Fortunate to have the services of the gifted production tandem of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, popular vocal group the O’Jays cranked out the hits with startling speed and consistency during the 1970s. Over the course of the decade, the Cleveland-based trio released a string of albums and singles garnering praise from critics and fans alike. So impressive was their product that they managed to shine in a universe inhabited by ridiculously talented stars like Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Sly Stone, Al Green, James Brown, the P-Funk collective, and Earth, Wind, and Fire.
Numerous factors contributed to the O’Jays’ success and longevity, but if pressed to select three reasons for their widespread popularity, my choices would be: the beautiful way in which Walter Williams’ velvety smooth vocals paired with Eddie Levert’s tougher-than-leather extemporizations, the invaluable songwriting contributions of Gamble and Huff, and the O’Jays’ uncanny ability to shift from romantic balladry to harrowing social commentary to disco-burning dance tracks.
Thankfully, the O’Jays now boast a greatest hits compilation showcasing their wide ranging talents and uniqueness. Of the countless best-of collections on the market, the newly released and moderately priced The Essential O’Jays is the best by far. Spanning three decades, the collection documents the group’s beginnings with the Imperial label in 1965, takes us through their dominant years of the ’70s, and tacks on a few goodies from the ’80s and early ’90s. Predictably, the heart of the compilation is the trio’s smash material from 1972 to 1978. All of the timeless anthems (“Love Train”, “Back Stabbers”, etc.) are here, in addition to some nice suprises that will elicit nods of approval from diehards. Throwing a curve ball in terms of song selection, Legacy complements the hits with classic album cuts like the gripping epic about the Middle Passage, “Ship Ahoy”, and the heart-wrenching “Cry Together”. Narrating the story of a struggling couple trying to find balance and resolution, the latter song not only showcases the group’s sensitive side, but demonstrates why their music was (and continues to be) a staple in African American households.
If there’s any complaint with this compilation, the absence of live material from the group’s heyday would be my biggest gripe. Stories about the O’Jays spectacular live shows circulated freely in my Jacksonville, Florida, home, contributing immensely to my developing sense of the group’s greatness. No different than their Philadelphia International label mate, Teddy Pendergrass, the O’Jays established their loyal fan base not only through their radio hits but through constant touring. Certainly one of the hardest working bands in the business, the group built their reputation on their ability to give the people what they wanted and needed during their live shows. Surely additional documentation of the group’s talent and chemistry away from the studio would have been a nice addition to this greatest hits package.
All things considered, however, the Essential O’Jays represents one of the strongest and comprehensive snapshots of one of soul music’s finest.