'I just want people to say we are one of the best that ever did it,' says co-founder Eddie Levert.
"How can people say no one likes old school?"
That was one of the audience comments overheard at the Los Angeles stop on the recent Summer Music Festival tour. Holding court before a full house at the Gibson Amphitheatre (Aug. 11) were Tank, Babyface, the O'Jays, Patti LaBelle and Maze featuring Frankie Beverly. All five acts kept the audience singing, dancing, cheering and testifying to their onstage prowess during what amounted to a stirring soul revival.
Turning in their own high-octane, riveting performance was the O'Jays. Moments after the announcer declared "It's showtime!," the group launched its way through a tight, well-paced set that included such touchstones as "Love Train," "Let Me Make Love to You," "For the Love of Money" and "Back Stabbers."
The legendary trio is celebrating the 40th anniversary of 1972's "Back Stabbers" -- the song not only became the group's first No. 1 R&B single, it also proclaimed the advent of Philly soul. The song - written by Gene McFadden and John Whitehead, produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff - has since been sampled by a host of acts, including TLC, Angie Stone and B.o.B.
"We knew it was something special when Gene and John taught it to us in a hotel room," O'Jays co-founder Walter Williams tells Billboard.com. "That song took us from the chitlin circuit - which I had no qualms about because it kept us eating - to a whole other level. It was a big fat message that everyone could relate to or had experienced."
"At that point I was 32 years old, and we'd been together 16 years," adds fellow co-founder Eddie Levert. "That record came along at an iffy time for the O'Jays, so I have to feel it was destiny. 'Backstabbers' shot everything off; from that same album also came the hits 'Love Train' and 'Time to Get Down.'"
The indefatigable O'Jays - rounded out by third member Eric Grant - are currently negotiating with a label to release a new album next year. Both founding singers have also recorded solo CDs. Levert's I Still Have It is available digitally through INgrooves Fontana. Williams is revamping for release a CD of pop and R&B standards titled Get Your Feet Off My Cadillac. The recent focus of an "Unsung" profile on cable's TV One (Levert's late son Gerald will be profiled on Aug. 20), the O'Jays are now gearing up for the group's annual scholarship foundation ceremony in Canton, Ohio, at which they will award five scholarships. The trio is also among the performing lineup setting sail on the inaugural - and sold-out - Soul Train Cruise (Feb. 17-24, 2013).
Asked about the O'Jays' legacy, Levert notes, "I just want people to say we are one of the best that ever did it." Adds Williams, "That anytime we performed on record or live, we gave our all. I don't want to be in the group when they say the Old Jays. That's when I'm staying home."