Walter Williams, (seen here on the right), singer songwriter with American group The O’Jays, chats with Kevin Cooper about being signed to Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International label, their biggest hit Love Train, performing on Later…With Jools Holland and playing at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane London.

Walter Williams is a singer songwriter and founder member of The O’Jays, an American group from Canton, Ohio, formed in 1958. The group originally consisted of Eddie Levert, Walter Williams, William Powell, Bobby Massey and Bill Isles. They made their first chart appearance with Lonely Drifter in 1963, but reached their greatest level of success once Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, a team of producers and songwriters, signed them to their Philadelphia International label in 1972.

With Gamble and Huff, The O’Jays (now a trio after the departure of Isles and Massey) emerged at the forefront of Philadelphia soul with Back Stabbers (1972), and topped the Billboard Hot 100 the following year with Love Train. Numerous other hits followed through the 1970s and into the 1980s and 1990s, The O’Jays were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall Of Fame in 2004, and The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 2005.

The O’Jays success was not confined to the United States, as they also logged up nine hit singles in the United Kingdom between 1972 and 1983, including four tracks that reached the top 20 in the UK Singles Chart.

In 2013 they were inducted into The Rhythm & Blues Hall Of Fame. The O’Jays are also two-time Grammy Hall Of Fame Inductees for their songs Love Train (inducted 2006) and For The Love Of Money (inducted 2016).

Whilst getting ready to play one date in the UK at The Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, he took some time to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Mr Williams good morning, how are you today?

Hi Kevin, I’m good thanks how are you?

I’m very well thank you and let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

It’s my pleasure.

And how is life treating you?

(Laughter) despite the rumours I’m in good shape. I feel good and I’m blessed.

Has anyone ever mentioned to you the Northern Soul scene here in the UK?

It sounds familiar but I’m not quite sure.

Well I have to tell you that you guys are heroes over here.

Are we really, why is that?

Some of your old Bell recordings are very sought-after; songs like Working On Your Case, Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette) and I Dig Your Act are in great demand.

(Laughter) oh my goodness, really. Well I certainly didn’t know that.

They have been played consistently over here for well over forty years now.

I have to say that I don’t think that we have ever performed any of those songs live in the UK; I really don’t think we have. Well you know, we just might have to get those songs ready for the next time that we are in the UK. As far as I can remember, we have never performed Lipstick Traces or I Dig Your Act live at any time in our careers. The three songs that you mention, as you correctly said, did originally came out on the Bell label and as soon as we have finished speaking I am going to speak to Eddie (Levert) about perhaps getting them ready because currently they are not in our show. Perhaps we need to put them in the show.

The O’Jays were doing okay on Bell Records but then in 1972 (Kenny) Gamble and (Leon) Huff signed you to their Philadelphia International label. How did that happen?

Yes we were, we were doing okay with Bell Records but at that time the label were having some real problems. Gamble and Huff came to The Apollo Theatre in Harlem to see one of their acts, The Intruders, and fortunately for us, they saw The O’Jays perform as well. After the show they told us that they were interested in writing and producing for us. We told them that they should speak with our management at Bell Records which they did and they struck a deal. At that time they were being distributed by Chess Records but then Leonard Chess passed away and that deal fell apart. So we didn’t record again until they signed another distribution deal with CBS.

In that deal we were lucky enough to get Clive Davis, Ron Alexenburg and a whole load of other people that were good for our careers, especially with regard to promoting us and our records. It was great to have that CBS machine behind us. And I have to say that worked out really good.

What was it like working with (Kenny) Gamble and (Leon) Huff?

I have to say that Kenny and Leon were probably two of the very best writers and producers that we have ever worked with. You only have to look at the songs that they wrote and produced and their record speaks for itself. However, I think that we gave them a formula to work with because we wrote and produced as well, obviously not as well as them, but over the years we learnt from them. We would go into the studio, hang out, begin to put tracks together and start working on the lyrics. Having said that I personally feel that Gamble and Huff were most probably the best writers and producers who we had ever worked with.

It has to be said that the 1970s really were a golden era for Philadelphia International Records. Were they good times for The O’Jays?

Yes they were. It was a lot of hard work but needless to say it paid off and it was fun to be a part of such a successful record label. I feel that the time that we spent at Philadelphia International Records made us not only better musicians but it also made us better artists. We came from a gospel background; my father was the rector at the local Baptist church and so I got into music at a very young age. We all knew how to embellish a song and that is what we took to Gamble and Huff. We were tag team orientated, Eddie would sing a bit of this and I would sing a bit of that and then at the end of the song we would really go for it.

