The O’Jays Walter Williams, Sr: An inspiration, legend and man of great wisdom

Jessica N. Abraham

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Three generations are coming together to celebrate and enjoy five decades of magic by the legendary O’Jays, a mighty and inspiring Rhythm and Blues group of which is included in Cleveland’s Famous Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. Initially getting their start in 1958, the group continues touring and recording hit music, bringing soulful harmonies into our homes and empowering us on the topics of love and life.

Even with many number one hits and Platinum-selling albums, life isn’t always easy; and we can learn a lot from the catalog of music that The O’Jays have recorded over the years. Aside from their music, we can learn from the O’Jays, as individuals. A delightful soul with some of the most interesting stories to share, Walter Williams, Sr. opens up on his journey — how it began and the hardships endured in the process — and why it was all worth it in the end.

A true Virgo, August 25, 1943, marked the birth of one of the most influential stars of our lifetime. Hailing from Canton, Ohio, Mr. Walter Williams was destined for stardom and to leave his imprint on our society forever. He considers himself “blessed” and is inspired to continue based on this blessing, because he knows his talent was given to him and was meant for so much more.

As a matter of fact, Walter Williams grew up submerged in the gift of music. It couldn’t escape him if he wanted it to. He grew up in St. Mark’s Baptist Church, where his father was the Choir Director and a Decon. His stepmother and her twin sister, who had great teaching ability and organization skills, also played a major part in the ministry of music within the church; as his stepmother played the piano, and her sister played the organ. His brothers and sisters also engaged in the choir, leaving him no choice but to become part of the Junior Choir, himself. Eventually, he started singing solos and leads within the choir, which gave him a taste of leading an audience in his love of music.

When William was just 7-years-old, he met his lifelong friend and business partner, Eddie Levert, Sr. They didn’t know then, but they would go on to form a bond that would last through the decades, still working together into this day. It was this bond that is considered to be just one of the three elements that have made The O’Jay’s so successful.

Like any other teenagers growing up, they would hang out often. One of their favorite destinations was the Canton Memorial Auditorium, now known as the Canton Civic Center. They loved to attend, especially when the “Shower of the Stars” event would come to town. Acts like Ruth Brown, Lloyd Price, Frankie Lymon, and the Teenagers, and Little Anthony and the Imperials joined the circuit event, inspiring young acts every time they came to town. Interestingly enough, Sammy Strain of the Imperials eventually joined The O’Jays when asked to replace a former member of the group.

At these events, Walter and Eddie realized that this “type of thing was really something.” After all, “it made the girls go crazy,” as Williams will put it. At this point, they were only in the eighth grade. But, music was already a part of their DNA… it was their soul. Truth be told the “Shower of the Stars” events didn’t help hinder this passion, it pushed them to take their talent to the next level.

It wasn’t before long until the local YMCA Urban League started throwing their own contests. These contests, like the “Shower of the Stars,” would also influence acts from Ohio and surrounding areas, longing to be in show business, including The Isely Brothers, who were from Cincinnati. It was at the YMCA that Walter and Eddie would take their own shot at local stardom.

Forming “The Triumphs” with Eddie and a few other boys from school, Walter began performing regularly with his group at the YMCA Urban League events, as well as at Cleveland’s Call and Post, where pre-recorded shows and sock hops took place. In fact, it was The Call and Post that they met the late DJ, Eddie O’Jay, after whom they would receive their trademark name.

Prior to meeting Eddie O’Jay, they had a taste of what it meant to achieve success — even if it was on a regional level. In 1958, The Triumphs were officially an R&B group, consisting of Walter, 15, Eddie, 16, William Powell, 17, and Bob Massey, 18… all friends from Canton McKinley High School. As the story goes:

One day, Eddie and Walter were walking home from a nearby park, when they passed Gervacis Supermarket, as they often did. One of the owner’s sons was outside that day. Lee saw the boys and asked them if they knew anyone that could sing because he had written some music and wanted to know if his music was good enough to be recorded.

Walter and Eddie found themselves staying in that store all night. They sang until the sun came up. And just a few days later, Lee and his partner took the boys to Cincinnati. It was here that they met Sid Nathan of King Records, and history was set into motion.

Upon meeting Sid Nathan, the boys were prepared for anything. They went to King Records with original material, some of which belonged to Lee of Gervacis Supermarket. Sid proceeded to ask the boys, “What do you have?” Almost immediately, they broke down in a capella and began dancing for the label owner.

Impressed, Sid called in Top Producers, Henry Glover, and Lou Reed. he called for his in-house rhythm and drum sections. He called for chord changes and stated that they were ready. Sid Nathan took The Triumphs directly to the studio for recording, shortly after changing their name from “The Triumphs” to “The Mascots.”

