The music business has always had a funny way of turning artists into overnight sensations. But although The O’Jays achieved widespread fame on the Philadelphia International label with 1972’s one-two punch of “Back Stabbers” and “Love Train,” the group hardly broke through overnight. As the Mascots, the Ohio natives recorded their first single in 1960. As the O’Jays (named after their manager, Cleveland DJ Eddie O’Jay), they recorded for the Daco, Apollo and Little Star labels. It was Little Star’s H.B. Barnum, an ace arranger and producer in his own right, who secured The O’Jays a deal with Imperial Records. The group remained on Imperial until 1966, which brings us to Shout Records’ new anthology We’ll Never Forget You: The Imperial Years 1963-1966. This compilation marks the very first time that the group’s entire Imperial output as issued during those years has been released on one CD. It boasts a number of tracks new to CD.
Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, Bill Isles, Bobby Massey and William Powell were all struck by the sheer power and magnetism of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers after witnessing the doo-wop legends on American Bandstand in 1957, and set out to create their own unique vocal blend. Isles would depart the group during their Imperial stay, and Massey would also exit before the Philadelphia International days. We’ll Never Forget You includes both sides of all 13 singles recorded by the O’Jays for the label, plus two album-only tracks from 1965’s Comin’ Through. These 28 songs collectively represent their complete Imperial recordings issued between 1963 and 1966. Some tracks, unreleased at the time, were introduced on the 2002 EMI compilation Working on Your Case, and those are not duplicated here.
Expectedly, the earliest tracks show off doo-wop stylings, but the group didn’t hit its stride until 1963’s “Lonely Drifter,” produced and arranged by Barnum. Its title notwithstanding, the song is, indeed, Drifters-esque in the sense that it combines dramatic orchestration with soulful vocals and a New York Latin beat. “Lonely Drifter” placed the group in the U.S. Hot 100 for the first, but not the last, time. Equally sophisticated is “The Storm is Over,” penned by Levert, Williams and Powell, which shared a single with an early song penned by Jack Nitzsche, “That’s Enough.” Despite the success of “Lonely Drifter,” the group still searched for a consistent sound, returning to romantic doo-wop balladry with “You’re on Top” and adopting a rock-and-roll beat on “Lovely Dee.” Both of those songs were written by Brice Coefield and Chester Pipkin of the group The Untouchables. Yet whichever musical direction The O’Jays pursued, their harmonies were faultless. These are on full display on another group-written original, “Oh, How You Hurt Me.” Powell’s falsetto anticipates the smooth Philly soul to come.
Hit the jump for much more, including the full track listing with discography and a pre-order link!
A rhythmic, Motown-styled revival of Allen Toussaint’s “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette)” in 1965 improved on the chart position of “Lonely Drifter,” hitting No. 48 on the pop survey. It marked the beginning of a partnership with producers Tommy LiPuma (Diana Krall, Paul McCartney) and Joe Saraceno (The Ventures). New Orleans’ own Harold Battiste, appropriately enough, arranged the Toussaint track, while the versatile Nick DeCaro handled arrangements for another five songs here. DeCaro wrote and arranged the moody “Think It Over, Baby,” which is polished uptown soul at its finest with The O’Jays’ harmonies at their most ethereal. The clip-clop percussion and dark feel is a little reminiscent of Brian Wilson’s remarkable “Guess I’m Dumb” while the vocals look forward to the Philly sound of The Delfonics. It’s no surprise that Imperial chose another Toussaint song, “I’ve Cried the Last Tear,” as the follow-up to “Lipstick Traces.” With a LiPuma production and DeCaro arrangement lending it a rollicking, good-time vibe, it too cracked the Hot 100. Powell and Levert turned in heated vocals on Van McCoy’s “Let It All Out.”
The O’Jays traveled to Detroit for another brace of singles with talent associated with the Motown label. Pam Sawyer (“Love Child,” “Love Hangover”) and Lori Burton penned “It Won’t Hurt” while Jack Ashford of the Funk Brothers co-wrote “I’ll Never Forget You” with famed Motown saxophonist Mike Terry. With the Hitsville, USA stamp all over it, the chugging, up-tempo number is thought to have featured Ashford, Ray Monette, Don Davis, Dennis Coffey, Bob Babbitt and George McGregor as the backing band.
Herb Williams, of Detroit’s Pied Piper production team, was responsible for another three tracks here, while Imperial pulled a couple of H.B. Barnum tracks out of the vaults to round out the singles. Among these late Barnum-produced releases is a Randy Newman rarity, “Friday Night,” penned while Newman was toiling as a staff songwriter for Imperial/Liberty’s affiliated publishing arm, Metric Music. Newman would probably dismiss the song as another early attempt at him aping the style of Carole King and Gerry Goffin, but it’s an appealing song that explores loneliness, a theme to which the songwriter would subsequently return.
The colorful 12-page booklet features liner notes from producer John Reed plus numerous images of original Imperial 45s, sleeves and advertisements. We’ll Never Forget You fills in a major gap of The O’Jays’ discography, revealing the foundation underneath “Love Train,” “I Love Music,” “For the Love of Money” and the rest of the Philadelphia classics. The release from Cherry Red’s Shout Records label can be ordered now at the link below.
Up next: another artist associated with the legacy of Philadelphia International Records, Dexter Wansel, gets reissued!
The O’Jays, We’ll Never Forget You: The Imperial Years 1963-1966 (Shout CD 77, 2012)
- Crack Up Laughing (Imperial 5942, 1963)
- How Does It Feel (Imperial 5942, 1963)
- Lonely Drifter (Imperial 5976, 1963)
- That’s Enough (Imperial 5976, 1963)
- Stand Tall (Imperial IM66007, 1964)
- The Storm Is Over (Imperial IM66007, 1964)
- I’ll Never Stop Loving You (Imperial IM66025, 1964)
- My Dearest Beloved (Imperial IM66025, 1964)
- You’re on Top (Imperial IM66037, 1964)
- Lovely Dee (Imperial IM66037, 1964)
- Girl Machine (Imperial IM66076, 1964)
- Oh, How You Hurt Me (Imperial IM66076, 1964)
- Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette) (Imperial IM66102, 1965)
- Think It Over, Baby (Imperial IM66102, 1965)
- Whip It On Me, Baby (Imperial IM66121, 1965)
- I’ve Cried My Last Tear (Imperial IM66121, 1965)
- You’re the One (You’re the Only One) (Imperial IM66131, 1965)
- Let It All Come Out (Imperial IM66131, 1965)
- I’ll Never Let You Go (Imperial IM66145, 1965)
- It Won’t Hurt (Imperial IM66145, 1965)
- I’ll Never Forget You (Imperial IM66162, 1966)
- Pretty Words (Imperial IM66162, 1965)
- No Time for You (Imperial IM66177, 1966)
- A Blowing Wind (Imperial IM66177, 1966)
- Stand in for Love (Imperial IM66197, 1966)
- Friday Night (Imperial IM66197, 1966)
- I’m Gonna Make It (Imperial LP 9290, 1965)
- Time is On My Side (Imperial LP 9290, 1965)