The Vault of Soul: The O’Jays

Graphics by Sarah Tarlin; Photo courtesy of Edward Windsor Wright public relations
Graphics by Sarah Tarlin; Photo courtesy of Edward Windsor Wright public relations

By Ian Chang, Staff Writer

Each week of Black Music Month, we open the 88.9 Vault of Soul, profiles of iconic soul pioneers. Continue reading to take a deep dive into The O’Jays’ incredible legacy.


The O’Jays are an American R&B group formed in 1958 in Canton, Ohio. Over the years, the group continued performing despite the many changes made to their lineup, but they are now closing the curtains on their legendary career. The O’Jays have consistently evolved with the times, establishing themselves as icons of R&B. They have also received many honors, including being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.



The O’Jays were originally a quintet formed by Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, Bobby Massey, and William Powell, all born in 1942, and Bill Isles, born in 1941. Although they greatly influenced the Philadelphia sound, they were all from McKinley High School, in the neighboring state of Ohio. Levert and Williams were best friends in school who formed a gospel duo. Then, a performance by Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers inspired the duo to form a performing group. They invited other schoolmates to sing with them, forming the original quintet. At first, they named themselves The Triumphs. Later, they adopted a new name: The Mascots.



The group’s first single was “Miracles,” released in 1961 under the King record label. The single caught the attention of Eddie O’Jay, a popular DJ, who promoted their music and provided some guidance. In tribute to him, the Mascots decided to rename themselves The O’Jays in 1963. They kept recording, and in the same year, achieved chart success with the single “Lonely Drifter.” As The O'Jays became more comfortable, their list of hits grew. Songs like “Lipstick Traces on a Cigarette” in 1965 and “Stand in for Love” in 1967 were both featured on the R&B charts. 



By 1972, The O'Jays went from a quintet to a trio, after Isles left for family reasons, and Massey left to form his own label. While signed to Philadelphia International Records, “Back Stabbers” earned them their first chart-topper, selling over a million copies. It was #1 on the R&B chart and #3 on the Billboard Hot 100. This set off a period of triumph for The O'Jays, who enjoyed a steady stream of charting singles, several best-selling albums, and a few Grammy nominations. Other notable songs include “Love Train” (1972), which was #1 on both the R&B and pop charts, “Give the People What They Want” (1975), “I Love Music” (1975), and “Use Ta Be My Girl” (1978), which were all #1 on the R&B charts. 

Although The O'Jays had success, they also had their share of setbacks. Powell received a cancer diagnosis in 1975 and had to leave the group. Two years later, he passed away. Sammy Strain (from Little Anthony and the Imperials) replaced Powell in 1976. During this period, the group evolved with the music of the time. Some songs incorporated sounds like synthesized rap. While their new tracks, like “Lovin’ You” (1987), didn’t perform as strongly as before, they still enjoyed moderate popularity. Sammy Strain eventually left the group in 1992 to return to his original group. Nathaniel Best took his place, and Best was later replaced by Eric Grant. 



Throughout the 2000s, The O'Jays received numerous awards. In 2004, they became a part of the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame. The group also became members of the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2005. Then, in 2013, the National Rhythm & Blues Hall Of Fame honored The O’Jays.

Now, after over 60 years of creating music, The O’Jays are preparing to retire. In 2019, they released their last album, The Final Word, and they are currently on their final tour, Last Stop On The Love Train Tour. The tour is set to end in the fall of 2023, after which The O'Jays will hang up their mics. 


Influences for The O'Jays

The O'Jays cite artists like The Temptations and The Impressions as their musical influences. Also, the group was broadly influenced by Gospel music. Owning a sound that’s evolved with the times, they’ve been influenced by many different artists since their inception. 


Who The O’Jays influenced

The O’Jays have influenced many artists with their sound, like Beyoncé, The Roots, Jay-Z, and of course, LeVert, formed by Eddie Levert’s sons, Sean and Gerald. Additionally, many industry icons have sampled their songs, like 50 Cent and Ludacris. Overall, it is impossible to understate their impact on R&B. 


Notable songs

“Love Train” is a song about unity and love. They released the 1972 hit single during a time of unrest. The Vietnam War was still going on, and the Civil Rights Movement was winding down. In the song, The O'Jays promoted unity and love between countries, rather than the thorny distrust that was prevalent at the time. Overall, “Love Train” is an upbeat song and an amazing example of Philly Soul. 

“Back Stabbers” is an unhurried track with a helping of funk, this single sold over a million copies in 1972 and topped the R&B charts. It was The O'Jays’ first massive success and for good reason! With a self-assured tone, the song warns about the “backstabbers,” who would be “smilin’ in your face,” while they just wanted to “take your place.” With its cool, funky vibe, “Back Stabbers” is a track for grooving! 

Released in 1973, “For the Love of Money” is a funky, soulful track that reflects on how the drive for money consumes people. Although the song is over seven minutes long, it never loses its groove. Starting out with a bass line that will quickly etch itself into your head, it's a track that warns against human greed while keeping an infectious beat. 

“Use ta Be My Girl” is a 1978 song that nostalgically looks back on better times. Its lyrics reminisce about a girl the singer used to be with. Mellow and laid back, the track is a restrained chart-topper that will have anyone tapping along to its memorable melody and tight harmonies. 


You can revisit past Vault of Soul articles here, featuring artists such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and more. 

Interested in exploring the soul genre beyond the vault? Be sure to tune into 88.9 every night between 10 pm and 2 am for The Secret Spot. Or, take a deep dive into R&B, hip-hop, and the legendary voices of soul alongside new and pioneering MCs by streaming ERS+.

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