Within less than 24 hours of meeting Sid Nathan, they already had their first record deal; and by the end of those 24 hours, they had an album already recorded and ready to go. They were there into the hours of the next day, only left to regret the “lack of knowledge, when it comes to publishing, including the publishing, itself, writing and production, as well as the artist royalties that go with it,” stated Walter,

“Back in the day, no one would tell you about ASCAP and BMI, so they would take your song and claim to be a co-writer, publishing your music as their own.” This may have been a smaller record deal in comparison to those they would go on to receive and not be as successful as the latter, but it was definitely a start and a foot into the door. It was an early lesson well learned.

At the time Walter was with King Records, their music was only distributed regionally. The Cleveland and Columbus areas knew of The Mascots very well, but the rest of the World didn’t. This is when DJ Eddie O’Jay took the reign as an early manager for the group.

Eddie O’Jay was a local Disc Jockey at WABQ-AM Cleveland, a sister station to the more well-known WAMO Pittsburgh. He had quite a following through his listeners and events that he hosted. Because of this, he was able to do much for the boys, regionally; and eventually, he took them to meet Barry Gordy of Motown.

Upon meeting Berry Gordy, the boys were excited and hopeful of working out a deal with Motown. But, the proposed deal didn’t work out as planned, and instead, Barry Gordy gave them very helpful insight into becoming successful as an R&B group in a still very segregated country. Barry Gordy may have had no immediate use for The Mascots at that moment, but his ex-wife Thelma Gordy had a great interest in them, as long as they ditched the name.

Unhappy with “The Mascots,” Thelma was curious as to what their name would become. That’s when their manager said, “Look, just call them O’Jays’ Boys right now and we’ll figure out something and let you know.” That’s when the group got their great name.

A Cleveland Radio station, WJMO, made a mistake and kept announcing that the artists of “How Does it Feel” were “The O’Jays.” It was, then, made official, and The O’Jays were born again. The group recorded with Thelma Records briefly before arriving at Imperial Records, a subsidiary of Liberty Records, and getting really serious about their career. They wanted to be stars.

Today, it is more difficult to get into the music business, as the industry is shifting. He feels that he was blessed that he became part of the industry when he did. Many doors are closing at Major Labels, as the business is being done very differently.

Williams calls the Independent Artists today “The Industry Cowboys” and admits that with a good team, a nice budget, and talent, being independent “can definitely work… I would leave it up to the artist to research both ends of the spectrum and find out what works today for them.

Major labels offer large amounts of money upfront and earn it back as an investment. Independents need good management and a good distributor. Major Labels have their distributors. They also need to learn to protect themselves.”

One of the things that Walter learned early on is that you can “trust no one,” and that the industry can present a lot of greedy people. He has had songs taken and had to learn to cover himself and protect his product. As he grew in the business, he began to write his own music and produce without anyone else taking credit for his work.

Recording some great music, The O’Jays weren’t excelling like they wanted to be and knew they should be. They wanted to do more than regional recording and touring. It was then that the group let Eddie O’Jay go. They had “outgrown him.” He later tried to sue them for rights to the name. But, he was unsuccessful in his attempts. He had not trademarked his own name.

They began connecting with popular club owners who could get them shows in front of the multitudes. Connecting with Leo Frank and Jules Berger was a great thing. They ran one of the largest nightclubs in Cleveland, Leo’s Casino, which was known for its premier showcase of R&B and Motown events.

They had many connections. One connection led them to a record deal with Philadelphia International’s Gamble & Huff, who are considered the first element in the magic that has made The O’Jays successful. The O’Jays met with Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff after an event that they did with the Intruders at the Legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem, NY. Leo and Jules closed a deal with Gamble & Huff, who by destiny was able to cross paths with The O’Jays at the theatre.

Signing with Philadelphia International was both a curse and a blessing. “Whether you like it or not, life unfolds.” During the time The O’Jays were at Philadelphia International, two members of the group left to pursue other career goals. Things weren’t moving fast enough; and in this business, “You need to make a lot of hit records to make a lot of money to feed a family and make a lot of money,” as Walter lightheartedly stated.

Williams almost left the industry in 1972, himself, with the loss of group members, Bill Isles in 1965 and Bobby Massey in 1970. Bobby Massey’s major reason for leaving was that he loved writing and producing and with the new contract, they were no longer allowed to do this, as most music was being written by Gamble & Huff and their 10-member writing team at that time.

