Canton/Cleveland, 1958 - present
One of Ohio's premier soul acts (the Isley Brothers being the other) from the 60s until the late 70s, the O'Jays released over 50 charted records and have endured the test of time, becoming one of the few Ohio-grown acts to make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The O'Jays story is well documented, so we won't claim to present a detailed biography - just some basic facts and some commentary about the music.
The O'Jays started in 1958 as a classic styled 5 voice doo-wop harmony group. Most or all the members were students at Canton's McKinley high school. After a couple name changes, the were known as the Mascots and played the R&B circuit throughout northern Ohio and Detroit. The Mascots recorded a 45 for King that made only a minor impression. They acquired Cleveland DJ Eddie O'Jay as a manager, and on a trip to Detroit, discovered another act called the Mascots - a name change was needed, and so they became the O'Jays.
The group recorded a couple more one-off 45s, but nothing happened until '63 when they recorded "Lonely Drifter" which became their first chart hit on Imperial records. Several other hits followed, including "Lipstick Traces". One of their Imperial sides, the excellent dancer "I'll never forget you" has become a well known number in the 'Northern Soul' scene. Their last 45 for Imperial, on the Minit subsidiary, was one of their best - "Hold On" b/w "Working On Your Case". In '66, along with the departure of founding member Bill Isles, they left Imperial for Bell records, and where they charted with "I'll Be Sweeter Tomorrow". Subsequent Bell 45s were not as successful and the group was in need of some new direction - which they found when they signed up with Neptune records, a Philly based Chess subsidiary that was employing the talents of producers Kenny Gamble and David Huff. They returned to the charts with a couple more 45s, and when Gamble and Huff got a distribution deal with CBS for their own Philadelphia International label, they brought the O'Jays with them. In 1972 another founding member, Bobby Massey, left, just as the group started their run of mega-hits that if nothing else could provide a virtual soundtrack of 1972-8. Classic after classic came forth - "Love Train", "Backstabbers", "For the Love of Money", "992 Arguments" (a personal fave of this writer), and nearly 25 more chart records. Like most every soul act of the times, they migrated to disco rhythms, but with more artistic success than most, as evident in "I Love Music" and "Useta Be My Girl", their last mega-hit of the era.
The O'Jays never returned to the level of success they had in the 70s, but have occasionally had a hit song and continue as a working group today (with founding members Eddie Levert and Walter Williams). Although many people might dismiss them as just another 'product' of the mirror ball and polyesther days, they deserve much more - the singing, production, and material all had to mesh at the right opportunity, and like many soul groups of the 70s, their songs expressed ideas that were of more immediate concern in the black community (such as the slavery theme of "Ship Ahoy"). The group also wrote many of their best songs in the 60s (such as the aforementioned "Hold On"). Their place in music legend is well deserved.