The O’Jays began their career as a quintet, and they had their biggest hits as a trio, but in 1967 they were in between the two formats, as a quartet. The group formed in 1958 while the five members were attending McKinley High School in Canton, OH. They were called the Triumphs at first, and then the Mascots. Their first single, “Miracles,” was released in 1961 by King Records out of Cincinnati.

One of the fans of the record was Cleveland DJ Eddie O’Jay. He played it on his radio show, and gave the band some career advice. In return they renamed themselves again. That’s how the O’Jays got their name.

The O’Jays signed with Imperial Records and had their first hit with “Lonely Drifter” in 1963. There were several more singles, and when original member Bill Isles left in 1965, he was not replaced. The O’Jays would go on as a quartet.

Two years later the O’Jays left Imperial for Bell Records. It was there that they would have their first top ten hit on the R&B chart, the bittersweet “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today)”. A follow up wasn’t easy to come by however, and the group considering calling it quits. Then they met Gamble & Huff.

The legendary producers were working for Neptune Records at that point, and they recorded several successful singles with the O’Jays for the label. Unfortunately, Neptune folded in 1971. Bobby Massey had had enough and he left the group. The iconic trio of Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, and William Powell was all that was left of the O’Jays, but they proved to be more than up to the task.

Gamble & Huff founded their own label, Philadelphia International, and as one of their first orders of business, they signed the O’Jays. In 1972, the “Backstabbers” single and album secured a place in rock and roll history for the group.

The O’Jays went on to have many more hits in their long and splendid career. William Powell was diagnosed with cancer in 1975, and passed away two years later. He was replaced by Sammy Strain, and the hits kept coming. The O’Jays final top five pop hit was “Used ta Be My Girl,” which was released in 1978.

The O’Jays, along with the Spinners, are considered the greatest soul vocal groups of the ’70s, and despite their Ohio lineage, they will always be connected with Philly soul. The O’Jays were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame one year later.

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About the Author

Ken Shane

Ken Shane lives in Narragansett, R.I. He is a freelance writer and far and away the oldest Popdose writer. In fact, he may be the oldest writer, period. He wants you to know that he generally does not share his colleagues' love for the music of the '80s, and he does not forgive them for loving it. (Ken passed away in November 2022. R.I.P. —Ed.)

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