However, when Gamble and Huff started recording us they made Eddie the main focus of the group. On most of the songs that we had written we would always play off one another, just like a lot of the other groups were doing back then in that time and that era, people like David Ruffin, Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams. Most of the other groups around that time were all doing the same thing. So it was a tried and tested pattern and it worked for us. At that time Gamble and Huff didn’t really know very much about us. They knew that we had been with Bell Records but they didn’t know about the success that we had had before Bell Records with Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette) on Imperial Records which was a subsidiary of Liberty Records that was run by brothers Phil and Boz Scaggs.

On both of those labels I had the big hit, our first top 40 hit which was Lipstick Traces (On A Cigarette). So after they learnt about our history, who we were and what we were capable of doing, they started writing for both of us. And from that moment on, we started having the kind of success which, up to that point, we could only dream of. We really were blessed. We would go over to Philadelphia and we would sometimes be there for months on end, and we would be introduced to other writers and other producers. It was during those times that we would get together with the likes of (John) McFadden and (Gene) Whitehead, Bunny Sigler and Thom Bell.

Thom would also write some things and produce some things for us as well. It was always an ongoing process. We would very often be handed seventy-five or eighty songs and we would have to narrow those down to maybe fifteen or twenty. And then they would have to be narrowed down to the final ten or twelve that we were actually going to record that would then be placed on the album. That process would sometimes take us three or four months hanging out in Philadelphia.

What can I say, it’s a hard life but somebody has got to do it (laughter).

(Laughter) exactly (laughter). We would spend every day with a different writer, learning their songs, and choosing which of the songs that we would like to record but Gamble and Huff would always have the last say. They would sit in and listen to everything and then they would decide which songs would actually go onto the album.

I am a massive Motown fan but I do feel that with the artists that were signed to Philadelphia International together with the amazing writing talents of the likes of Gamble and Huff, I did honestly feel that Philadelphia International was a genuine rival to Motown, would you agree?

Well I suppose that you could look at it like that but we never really felt that we were in direct competition with Motown; we were far too busy turning out hit records (laughter). Having said that Philadelphia International did actually hire Charles ‘Cholly’ Atkins who was at that time the house choreographer for the various artists on the Motown label. He taught their acts choreography and stage presence and to be honest, he really was a godsend.

You fondly mention Eddie. You and he have now been together for over sixty years which is longer than most marriages.

(Hysterical laughter) is it really that long, surely that can’t be right. Oh hold on, let me think about this. I first met Eddie when I was eight years old and I will be seventy-five in August and Eddie is one year older than me, he will be seventy-six on 16th June. Wow, where did that time go to (laughter).

Do the two of you argue?

Absolutely (laughter). However, we both realise that we have a business to run, that being The O’Jays and a long time ago we decided to get ourselves a mediator, someone who we both trust, and that is our manager and accountant, and we both actually trust them enough to cast the third vote whenever it is needed. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes Eddie is right.

Out of all of the hit records that you have had over the years, are you able to single out just one as your favourite O’Jays song?

Yes I can, it is on the Backstabbers album and that is the album that got it all started. On that particular album is Love Train which just so happens to be our biggest hit to date. It speaks of a very important subject that we all have to have in our lives, and that is love. It says “get on the love train” and we mentioned London, we mentioned China, we mentioned Russia and we mentioned Japan; we just wanted to get everyone onto the Love Train. I think that it is probably the best record that The O’Jays have ever done.

I have always loved Rich Get Richer off the Survival album. I feel that the sentiment in the song is perhaps more poignant today than it was back in 1975.

Yes I agree with you on that, it most certainly is. Well you know what, the radio stations wouldn’t play that song here in the States, and they really did feel negative about it. I have heard radio people together with disc jockeys comment that we had mentioned some very powerful families in the Rich Get Richer and nobody wanted to fall on their swords by playing it (laughter). I think that they were perhaps a little scared of being sued if they had played it (laughter). It was a great number in the show at one time but the radio stations simply wouldn’t give it any airtime. It simply wasn’t the kind of song that the disc jockeys wanted to play.

Back in 1978 Third World covered Now That We’ve Found Love. What did you think to their version?

I liked their version of the song but I think that ours is better (laughter). But if I may be honest about it tell me this, just how come they got a hit out of it and we didn’t (laughter). That particular song is in our show now; it is a good song which I really do love.

What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?

