The best of the best of Philly Soul: The Essential O'Jays shows just why the band are the newest members of the Rock & Roll (& Soul?) Hall of Fame.
To help celebrate (and capitalize on?) The O'Jays' recent induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Legacy has issued the O'Jays' entry in its "Essential Collection" series. And so it joins The Ultimate O'Jays, The Best of the O'Jays, and The O'Jays' Greatest Hits in the record bins. Sound like overkill? Well, it is and it isn't. With excellent sound and 16 tracks at a midline price, The Essential O'Jays is the go-to choice when it comes to O'Jays compilations.
And what about the music? Like several of the vintage American soul bands, the O'Jays are still around, touring and releasing the occasional album. Original members Eddie Levert and Walter Williams are still holding down the fort, ushering in various replacements for original third member William Powell, who died of cancer in 1977. But the O'Jays' glory days were in the early-to-mid 1970s, when they recorded for legendary songwriters / producers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff and their Philadelphia International label. And that's the material that Essential essays.
The "Philly Soul" sound was second only to the Motown sound in defining American soul music and giving it a place on the map -- and the charts. And the O'Jays (actually from Ohio) were arguably the most accomplished and successful group to work with Gamble and Huff. Everything that's great about Philly Soul -- the smooth, effortless melodies; tastefully lush orchestrations; silky harmonies; and tight, whip-smart arrangements -- shines through in Essential's best tracks.
When you have a song like "Love Train", so shimmering (those initial, tremolo keyboard chords) so uplifting ("people all over the world, join hands!"), so sincere (how could those soaring harmonies not be?), so groovy (killer bass, a beat so confident it needs only a bit of hi-hat to embellish it), so perfect where do you go from there? Well, the O'Jays surrounded "Love Train" with 1972's Back Stabbers, an album's worth of material that was almost as good. Sensibly, fully half of Back Stabbers is included on Essential, which means you get the pull-no-punches title track, driving "992 Arguments" and incomparably cool slow jam "Time to Get Down". These tracks (a fifth Back Stabbers selection, "Sunshine", is a pretty but relatively insubstantial ballad) highlight everyone involved at the height of their talent and creativity, and the results leave you with goosebumps.
So why not just go out and get the remastered version of Back Stabbers? Because then you'd be missing out on the selection of prime material from the O'Jays' other '70s albums. Take, for example, the infectious "Put Your Hands Together" with its triumphant horn charts, a song that actually turns out to be not about dancing but, rather, prayer. Or "For the Love of Money", which features one of the Top Five All-Time Most Kickass Basslines Ever as well as some biting social commentary. And how about "Stairway to Heaven", not a Zeppelin cover but a heartfelt soul ballad with a multi-tiered arrangement that keeps you tuned in for all of its six minutes? These; the funky, phased-out "Give the People What They Want"; and the gritty, defiant "Survival" would be the crowning jewels of most soul artists' catalogs.
As the '70s rolled on and disco loomed large, The O'Jays, Gamble, and Huff stuck together, but they weren't able to maintain the consistency of previous works. "I Love Music" and "Livin' for the Weekend" fail to leave much of an impression not so much because of their disco rhythms as their lightweight melodies and lyrics. Although Public Enemy famously inverted the title of "Message in Our Music" for one of its albums, the song itself finds the O'Jays in a discofied holding pattern. But none of these songs save the embarrassingly obvious "The Big Gangster" is bad, and the excellent playing and those voices and arrangements make them perfectly listenable.
Much to its credit, Legacy enlisted Gamble and Huff to produce this compilation, and they help ensure that it gets proper treatment. The sound is excellent -- pristine yet warm, highlighting the strength of the singing, playing, and arrangements alike. The liner notes include a new interview with a still-enthusiastic Williams; and the sequencing, while not exactly chronological, makes sense.
The O'Jays are one of those Important Groups whose music you can also enjoy for pure pleasure. This quality, more than any other, assures their legacy, and helps The Essential O'Jays live up to its name.