The world of soul would never be the same. This was clear as radio audiences heard the opening bars of the O’Jays “Backstabbers”—the sinister piano roll that intros the tune, Vince Montana’s vibes and Norman Harris’s guitar layered over lush strings arranged by Philly-favorite son Thom Bell, and finally the accusatory query from Walter Williams, Eddie Levert and the late William Powell of “what they doin’?” The year was 1972 and “Backstabbers” was the lead single and title track from the O’Jays’ debut recording for the burgeoning Philadelphia International Records (PIR), the brainchild of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. Long-time veterans of the Philly-Soul, the O’Jays had moderate success singing soulful ditties like George Kerr’s “Look over Your Shoulder” and “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Yesterday)”. But their initial collaboration with the musical genius of Gamble and Huff, would bring them the crossover success that had alluded them. By the spring of 1973, the O’Jays had achieved their first number-one pop hit with “Love Train”. It was with the momentum that they generated from Back Stabbers that the O’Jays went in the studio in the summer of 1973 to record Ship Ahoy.
If Backstabbers was an affirmation that the Gamble and Huff pop-soul formula could work—soaring soulful harmonies layered on top of big-band arrangements and lush strings—then Ship Ahoy was a test to see if Gamble and Huff’s heady cultural nationalism could also be mainstreamed for popular audiences. The O’Jays would never achieve the level of pop success that Backstabbers brought them, but with Ship Ahoy, they began their role as the primary mouthpieces for Gamble and Huff’s vision of an empowered and stable black community.
“Put Your Hands Together”, the lead single from Ship Ahoy charted in December of 1973. The song was a direct attempt to take advantage of the “love, peace, and happiness” groove that propelled “Love Train” to the top of the charts earlier in 1973. “Put Your Hands Together” didn’t replicate the success of “Love Train” (though it was a top ten hit) and the song is not considered as one of the most memorable of the O’Jays catalogue. Most die-hard fans of the O’Jays better remember some of the album cuts from Ship Ahoy, which make Ship Ahoy the classic that it is. On those “less commercial” cuts, songwriters Kenny Gamble and Bunny Sigler tackled issues ranging from air quality, ghetto crime, and crass materialism on the album’s seminal track, the “Middle Passage”.
The cover art to Ship Ahoy features illustrations of black bodies being held in the bowels of a slave ship. The song “Ship Ahoy” examines what scholars and activist have referred to as the “middle passage”—the literal voyage that enslaved Africans made across the Atlantic Ocean in slave ships destined for the Americas and the Caribbean. The song brilliantly personalizes the “voyage” in ways that few black popular artifacts had previously done so—some three years before the publication of Alex Haley’s Roots. The fact that Gamble and Huff were comfortable enough to use the tragedy of the middle passage and the subsequent enslavement of people of African descent in the West to frame a pop recording speaks to how seriously the duo viewed popular music as a vehicle to “teach and preach” and the sense of autonomy that they perceived as the heads of PIR.
PIR was one of the first “black” boutique labels set up by major labels in the ‘70s, and in this regard it remains the grandest of those labels, with only Kenny Edmond and LA Reid’s LaFace coming close. PIR was the perfect post-Motown label, as they produced music tailored for newly formed FM audiences, and reflected the sentiments of an emergent black professional class and the comfortability that all black audiences had for expressions of black pride. The O’Jays’ Ship Ahoy was the project that allowed Gamble and Huff to practice the art they preached.
On “Don’t Call Me Brother”, the O’Jays give a correspondent’s view of the demise of communal relations within the so-called ghetto. Nearly 9-minutes in length, the song highlights the contradictions of calls for brotherhood amidst people who continue to prey of the misery of folks locked-out and locked-down in the hood. Walter Williams is straight preacherly as he flows “You don’t even have any self-respect / How can you respect somebody else / I watched you running around the neighborhood / Trying to rip me off”. But it’s Eddie Levert’s response that gets at the rage that undergirds the reality of having predators in your neighborhood that look like you. Coming out of a bar and finding his car broken into, Levert sings “And here you come, skinning and grinning / I know you did it / With the power sign / And talkin’ about ‘my man, solid on that, my brotha’”. The song was an indictment of the ways so many folks appropriated the signs and symbols of the black power movement, while engaging in activities that were direct opposition to black political empowerment. Like so many of the great political songs of Gamble and Huff, the focus was always on what blacks folks should be doing for themselves and “Don’t Call Me Brother” was an urgent call for folks to cut off the predators amongst them.
On the breezy “This Air I Breathe”—a nod to Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy, Me (The Ecology) perhaps—the O’Jays turn into environmental activists pointing a finger at federal and state agencies: “Don’t they care / What’s happening to the air / Can’t they see that the birds and the trees are dying more and more everyday”. They turn their attention back onto to themes of love and life on tracks like “Now That We Found Love” and “You Got Your Hooks in Me”. “Now That We Found Love” later became a major commercial breakthrough for the reggae group Third World, who recorded a dance-floor version of the song in 1978. The success of the song among American audiences was just further proof of the artistic influence of Gamble and Huff. “You Got Your Hooks in Me” ranks as one of the great O’Jays’ ballads, alongside “Stairway to Heaven”, “Let Me Make Love to You”, and the simply brilliant “Cry Together”. Rather than a bedroom-eyed call to passion, “You Got Your Hooks in Me”, written by the underrated Walter “Bunny” Sigler, is a straight-up churchified testifyin’ in the name heterosexual love.
Despite the strength of Ship Ahoy‘s album cuts, the most memorable cut from the disc, is arguably one of the most singles of the O’Jays’ career. Written by Gamble, Huff and bassist Anthony Jackson, “For the Love of Money” presents a stinging critique of crass materialism in American culture. It was Jackson, who was responsible for the signature bass-line that opens the song and likely drew thousands of people straight to a dancefloor—at the club, in their house, on the stoop—the very first time they heard the groove. If so many of the PIR male lead singers—notably Teddy Pendergrass, Eddie Levert, Billy Paul, and Ebonys’ lead David Beasley—were given to sermonic riffs, then no sermon (7 minutes long) was as relevant to the Gamble and Huff vision than “For the Love of Money”. Thirty years later, their observation that “For the love of money / People will steal from their own mother / A woman will sell her precious body / For a small piece of paper / It carries a lot of weight / For that mean, mean, green / Oh mighty dollar” still strikes a chord. The producers of the film New Jack City understood that fact when a version of the song, performed by Queen Latifah, Troop, and Levert (Gerald, Sean, and Marc Gordon), was used in the film to critique the materailsitic impulses of the burgeoning crack cocaine industry. Ironically, Gamble and Huff were recently found guilty of cheating some of their PIR artist out of royalties, after Billy Paul, whose “Me and Mrs. Jones” was one of PIR’s first breakthrough hits, filed suit.
The reissue of Ship Ahoy is rounded out by a live version of “Put Your Hands Together”, that was recorded in London in 1974.