Now in its 11th year, the Grammy Museum continues its commitment to reminding us about the power of music to bring joy and enlightenment to the world with its best gift to the community and fans of artists in all genres. It’s the opportunity to sit in the intimate space of the 200 seat Clive Davis Theatre and be close to legends, icons and up and coming movers and shakers as they are interviewed by industry luminaries – or, in the case of “A Conversation with The O’Jays, Grammy Museum executive director Scott Goldman.
In all of the previous presentations I attended over the past decade, the Q&A was a set up for live performances of varying lengths (sometimes an hour-long set, most often a few songs). This time was different. With no instruments in sight, the focus was, as promised, purely on a relaxed and insightful but often lively and humorous conversation with founding members Eddie Levert and Walter Williams, and, sitting between them, Eric Grant, who has been a member of the trio since 1997.
After a rundown of accolades (10 gold albums, 10 #1 hits, membership in the Vocal Group Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) and the running of a rousing concert film clip of the O’Jays singing “Give the People What They Want,” Goldman started his great line of detailed questioning in the present. He spent the first part of the session talking about their dynamic new album The Last Word, the group’s first album in 15 years and what they have announced as their final album. The focus was heavily on songwriting, song selection and working under the guidance of the project’s three Grammy nominated producers, Steve Greenberg, Mike Mangini and R&B legend Betty Wright.
Even though the largely middle aged audience was surely waiting to hear about the group’s origins and “back in the day” era on Philadelphia International Records which got the world on their “Love Train” and cemented their legend, Goldman was set on affirming, for anyone who might think otherwise, that these guys are not just an amazing legacy act. With their founders in their later 70s, they are still making compelling, relevant and infectiously grooving music today.
Asked “Why does it work so well?”, Grant joked, “Because we’re good!” Levert took a more spiritual tack, saying, “Something happens when God gets involved, and the music and the moment become something you can fall in love with. Something just happens between the music and the microphone and the ears of the audience.”
Later, of course, Goldman got down to business, asking Levert and Williams about their early days in the late 50’s in Canton, Ohio as The Mascots, then The Triumphs; how they met Eddie O’Jay, the pioneering R&B deejay whose name they appropriated for their group; and how, after experiencing flagging career prospects after scoring an initial hit in the early 60’s, they experienced rebirth working with the songwriting/production team of Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff, who would go on to found one of soul music’s premiere labels. Levert’s description of the first time he heard “Backstabbers,” with all its signature bells and whistles, while driving through the Western U.S. was priceless.
Though they didn’t perform live, a group whose catalog includes the signature tune “I Love Music” wasn’t going to leave the audience without some tunes to enjoy. On Goldman’s cue, we heard several standout tracks from The Last Word, and peppered throughout, a batch of the O’Jays classic hits – including to everyone’s nostalgic delight, “Backstabbers,” “992 Arguments,” “For the Love of Money” and finally the singalong “Love Train,” which was played later to serenade the crowd and keep them humming as they left the theatre. “What they do” indeed.