It was also during this time that William Powell, group member and long-time friend contracted cancer. He struggled with the disease, putting an end to his touring and making appearances with the group. He did, however, continue recording as part of the O’Jays up until his passing less than a year later in 1977. It was disheartening, but it allowed Walter to continue working harder in pursuing his own personal calling.

“At some point, you realize how blessed you are. Starting with finding your talent, you find your higher being and realize how protected you are. If you can go all over the World without being harmed, you are being blessed,” spoke Walter on his ideals of faith and whether the industry has drawn him closer to his faith.

It was this same faith that kept him at Philadelphia International with the talented Gamble & Huff. It was ultimately a fateful incident that led to the true success of the group. In the beginning, Distribution for Philadelphia International was originally done through Chess Records out of Chicago.

Large gaps between releases and no radio play held The O’Jays back from their true potential, and when Chess Records’ owner, Leonard Chess, passed away, Philadelphia International was forced to find new distribution. They found a new home for distribution through CBS, signing a deal with Walter Yetnikoff, head of the operation. At the time, J. Records’ Clive Davis was only in the beginning of his career and also at CBS.

Upon Philadelphia International’s decision to distribute with CBS in 1972, the Platinum-selling single, “’Love Train,” became one of the largest single successes for The O’Jays, followed by the “Backstabbers” album release, selling more than 1 million copies. It also set the pace for their newfound success. The group went on to receive multiple Grammy Nominations in the years to follow, because of the success of this album. This same album continues to be Philadelphia International’s top seller.

One special thing about “Love Train” was that it was a song about Peace. It was a political piece, as many of Gamble & Huff pieces were. And with Gamble & Huff as the official writing team for The O’Jays, it is actually to be said that The O’Jays were “the messengers” for Gamble & Huff with their odes to timeless subjects.

While they had many releases previously, including their first hit in the 60’s, “Lonely Drifters (a song which was big in beach areas)” and a National Pop Hit, “Lipstick Traces (The first hit to find its way on Billboard 100),” “Love Train” is “the beginning of it all,” as Walter presents it, “One song can change your whole career.”

Losing William Powell was hard on the group because he had been there from the beginning and had been loyal even in sickness and in health. With the loss of Powell, Sammy Strain took his place in 1976. Sammy Strain, originally of Little Anthony and the Imperials, was an artist that Walter had once looked up to from his days attending the “Shower of the Stars” events back home.

Strain stayed with the group until 1992, even after they left Philly International in 1987 for EMI. He was replaced by Nathaniel Best in 1992, and in 1997, Best was replaced with Eric Grant, as the group signed to MCA and released an album, “Love You to Tears” and found a resurgence in their career. Eric was put through “boot camp” in earning his position in the group, and it sure paid off well. He is a “Natural O’Jay.”

As his career took off, Walter began to really love what came along with the music business. He experienced so much and met so many people — some good, some very bad — always so grateful for the gifts he received and ever so humbly. He realized early on that to get where he needed to be, he needed to work hard for it… and maintain it… He learned that you can’t really rely on anyone to do it for you and that they can walk out at any moment.

Williams reminds the younger generation that “Closed mouths never get fed” and that “The first rule in this business is to trust no one.” He has lived by this. He has learned that to ensure a process would turn out successful, contracts must be signed by all parties, “no matter who it is,” and that the harder you work, the easier your goals become.

There to remind him of just how badly he was doing and how much harder he needed to work, as the rest of the World praised him, was the Choreographic-Genius of the Century, Mr. Charles “Cholly” Atkins, Talent Coordinator to the Stars. Not only was Cholly his teacher, his mentor, and one of his most cherished friends, he was the second element of success for The O’Jays. And, he made sure Walter “felt” it.

“Cholly never made it easy on us,” chuckled Walter as he reminisced the lessons of this legend. The O’Jays are noted as being one of Cholly Atkins' favorite groups to work with; because after all the hard work they put in, they would bring his inner visions to life on stage where “the girls would go crazy.”

One thing about the O’Jays and their work ethic is that they rarely ever missed a session. “And, Michael [Jackson] would go to all of them…” Walter again chuckles, remembering another great friend, telling a story about how Michael would go to sessions where groups didn’t show and even being kicked out at times for going to everyone else’s sessions.

“I knew him since he was 10 years old. We were performing at the Apollo at that time, learning our craft. We had three shows during the week and five shows on Friday and Saturday. Michael would come in there and walk with me to the store. He wasn’t the type of kid to want ice cream, as much as he loved red and black licorice candies.” Cholly Atkins was the man behind the dance, which made both acts even greater.

