The mighty O’Jays are back. The legendary trio behind classics such as “Love Train,” “Back Stabbers,” “For the Love of Money” and “Use Ta Be My Girl” is releasing a new single today (Oct. 19): “Above the Law.”
Just in time for the Nov. 6 midterm elections, the politically charged “Above the Law” — co-written by fellow soul legend Betty Wright and Angelo Morris — is the lead single from The Last Word, the O’Jays’ first studio album in almost 20 years. S-Curve Records founder Steve Greenberg, Wright, Mike Mangini and Sam Hollander produced “Above the Law,” which critically addresses the social and criminal justice turmoil currently enveloping America. The Last Word, due Feb. 22 from S-Curve/BMG, will also be the Rock and Hall of Fame group’s final studio album in its rich 60-year legacy.
“We’re going to be loaded for bear,” says Eddie Levert Sr. of The Last Word. He notes that in addition to Wright, Bruno Mars will be contributing a song. The group is also looking to reunite with Gamble & Huff, the architects behind some of the group’s biggest hits, and industry veteran Ron Fair on the forthcoming project.
“I’m writing a song and Walter is too. It’s all feeling good,” adds Levert. He together with fellow founding member Walter Williams Sr. and Eric Nolan Grant, who joined in 1995, comprise the O’Jays.
Beyond sexy love ballads, the O’Jays’ other hallmark has always been strong, inspirational messages in their music. And The Last Word is no exception. The trio will also be dropping words of advice for the next generation. “There’s one song we’re working on called ‘Stand,’” explains Williams. “In the lyrics, the writer wants to know ‘if there’s a heart out there somewhere’ in the wake of school killings and other such news. Like ‘Love Train,’ it’s saying the right thing.”
Watch the “Above the Law” lyric video:
Here are five more takeaways from Levert and Williams’ Billboard chat:
The decision to record “Above the Law”:
Levert: Our manager Toby Ludwig [head of 21st Century Artists, Inc.] introduced us to Steve Greenberg. Steve brought us the song and we immediately related to it. What’s transpired since the presidential election and the injustice that’s going on now directed where this song and album are coming from. Some things just need to be said. So either we’re going to get a lot of airplay or people aren’t going to play it at all. If nothing else, it will hopefully open some eyes or get us blackballed out of this business [laughs heartily] because there are powerful people who own the radio and media needed for this song to be heard.
Williams: When we first heard the song, we told Steve that as soon as we do this, we’re all going to jail. But some of the lyrics just take you there pretty much.They speak the truth while telling a story about what’s happening right now. People know in their heart of hearts what’s happening; they’re not blind to what’s going on. The bad apples trying to control everything won’t spoil the whole bunch. People are going to step up. And this song really spells it out.
Working in the studio with Betty Wright:
Levert: We’ve known each other and done shows together for years because of her hit “Clean Up Woman” and other songs. But this is the first time that we’re doing some of her material. I’m elated and impressed. She’s a craftsman who knows her business and is a joy to work with. It’s remindful of what it was like working with Gamble & Huff and Bunny Sigler back in our Philadelphia International days.
Williams: I’m in awe of her songwriting talent: what she hears, how she expresses it and how she wants you to grasp it. I admire her for taking it on the way she does.
Coming full-circle to early ‘70s career-defining albums Back Stabbers and Ship Ahoy:
Levert: People are going to be talking about this cover. He [President Trump] might put our names in a tweet this time [laughs].
Williams: We did a lot of message material in the ‘70s. Some things have changed but a lot of things have not. The cover for Ship Ahoy [featuring the group in a slave hold] was controversial for its time. Even then we were all trying to figure out how to exist and get along. We were on a good track in those days and those [album] songs helped people understand and learn something as they danced. Now things are a little more tense. So this single cover is something to remember as well.
The secret behind the pair’s 60 years together:
Levert: You’ve got to realize that you’re never going to like somebody every day. You also have to realize that business overrides all of the pettiness. It’s about making money, people’s lives and being able to pay bills. We came to grips with that a long time ago. We used to disagree and get so mad with one another that we’d fight and tear up a room. But it’s the right of every individual to be able to disagree. And you cannot change a person no matter how much you beat them down. No matter what our disagreement was, we had to come to some kind of decision or else the business stops. So we got a manager, a third party to break all ties.
Williams: The glue is also enjoying what we do and watching people enjoy it. And yes, the one clever thing Eddie and I did to have longevity and still stay inspired was finding a mediator that we trust. We grumble about it sometimes. Sometimes it’s like trying to flavor crow — finding salt, pepper and Cajun seasoning to make it taste better — because you have to eat it sometimes [laughs]. But that’s our policy and what’s kept us in the same book.
Favorite O’Jays message song:
Levert: Mine is “Back Stabbers” because the haters are always there.
Williams: “Love Train” because it says all the things that need to be said, inviting everyone to come on board. There’s no prejudice in any sense. And it’s the biggest song we’ve done to date. We’re still getting royalty checks [laughs].