a veteran of a dozen years with another oldie, Little Anthony and the Imperials. Then, too, the group’s six-month touring schedule, often through the South, brought further problems. Last year the O’Jays’ customized bus was stopped near Memphis by shotgun-toting lawmen with a warrant for a man who wasn’t even aboard.
It all began for the O’Jays in Canton, Ohio when Levert, the church-singing son of a steel mill worker who also sang gospel, dropped out of McKinley H.S. to form a doo-wah group called the Mascots. They moved to Cleveland and in 1961 took their name from Eddie O’Jay, a radio disc jockey who had been their early sponsor. They played on the chitlins circuit for $25 a night until the hit records started to come, beginning with Lipstick Traces in 1963. They then got entangled with Philadelphia songwriter-producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, who wrote their Love Train and Backstabbers hits. “They’re great producers,” says Eddie, “but we realize now that we’ve got to do more of our own writing.”
Levert and Williams still reside within five minutes of each other in the upper-income Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. (Strain commutes from L.A., where he lives with his singer wife, Yvonne Fair, and her 13-year-old daughter, Venisha.) Walt and his wife, Nancy, have three daughters: Dwan, 7, and twins Seandra and Shalawn, 4. Eddie and his wife of 14 years, Martha, have three children of their own—Gerald, 13, Sean, 9, and Kandice, 3—in addition to Eddie Jr., 14, his son “by a previous adventure.” Levert also dotes on his Mercedes and a $49,000 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. “It’s more of an ego trip, a nice car that doesn’t work. I should have gotten a VW.”
The irony of the O’Jays’ present success is that increased touring forces them up against aerophobia. Williams was so shaken by the Learjet ride into L.A. that when the group hit the unfriendly skies again he asked to be returned to the terminal—while the plane was taking off. The request was turned down, so, when finally land-borne, the sulking Williams disappeared on an unscheduled fishing trip. “Walt is my best friend,” says Eddie, “yet sometimes he’s just full of it. At least he shows up for the gigs.” Music, indeed, is what’s lasted two decades. “Our roots are black, our roots are gospel,” declares Williams. Levert buys that. “Instead of reaching out for the white audience,” he beams, “we let them come to us. And it looks like that’s what’s happening.”