The O'Jays are in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and for that you can thank Donald Trump, the Chipmunks and the Wiggles. Oh sure, the '70s-era production genius of Gamble and Huff, who turned the O'Jays from so-so successes to one of the biggest R&B acts in the world, have something to do with that. And the soul-kissed singers themselves, including croontastic leader Eddie Levert, are rather responsible for their own super-smooth legend, as well.
But let it be known that there are few bands as beloved by all facets of the pop-culture spectrum as the Canton, Ohio-born crew that gave us the world-turning Love Train, the funk-flavored For the Love of Money (a.k.a. the theme for Trump's Apprentice) and Now That We Found Love (yep, late rapper Heavy D's hit was a cover).
To properly hype Thursday's groove-a-thon at the Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Petersburg, the 69-year-old Levert rang us up to talk about that old-school Philly soul and how Coors Light keeps him alive:
You've been in the music biz for more than 50 years. You started when you were a pup. What advice would you give your teen self just starting out?
Go to your piano lessons. Go to them like a hungry man going to his last meal! [Laughs] I didn't go to my piano lessons. I used to tell people, "I can sing, what do I need piano lessons for?" Totally wrong thinking. I was a stupid kid! I could have been a Gamble and Huff, a [producer like] Babyface. It would've helped my writing. I told my son Gerald [from the band LeVert, of Casanova fame] the same thing — but he didn't go to his piano lessons, either!
C'mon, Eddie, you're a Rock Hall of Famer. You founded the O'Jays! You're too hard on yourself, my friend.
Let's just say I was lucky I had that vocal gift. The only reason I could sing is because I had a third-grade teacher who made us sing from the diaphragm. Circular breathing, you know? She would stand in front of you and punch you in the stomach! Just to make sure you were singing from your diaphragm! But if I had gone to those piano lessons, man, I could have done more.
It seemed that Gamble and Huff, Philly's answer to Detroit's Motown, needed the O'Jays as much as you needed Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.
You know, Sean, I'm going to agree with you. There was gospel, the church, R&B grittiness in our singing, and Gamble and Huff saw that and were able to make that into a record. After they got the O'Jays, their whole thing turned around. As soon as they got us, they got Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (If You Don't Know Me By Now), Teddy Pendergrass. Their music took a more soulful sound. They were able to go to another level. We brought them back to their roots.
The music itself was so good, you could tell it was a hit before you even heard the lyrics. Back Stabbers, Give the People What They Want. But once the respect was lost, that's when we stopped having hit records. All of a sudden, Huff thought he could go into the studio without Kenny Gamble. Together, they came up with a song like Love Train. But you needed all the entities to make a record, and that stopped happening in the late '70s.
Did you like Heavy D's hip-hop version of Now That We Found Love?
We were the first to do that! [Laughs] I loved the Heavy D version. I always thought ours should have been a smash, but they never played it on the radio.
My kids know the O'Jays thanks to the Wiggles and the Chipmunks doing Love Train. Crazy, huh?
Hey, that song has been loved through time. The Coors beer people — we had a good five-year run with them with those Love Train commercials. Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones covered it. Hall & Oates, they're Philly guys; I love their version. My favorite Love Train cover was by Three Mo' Tenors. You know them? The thing of it is, though, I love all of these acts, all of these people. I do. 'Cause they're keeping me alive. I appreciate that. So thanks, guys.
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.