When the O’Jays announced earlier this year, upon the release of their album, aptly titled, “The Last Word” that they were retiring, they broke the mold with R&B groups of their generation. Unlike rock acts, who generally stay disbanded once they decide to call it quits — most notably The Beatles, and bar one reunion tour, The Police — R&B acts, once zimmer frames and caskets come calling, have a habit of recycling the brand with younger members.
It’s hard to imagine The Rolling Stones continuing without Jagger or Richards, U2 without Bono or despite numerous personnel changes, Fleetwood Mac without Mick Fleetwood or Stevie Nicks. Of course, there are exceptions — Toto, The Eagles, Chicago — bands without one main leader. Queen without Freddie Mercury are not really Queen but three guys with Adam Lambert. However, a quick Google search shows that The Four Tops are still on the road, eleven years after the death of legendary lead singer Levi Stubbs. Of course, Earth Wind & Fire are still going strong decades after Maurice White left due to Parkinson’s disease. But with Philip Bailey, Verdine White and Ralph Johnson, at least they do have original members in the group. Let’s not also forget that Lionel Richie’s departed The Commodores almost 40 years ago but it hasn’t stopped the band from touring, singing the hits he sang and wrote.
In fact, there are a slew of other R&B groups still earning a living from the road long after their original members have moved on — The Spinners, The Dells, The Stylistics, The Ohio Players — to name but a few. So why have the O’Jays decided to leave the stage with a big mic drop? Unfortunately, Eddie Levert has lost his two sons, Gerald and Sean, who would have been the most obvious successors to the group’s legacy. And it just seems very hard to imagine an O’Jays without Eddie Levert and to lesser degree Walter Williams. But then it seemed unconscionable that Earth Wind & Fire would keep going without Maurice White. It’ll be interesting to see what the Temptations do once Otis Williams retires or heads skywards to join many of his former group members. There have been a few versions of the band with slightly altered names doing the rounds but Dennis Edwards’ passing has put the emphasis firmly back on the Williams’ “official” Tempts.
Ultimately, time has a way of blurring the edges. The songs are what remains in the public’s consciousness. That’s particularly true with R&B vocal groups where an audience has a desire to see a suited group, singing the hits and doing the choreography. It’s less about the individual. Showmen and enigmatic lead singers like Jagger, Michael Jackson, Prince and Bowie are impossible to replicate, so the best you can hope to get is a cover band/act. Rock groups were generally all about these front men. It’s the band members who are largely replaceable as has been the case with the Stones after the death of Brian Jones and the retirements of Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman.
Money also plays its part. If the estates of the original band members stand to gain financially from newer incarnations then it makes sense to keep a bend on the road. Often, though it might be managers, promoters and businessmen who are pulling the strings on oldies tours. The members change so often that after a while the original line-up becomes almost irrelevant.
All of which makes the O’Jays decision to let the group’s name rest with the current long standing line-up (Eddie Levert and Walter Williams are in their mid 70’s) admirable. I can’t imagine that when they finally do their last show there won’t be an outfit somewhere “Singing the music of…” However, when The Miami Herald probed Walter Williams recently, if this really was the end, he intimated that the terrific trio might be with us a little while longer.
“I don’t know that (if the group will quit) because I still have a desire to do it as long as I can do it without looking ridiculous. That means basically performance-wise. My voice hasn’t changed much, my vocals haven’t changed much, other than a little more knowledge of how to do it and not harm myself. I won’t be in that group they call the Old Jays.” There’s little chance of that.
Jeff Vasishta, September 2019