O’Jays reflect on 50 years, Ohio impact

AUGUSTA, Ga.—When soul singer Howard Hewett learned he was booked to open some shows for the O’Jays this winter, he made sure he downloaded a special photo to his cell phone to show O’Jays frontman Walter Williams.

THE O’JAYS—Walter Williams, Eric Nolan Grant, Eddie Levert.

“Walt’s brother Byron Wil­liams and I were in a group called LYFE in the early ’70s,” said Hewett, while pointing to a vintage photo of Dhashiki-wearing cool cats with bushy Afros. Hewett is from Akron, Ohio and the Williamses are from nearby Canton where Walter Wil­liams, Eddie Levert, Bobby Massey, William Powell and Bill Isles formed the Mascots, later to be re-named the O’Jays, in the late 1950s.

Hewett, Walter Williams and Massey recently discussed their common Ohio bond and how their mid-western upbringing helped spawn several prominent musical acts.

Walter Williams smiles when he reflects on the Buckeye State’s impact on popular music.

“There’s always been lots of talent in Ohio. We were from Canton, but you had talent in Massillon, Columbus, Alliance, Waynesburg, Youngs­town, Cleveland and Day­ton,” said Walter Wil­liams prior to a recent sold-out Augusta show. “The Ohio Players were our backup band for awhile. And, the Isley Brothers of Cincinnati, already had a national hit (“Shout”) when we were just cutting some local records.”

Other groups with Ohio connections include Ruby & The Romantics and James Ingram who share Akron ties with Hewett; while Lakeside, Zapp & Roger Troutman, Slave, Faze O and Heatwave have Dayton roots. Cincinnati boasts Bootsy Collins, Midnight Star and The Deele, while Bobby Womack and (Kinsman) Dazz Band rose to the ranks in Cleveland. Kool & The Gang founders Robert Bell and Ronald Bell were born in Youngstown where a ‘70s band called Sweet Thunder enjoyed recording success. Switch and White Heat (TnT Flashers) have Steubenville connections.

When questioned why Ohio musicians rose to the top during those bygone days, Walt Williams, Massey and Hewett share one philosophy —the economic boon occurring in the nation’s midwestern heartland at the time.

“At the time, you had Republic Steel in Canton working all three shifts and folks in Akron were working good at the rubber plants (Firestone and Goodyear),” said Massey.

“People had money to outlet their frustrations and after work, they didn’t mind spending it on entertainment and having a good time,” said Hewett, who later became lead singer for the Los Angeles-based trio, Shalamar.

Lonzie Cox Jr. of Beaver Falls, witnessed the Ohio Players as a backup band for the O’Jays at a hotspot lounge in northeast Canton called The Baby Grand.

“Canton was just about an hour across the (Pa./Ohio) state line and ‘The Grand’ was known for booking top-notch acts, including organist Jimmy Smith,” said Cox, himself a guitarist with an Aliquippa band called The Fabulous Embers.

Massey recalls recording dates at King Records in Cincinnati and at the 5th Floor Studio in Dayton.

Walter Williams said then-group manager Eddie O’Jay even drove to Detroit to meet with then- fledgling Motown owner Berry Gordy. O’Jay didn’t like the deal Gordy laid on the table and the rest is history, chuckled Williams. “No regrets,” he said.

Walter Williams and vocalmates Eddie Levert and newest member Eric Nolan Grant delivered their award-winning brand of Ohio during their first time in Augusta, Ga., since playing several Birthday Bashes for the late James Brown in the 1990s.

“Those were fun times hangin’ out with the Godfather of Soul,” said Williams, who vividly recalls the chitlin-circuit days playing Georgia cities like Atlanta, Macon and Columbus. The latter city is where The O’Jays filmed their rare 2003 motion picture appearance in “The Fighting Temptations,” featuring Beyonce Knowles and Cuba Gooding Jr.

“Back in the day, it was much easier to travel – verses now – with all the airplane weather delays and missed connections,” Walter Williams reflected.

In reference to their recent TV ONE “UNSUNG” appearance, it was noted that two original members, Isles and Massey, left the group prior to the O’Jays’ hit-making run which started in 1972.

Massey said he left the group in 1971 because, “I wanted us to have a chance to make the real money we deserved, mainly by continuing to write our own songs.”

Williams confirms that while Massey wanted greater fortunes for the group, “Massey quit at a time when we were just about to make our mark.”

At age 70, Massey, now a successful Cleveland businessman, says his only regret is that the quartet wasn’t intact when the hits started to come. “That was a much better group and now, we could all sit back and share in all the royalties,” he said.

Williams, now 67, says he has no regrets about the course of history even if they were unable to guarantee the writing and publishing rights that Massey still speaks of.

“Bobby Massey is absolutely correct. We probably should’ve had more rights. But by him quitting, he got 100-percent of nothing. So, we waited until an opportune time came along for us to establish ourselves as writers, producers and publishers,” said Williams. The group’s stellar ’70s hits were mainly penned by the Philadelphia International Records’ hit­making team of Kenny ­Gamble and Leon Huff.

Differences aside, when the O’Jays were inducted into Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, Williams and Levert invited Massey and former member Sammy Strain to participate. Nate Best was also a former member.

As a career highlight, Williams vividly recalls laying background vocal tracks on Stevie Wonder’s 1980 hit “All I Do.”

“It was myself and Eddie along with Betty Wright and Michael Jackson. Four professionals in Stevie’s LA studio. No egos, because Stevie’s a stickler for the best. That was a great night,” he said.

Concerning Eddie Levert’s well-being since the untimely deaths of his two sons, Gerald Levert (November 2006) and Sean Levert (March 2008), Williams assures fans that his childhood pal is “OK, but still healing.” The younger Leverts were members of the 1980s era R&B trio, Levert. The trio also produced Cleveland’s Men At Large in the 1990s. Solo vocalist Avant, is the keeper of today’s Ohio soul tradition.

Since achieving Hall of Fame status, Williams said the O’Jays have enjoyed a steady stream of quality gigs including more corporate and convention-related bookings.

Going forward, Williams reveals that the group is negotiating a deal for a proposed reality TV show called, “What Does It Take To Be An O’Jay.”

“Youthful talent with good business savvy are vital traits for becoming an O’Jay,” said Williams, adding that he and Eddie are proud graduates of Canton’s legendary William McKinley High School.

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