James Barkley’s rear cover artwork for The O’Jays’ 1973 Philadelphia International LP Ship Ahoy depicts a mighty vessel sailing on the sea, but the reflection in the water isn’t of the boat itself. Rather, ghostly figures of abandoned souls populate these waters. The setting is the Middle Passage, the infamous crossing in the “triangular trade” that saw Africans shackled and shipped as slaves to the Americas. Those spectral presences loom over the visages of Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and William Powell on the cover, too, as well as throughout this daring and innovative LP that may well the high watermark of the vocal legends’ long tenure at Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s storied record label. Big Break Records has recently reissued Ship Ahoy (CDBBR0207) on the occasion of its fortieth anniversary, with three bonus tracks appended. It remains a stunning exemplar of Gamble and Huff’s “message in the music,” as well as of what truly defines soul.
Nearly two-and-a-half minutes elapse before the lyrics begin in the sprawling title track, a companion of sorts to Billy Paul’s 1971 epic “East,” also overseen by Gamble and Huff. The stage for the O’Jays’ entrance is set by disquieting creaks, booming thunder, a cracking whip. There are cries of “Ship ahoy!” before the group launches into a snap-to-action verse that pulls no punches. Just the right caustic edge is applied: “As far as your eye can see, men, women and baby slaves, coming to the land of Liberty, where life’s design is already made. So young and strong, they’re just waiting to be saved.” Attention must be paid. For the duration of the nearly ten-minute opus, a tale that can’t be whitewashed unfolds, taking in both poetic imagery of nature – the cold wind, the fish in the sea, the waves – and harsh reality: “I’m your master and you’re my slave.” Gamble and Huff even quote from Show Boat’s “Ol’ Man River,” a fact that doubtless would have pleased its socially conscious lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein II. “Ship Ahoy,” set to a roiling melody accented by searing stabs of electric guitar and trademark symphonic soul hallmarks as arranged by Norman Harris of MFSB, was quite unlike anything else recorded by The O’Jays to that point. There’s no sugarcoating, no redemption and no optimism. It crystallized Philadelphia International’s commitment at the crossroads of art and commerce, making serious themes accessible and musically palatable without sacrificing verisimilitude.
The balance of Ship Ahoy is as deft as the group’s first long-player, Back Stabbers, which was anchored by its own title song as well as by “Love Train.” The themes of both “Back Stabbers” and “Love Train” resonate on Ship Ahoy, as producers and chief writers Gamble and Huff were still very much interested in espousing the gospel of peace and love as well as exploring the vicissitudes of relationships familial, fraternal and romantic. Hit the jump for more!
“Put Your Hands Together,” the album’s first single, is a sanctified prayer for tomorrow as “a better day to come” for the disenfranchised, including the homeless and the hungry. It’s a rousing, up-tempo plea very much in the vein of “Love Train,” with a potent Bobby Martin arrangement. The second single, though, was nothing short of a three-minute revolution. Propelled by the Anthony Jackson bassline that earned him a co-writing credit with Gamble and Huff, “For the Love of Money” made its message bluntly explicit: “People! Don’t let money change you! It will keep on changing, changing up your mind!” Again, the writers and arranger Martin wrapped the cautionary tale in an irresistible melody and arrangement. Percussion and subtle horns lend a menacing air that supports the urgency of the vocals. The cynical among us might question Gamble and Huff, two wealthy entrepreneurs of popular music espousing the “mean, mean green” and the “almighty dollar,” but it’s no real conundrum. The founders of Philly International always stressed the importance of giving back to one’s community and empowering oneself with both success and social responsibility, placing not just “messages in the music” but literal messages in many LP sleeves. “For the Love of Money,” one of the most ubiquitous songs to come out of Philadelphia, still speaks volumes today.
“This Air I Breathe,” co-written by Gamble and renaissance man Bunny Sigler takes on air pollution (“It don’t belong to me….why don’t they find a solution to find what’s causing the pollution?”) and the nine-minute “Don’t Call Me Brother” addresses those cheating, lying backstabbers in bold terms. The O’Jays’ impassioned wail could seem at odds with Bobby Martin’s jazzy, cascading chart, but the gospel overtones make for an emotionally satisfying musical hybrid. Ship Ahoy isn’t just filled with polemics, however musically attractive. Gentle vibes open the sexy, insinuating groove of Gamble and Huff’s “Now That We Found Love,” with the versatile arranger Harris at his most lush. Sigler’s torrid “You Got Your Hooks in Me” and Gene McFadden’s brassy “People Keep Tellin’ Me” bring the drama to a personal level.
Not uncommon for an album of its stature, Ship Ahoy has been reissued numerous times. Why should you pick up BBR’s latest iteration? It carries over the same live bonus track of “Put Your Hands Together” from 1974’s Live in London as past reissues from Sony’s U.S. Legacy division. It adds, however, two tracks not previously on any CD of Ship Ahoy: the single versions of “For the Love of Money” and “Now That We Found Love,” the latter a U.K. single. In addition, Christian John Wikane has written a compelling and lengthy essay that’s surely among the most comprehensive penned about this seminal album. Fresh quotes have been provided by Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, Bobby Eli, Phil Hurtt and even Thom Bell, who arranged tracks for Back Stabbers (including the title song and “Love Train,” the latter with Bobby Martin) but didn’t return for Ship Ahoy. Reissue producer Wayne A. Dickson has remastered Ship Ahoy for its fortieth.
Quite simply, Ship Ahoy stands tall among the most striking achievements of the Philadelphia International collective of writers and producers (Gamble and Huff), singers (Levert, Williams, and Powell), musicians (Harris, Martin, Lenny Pakula and the entire MFSB Orchestra) and engineers (the too often unsung Joe Tarsia). All were at the top of their game, working not only to make great music, but to make a difference. Put your hands together, won’t you?
You can order the expanded Ship Ahoy here!