Okay, I would say first of all that getting inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame back in 2005 and then for me to be able to travel and perform in places like London, South Africa, Holland, Belgium, taking what we do around the globe, gives me a much greater presence. It makes you more popular than ever. Having said that I personally feel that we should have spent more time cultivating that market, certainly other overseas markets, because it enhances you. It enhances what it is that you are trying to do, and our message has always been love and we hopefully talk about subjects that ordinary people can relate to.

In 1977 we sadly lost William Powell to cancer. Was it a difficult decision for you and Eddie to continue?

To be honest we knew that we had to continue because it had just started to get major. We also knew that William would be hard to replace not only because he was a very integral part of the group but also because he was a very talented tenor. I have to say that he was pretty good. So Eddie and I spoke to Smokey Robinson and he said “Sammy Strain the guy who used to sing with Little Anthony And The Imperials isn’t doing anything right now, why don’t you try him”. So we gave him a call, he came over and he fitted perfectly and he stayed with us for a good twenty years before Dick Clark had the brilliant idea of putting Little Anthony And The Imperials back together (laughter).

They liked being back together again so Sammy left The O’Jays and re-joined them. So Eddie and I were left with the task of replacing Sammy. It took us a couple of tries until we eventually got it right. We had Nathaniel Best and then we got Eric Grant who has also been with us for about twenty years as well.

You are coming over to the UK to play just the one date at The Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London on Sunday 15th July. Are you looking forward to being back here in the UK.

The last time that I was over there I really did enjoy it because my girlfriend came over with me and she made me get out of the hotel. We had no idea where in the world we were going but we walked for miles; we were all over the place (laughter). We went to Buckingham Palace and we were told something about if the flag was flying then the Queen was home and if it wasn’t then she wasn’t home (laughter). We just had a walk around the city and visited a number of different restaurants. It was really good, I enjoyed it. We were only there for a couple of days, but we did get to play on Later…With Jools Holland. The way that Jools hosts the show, I had never seen that done before.

I think that there were five acts on that night and we all performed and we were all different (laughter). I really enjoyed that and he even had a live audience. It was great because he played some of the parts of Backstabbers with us, so that was really good fun.

I have to ask you, why just the one night?

(Laughter) you will have to talk to the agent and our manager about that. It’s almost not worth us coming over just for the one night. It is a seven hour flight to take us to a different part of the world and again, I don’t think that we have cultivated those markets as well as we could have done. Having said that I really can’t wait to play in front of our British fans once again; it’s going to be great.

Is this concert your way of saying farewell to your British fans?

I will say this much, I am going to continue to do this as long as I am physically able to do so. I don’t even consider it to be work anymore; its performing at the highest level which I think that I have reached, and finally I think that I know what I am doing (laughter). I now actually do look forward to performing.

Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently?

Yes, if I had my time again I would learn to play an instrument, preferably the piano or guitar so that I could accompany The O’Jays or anyone else. Right now I play at them, just enough to be able to perhaps write a song, or start to write a song and then I give it to our band director Dennis Williams or one of the guys in the band asking for their help and assistance. They are all accomplished musicians so I wish that I had done that. Also I wish that I had got myself more involved with acting and had developed my acting skills, so I could have possibly enjoyed that as well. I would have loved to have acted on the TV if not in the movies. I know that it’s more work and a much more concentrated effort but I wasn’t doing anything anyway (laughter).

You stick to the singing, we all love it.

Me too. I know that I have been truly blessed to have accomplished and to have been given the talent to be able to do some of the things that we have done.

What was the first record that you bought?

That was You Send Me by Sam Cooke.

Who did you first see performing live?

In Harlem there was a nightclub called the Baby Grand, and I think that the very first act that I saw play live in that nightclub was Bo Diddley (laughter). I think that’s who it was, it was Bo Diddley.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Oh that’s a good one. There is an O’Jays song on the Message In The Music album called A Prayer which can be so very intense whenever you are listening to the lyric and how we delivered it. I think that might be the one.

On that note Mr Williams let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been absolutely wonderful.

Thank you Kevin, I really did enjoy it. When will I get the chance to meet you?

I will hopefully be coming down to London to photograph the show.

Okay, will you come and introduce yourself?

I would love to. The only problem with that is that you tend to bring over those seven foot tall body guards with you (laughter).

(Laughter) that’s very true but I will make sure that they let you through okay.

That would be fantastic. You take care and I will (fingers crossed) see you in London.

Okay Kevin, bye for now.