On Sunday night, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center was transformed into an old time soul arena, thanks to the famed O’Jays.
The trio, members of both the Rock ‘N’ Roll and Vocal Group Halls of Fame, demonstrated a cohesion, energy and charisma that thrilled a crowd of predominantly older folks, many of whom began clapping after hearing just a few bars of song introductions. It was most definitely an old school audience, and the O’Jays gave the type of non-stop, dynamic show that’s been their stock in trade for decades.
Two of the three members, Eddie Levert and Walter Williams, have been singing together since the early ’60s, and once were part of a gospel group before moving into secular music. Levert has a rugged, powerful sound, while Williams is a bit smoother, but equally intense.
The third vocalist Eric Nolan Grant has been with them since 1995, and provides a nice blend of upper register edge, flamboyance and harmonic muscle. While Levert and Williams as senior members handle most of the leads, Grant adds the extra dimension of vocal flexibility and adaptability, able to be either a smooth harmonizer or change-of-pace song soloist.
Appearing with a full band that included a four-piece horn section, guitar/bass/drums/conga backline and multiple keyboardists, the O’Jays split their extensive set into two types. One spotlighted the message tunes and socio-political themes that turned them into big stars during their ’70s and early ’80s heyday.
The other portion offered the love ballads, romantic numbers, still effective dance moves and on-stage patter and audience interaction that remains a hallmark of the stage show.
It was almost like a greatest hits presentation because for almost 80 minutes nearly every tune was either a past radio smash or longtime favorite. Levert was especially strong on such numbers as “Forever Mine,” “Loving You,” Let Me Make Love To You,” and “Stairway to Heaven,” where he and Williams neatly alternated between leads and harmony while Grant ably rotated off both singers. The same was true of “I Love Music,” a rousing anthem that came near the show’s end.
But there was even more reaction to their political tunes, especially the exciting version of “For The Love Of Money, whose booming rhythmic backdrops and extensive interactions fueled several couples and individuals dancing at or in their seats. Equally well received were their renditions of “Survival,” “Love Train” and “Backstabbers.”
Eddie Levert also found time to talk about the loss of his sons Gerald and Sean, who both suffered shockingly premature deaths within two years of each other. In fact Gerald died on this day in 2006, something that Eddie briefly discussed.
“To lose two sons that way; you always think that they are going to keep on after you’re gone. I’m the one left here to continue. It gets really hard, especially on a day like today.” But that one period aside, the rest of the evening he was not only congenial but animated and frequently inspiring.
After doing such an explosive and lengthy set, they returned for a one-number encore, the poignant “Family Reunion.” They don’t get much radio airplay anymore other than on specialty programs and late-night “Quiet Storm shows, and both Levert and Williams are in their ’70s (Williams just recently hit that mark).
But the O’Jays are far from a novelty or retro act. Instead, they demonstrate on a nightly basis that rock solid soul singing remains both an art form, and something of importance and relevance in a hip-hop dominated urban music universe.
Everyone who attended Sunday night’s performance has no doubt the O’Jays will stay a fan favorite so long as they choose to perform.