The O’Jays quietly began their association with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff on 1970’s Neptune album In Philadelphia, announcing the Ohio group’s shift to the City of Brotherly Love and its burgeoning soul scene. But there was nothing quiet about the opening track of Back Stabbers, the trio’s first album for Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records. “When the World’s at Peace,” by Gamble, Bunny Sigler and Phil Hurtt, imagined a time “when it’s safe to walk the streets/when we learn to care for those lost in poverty/there would be no need for our daughters and our sons/to march up and down the streets singing ‘we shall overcome’…” Eddie Levert put his all into his throaty lead vocal, its throbbing urgency matching the hard-driving funk rhythms. “Hate, be still/Love, get behind me,” he implored. 1972’s Back Stabbers established Levert, Walter Williams and William Powell as Philadelphia International’s leading group. Its ten songs reflected a powerful social conscience as expressed by the unassailable musicianship of MFSB, producers Gamble, Huff and Sigler, and arrangers Thom Bell, Norman Harris, Ronnie Baker, Lenny Pakula, and Bobby Martin. Real Gone Music has recently reissued the mighty music of Back Stabbers on vinyl for the first time as a sparkling replica edition.
Thom Bell, who had arranged six of the eleven tracks on In Philadelphia, also provided the lion’s share of arrangements on Back Stabbers, including the now-famous title cut penned by Huff and the team of Gene McFadden and John Whitehead. No song had ever sounded like “Back Stabbers” – and that was before the O’Jays even entered at the 39-second mark. Huff’s stark, ominous piano intro gave way to an evocative, heavy meld of MFSB’s rhythm and Bell’s orchestration. Jazz guitar and conga and timbale-driven Latin percussion set the stage for The O’Jays’ impassioned warning about those sinister back stabbers “smiling in your face.” The song is ostensibly about a relationship, sung by an outside observer, but with a universality familiar to all listening (“It might be your neighbor…”) The song brought out the best in MFSB – including organist Pakula, bassist Ronnie Baker, drummer Earl Young, percussionist Larry Washington, guitarists Bobby Eli, Norman Harris, and Roland Chambers, and vibraphonist Vince Montana – not to mention the unparalleled master of sophisticated soul, Thom Bell. Bell’s thrilling work on “Back Stabbers” remains among his finest accomplishments. (Credit, too, to Philadelphia mainstays Don Renaldo and His Horns and the Strings who brought the orchestration to life.) The O’Jays were rewarded with their first major hit, a No. 1 R&B and No. 3 Pop smash.
Bell matched the intensity of “Back Stabbers” with the stunning “992 Arguments,” written by Gamble, Huff, McFadden and Whitehead. Horns and strings swirl with majesty and turbulence over the dramatic realization that, well, all these arguments need to stop. Now. MFSB cuts loose on “992” in an exhilarating frenzy and extended instrumental breakdown that handily anticipated disco. Every element shines on the six-minute opus, with exciting turns from the individual players including Montana on the vibes. The mood from songwriters and arranger continues on the edgy “Shiftless, Shady, Jealous Kind of People,” underlining the conceptual unity that links the songs of Back Stabbers. Some of The O’Jays’ most luscious harmonies can be heard on Sigler and Hurtt’s sweet ballad “Sunshine,” featuring a honeyed yet still majestic chart by Bell.
Arranger Bobby Martin handled four songs on In Philadelphia; like Bell, he continued his felicitous association with the group on Back Stabbers. Martin provided the buoyant chart for the lusty “Time to Get Down” sung by Walter Williams to a loved one with whom he was ready to commit – not just in the bedroom, but in life – and on “Listen to the Clock on the Wall.” The latter’s portrait of adultery (from one cheating lover to another) came once more from the team of Gamble, Huff, McFadden and Whitehead; Martin’s arrangement with its clock-like ticking captures the pensive atmosphere with immediacy.
Despite the varied arrangers, the uniform, in-the-pocket sound of MFSB kept Back Stabbers cohesive. Norman Harris arranged the richly introspective “Who Am I,” featuring a shimmering, water-like guitar effect from Bobby Eli and haunting background vocals conceived by Bunny Sigler, co-writer with Phil Hurtt. Gamble and Huff’s “(They Call Me) Mr. Lucky,” arranged by Ronnie Baker, is a lightly swinging, happily mid-tempo respite from the darker themes visited elsewhere on the album.
True jubilance prevails on the final track of Back Stabbers which became perhaps The O’Jays’ most beloved songs (and indeed, one of the most beloved compositions in the entirety of R&B and Philly soul): “Love Train.” Gamble and Huff penned the infectious anthem which, in just under three minutes, pleads for international peace in the brightest, boldest manner possible. The arrangement was a rare collaboration between Thom Bell and Bobby Martin; though Martin is credited solo on the LP, both men were credited individually on single releases. (Bell cleared up the mystery in recent years by confirming that it was a joint work.) “Love Train” masterfully united pop and soul much in the way the eternally vibrant music of Motown had been doing for a decade prior; the song would also help establish Philadelphia International as the prime purveyor of the seventies’ pop-soul sounds.
Real Gone’s 180-gram black vinyl reissue, cut by Kevin Gray, handsomely replicates PIR’s 1972 release, with attention to detail on the fine replica labels. The vinyl itself – with its warm, pristine sound replicating the original listening experience as engineered by Joe Tarsia at the legendary Sigma Sound Studios – is housed within a protective inner sleeve. On Back Stabbers, The O’Jays pulled off the rare feat of recording an album that was both completely of its time and utterly timeless; the vital messages – of compassion, love and even anger – still speak mightily. The group would continue to mine the realm of socially-conscious R&B on the masterpiece Ship Ahoy as well as other strong albums including Family Reunion and Message in the Music, but Back Stabbers – a peak representation of Philadelphia soul – still stands tallest in their impressive discography.