Persistence is an underrated, yet crucial, trait for pop musicians. The annals of chart history are filled with “overnight successes” who suffered in anonymity for years, if not decades, before finally breaking through. And few persisted longer than the O’Jays. Formed in 1958 as a vocal quintet, the O’Jays were releasing music before Motown even existed, yet still struggling well after Berry Gordy left Detroit for the West Coast. Their first fourteen years of existence are a perversely remarkable run of futility: thirty separate singles, scattered across five different labels, none of which cracked the Top 40. By 1972, the continued lack of success had cost them two original members, with the remaining trio (vocalists Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, and William Powell) on the verge of disbanding for good.
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Rather than calling it quits, the O’Jays instead signed with Philadelphia International Records, a nascent record label set up by the writing/production team of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff. Gamble & Huff were already a big deal by this point, with Top 10 hits from the Soul Survivors and the Intruders under their belt, but their previous productions for the O’Jays hadn’t connected beyond a hardcore R&B audience. That would change with 1972’s Back Stabbers, only the third release on the Philly Int’l label and the first O’Jays record with significant major label muscle behind it.
In the newly streamlined trio, Gamble & Huff found the perfect delivery system for their lush, orchestra-heavy vision of R&B. And the O’Jays? They found that fourteen-years-in-the-making overnight success. “Back Stabbers,” the album’s first single, reached #3 on the Hot 100 and #1 on Hot Soul Singles. The follow-up, “Love Train,” hit #1 on both. (Both are stone-cold 10s, obviously.) “Philly soul” had arrived, and the O’Jays were its standard bearer.
For the rest of the decade, the trio dominated the R&B charts, scoring fifteen Top 10 entries, with a few pop crossovers (“I Love Music” and “For The Love Of Money,” an 8 and a 10 respectively) sprinkled in as well. Not even Powell succumbing to cancer in 1977 derailed the group’s momentum; mere months after adding Sammy Strain (formerly of Little Anthony & The Imperials) into the fold, “Use Ta Be My Girl” (a 9) hit #4 on the Hot 100, their biggest pop success since “Love Train.” In the face of rapidly changing musical tastes, The O’Jays, it seemed, were impervious. But their first hit of the new decade would also turn out to be their last.
“Forever Mine” holds the distinction of being the first Top 40 debut in the first week of the 1980s. And it doesn’t have a shred of “Eighties” in its DNA. Which makes perfect sense, as the song’s actual DNA comes from the same men—Gamble & Huff, plus longtime arranger Thom Bell—who’d been with the O’Jays during their entire Philly Int’l run. By this point, they had a formula, and the formula was working. So much of “Forever Mine” feels naggingly familiar, Walter Williams’ tenor sliding effortlessly over a slowly percolating groove, abetted by Eddie Levert’s gruffer delivery in the chorus, as smooth as 600-count thread. Aside from a distinct lack of “Philly soul” strings, “Forever Mine” could slot comfortably onto Ship Ahoy or Family Reunion and cause barely a ripple.
And while that comfort level makes for easy listening, it also places the song firmly in second-tier O’Jays status. Unlike the previous year’s “Use Ta Be My Girl,” which laced strands of disco throughout the group’s well-established framework, “Forever Mine” has no such grand ambitions. Its impeccably arranged universe gets completely laid out within the opening seconds, and from there the track simply wallows. And wallows. For six long, long minutes. (The single edit shaves off a good 140 seconds and is probably the better option.) It’s the aural equivalent of a bubble bath, what the older folks used to call “prime baby making music.” It’s… fine.
But there’s a moment, three-and-a-half minutes in, that teases something far better than “fine.” Out of nowhere, the chords shift dramatically, as if Gamble & Huff belatedly remembered to write a bridge. Eddie Levert seizes the moment, bringing down the full weight of his mighty rasp, while the session players attack with newfound urgency. It’s a jarring, glorious change—and it’s over in thirty seconds. I suppose the intention was to kick the track into a higher gear, but the immediate downshift afterwards negates the entire effect. “Forever Mine” is a perfectly pleasant ballad; I’m just frustrated by how close it comes to being an epic one.
The O’Jays remained a presence on the R&B charts well into the Nineties, but “Forever Mine” was their final Top 40 single, and for fifteen years (1981-1995), they would disappear from the Hot 100 completely. Meanwhile, Gamble & Huff, already on a downward trajectory commercially, parted ways with Columbia (now CBS) in 1982. The last Philly Int’l release of the decade was, fittingly enough, the O’Jays’ 1987 semi-comeback record Let Me Touch You; after several unsuccessful revival attempts, the label officially shuttered its doors in 2001.
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But unlike Philadelphia International, The O’Jays kept going. They released albums. They played shows. And eventually, they found themselves on the receiving end of accolades, like inductions into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in 2013. More than sixty years after the group’s original formation, Levert and Williams (alongside Eric Grant) released a brand-new studio album, The Last Word, in April 2019. And yes, these two septuagenarians hit the road to promote it, persistent ‘til the end.
I WANT MY MTV: The video clip for “Forever Mine” is the definition of “bare bones,” but sometimes all you want out of a seminal R&B group is to watch said R&B group execute their stage moves, flawlessly, in matching sequined suits.