The O’Jays were one of Philadelphia soul’s most popular and long-lived outfits, rivaled only by the Spinners as soul’s greatest vocal group of the ’70s. In their prime, the O’Jays’ recordings epitomized the Philly soul sound: smooth, rich harmonies backed by elaborate arrangements, lush strings, and a touch of contemporary funk. They worked extensively with the legendary production/songwriting team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff , becoming the flagship artist of the duo’s Philadelphia International label. The O’Jays were equally at home singing sweet love ballads or up-tempo dance tunes, the latter of which were often mouthpieces for Gamble & Huff s social concerns.
Although the O’Jays couldn’t sustain their widespread popularity in the post-disco age, they continued to record steadily all the way up to the present day, modifying their production to keep up with the times.The O’Jays were formed in 1958 in Canton, OH, where all five original members — Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, WilliamPowell, Bill Isles, and Bobby Massey — attended McKinley High School.
Inspired to start a singing group after seeing a performance by Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers they first called themselves the Triumphs, then switched to the Mascots in 1960. The Mascots made their recording debut in 1961 with the single “Miracles,” issued on the Cincinnati-based King label. It earned them a fan in the influential Cleveland DJ Eddie O’Jay, who gave them some airplay and career advice; in turn, the group renamed itself the O’Jays in 1963, after having recorded for Apollo Records with producer Don Davis Under their new name, the O’Jays signed with Imperial and hooked up with producer H.B. Barnum, who would helm their first charting single, 1963’s “Lonely Drifter,” plus several more singles that followed.
Isles left the group in 1965 and was not replaced, leaving them a quartet; late in the year, they released their first-ever album, Comin’ Through. In 1967, the O’Jays left Imperial for Bell, where they landed their first Top Ten single on the R&B charts, “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today).” Discouraged by the difficulty of following that success, the group considered throwing in the towel until it met Gamble & Huff— then working as a production team for the Neptune label — in 1968. Gamble & Huff took an interest in the group, and they recorded several successful R&B singles together; however, Neptune folded in 1971, leaving the O’Jays in limbo, and Massey decided to exit the group.