In that same token, Cholly would travel just to attend many of The O’Jays performances around the US. He would sit in the back with a tape recorder, giving diction and critiquing every move the boys made while on stage. Deep into their career, Cholly was steadfast in making sure they perfected his vision. He would wait until the end of their performance and meet them in their hotel room. Although they were tired out, in his eyes, they were not finished.

Cholly would set the tape recorder on the dresser or end table and press play. He would work them into perfecting the dance moves for the next show. There was no time for rest when it came to getting those angles and spins exactly how they were meant to be… even if they played to another beat than the music. That’s what made Cholly great. That’s what taught Walter not to give up and to continue pushing, no matter what.

When Walter was just 38 years old, he encountered a common-yet-devastating reality, especially for someone who has dedicated his life to entertaining the world with his gift. One day, he was coming home from being on tour. He started feeling tingling in his toes.

Initially, he thought the tingling was due to some new shoes he got to match new outfits for on stage. He thought they were just too tight. Eventually, the numbness would become very strong but would come and go. He felt this painful, tingling, numbing feeling extending from his toes to his torso. As it progressed, he decided it was time to visit the doctors. That’s when some of the hardest-yet-challenging news came directly for him and hit home.

In 1983, Walter was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The same disease that has taken over many of his peers and contemporaries could have left him paralyzed and in bad shape. But, thanks to the dedication, hard work, and faith Cholly put into him in previous years, he became disciplined.

No matter the pain nor how difficult it was in the beginning, Walter continued his life as he had previously done. Only now, he began to eat healthier and exercise more. He began to realize the importance of continuing a healthy balance of diet and exercise in building the strength to battle his disease both physically and mentally. It was a challenge, but it is one that he got through and now is allowed to live a normal functioning life.

Over the years, Walter has performed all sorts of events. Some of his favorite events are “theatres in the round.” He likes the revolving stage that rotates as he performs.

In the beginning, the group booked their own shows but found that often local promoters and venues will take offense to an “outsider” coming in and not making them a part of the overall process and taking money out of the local community. Out of spite, they will book more than one show that day you have planned to come into town.

As they began partnering with local promoters, they learned that their shows would often become packed. And, more audiences were reached than ever before. They began being hired by large venues, leading into their touring with major touring circuits. Today, they perform for sold-out arenas and in front of audiences of stars who have inspired and influenced them.

Generally, touring for The O’Jays includes 6 horns to their band, and 7 rhythm sections, as well as optimal sound and lighting, in addition to background singers, keyboardists, guitarist, and bass. Recently, The O’Jays performed at a star-studded event in Santa Barbara for Oprah and in front of legends like Syndney Portier, Barry Gordy, and Smokey Robinson.

If there is one thing Walter will stand by in the industry, it is that the live show will influence your art. It’s how you “back your wax.”Not only will it affect sales, but it is also a means for you, as an artist, to get to know your audiences in person. You can feed off of them. You can learn exactly what they want. You can give them everything they ask for, everything they love you for.

Even at events that aren’t going as you hoped, where the crowd doesn’t seem as enthusiastic as the last, it forces you to work harder… to work harder for them.

“It’s customer service the whole way through. You just have to talk to them and care.” Walter loves his audiences. As a matter of fact, Walter wanted to let them know: “One thing I think audiences should know that is that I really appreciate their support; and for over 57 years, without their support, none of it would be possible.” He also admits that without Cholly Atkins, the man behind a majority of his live show, none of it would be possible, either.

As time passed, the legendary Cholly Atkins passed away. It goes without saying that this was a very emotional time for Walter. They were very close. Cholly may have been hard on him and all the others; but to Walter, he was also a great friend and part of the family. It was an extremely emotional moment when Walter was asked to sing at his funeral. He battled to get the words out to Cholly’s favorite song to his wife, “My Love Does it Good,” but he did it, as if Cholly was right there listening to him do it.

It was a “bittersweet honor,” Walter states, thinking of him often, especially when showtime arrives. Cholly continues to live through the O’Jay’s choreography and on-stage presence. Cholly’s discipline keeps the boys performing through the decades.

On the topic of discipline, it’s quite interesting to note that while Walter has children of his own, his own children are not part of the Entertainment Business. He has two sons and three girls. It is not that they didn’t want to be a part of the industry, but they each found their calling in this lifetime. One of his daughters, for example, did sing gospel music at one point, but her calling was to become a missionary. Walter wouldn’t have it any other way.

He has always supported his children in getting an education and creating a life for themselves. He stresses that academics are everything. They’re very important. He even suggests Apprenticeship and speaks on how being humble and not a blunder to others will teach you so much through hands-on experiences. He is for education all across the board.

Walter gives back to academically advanced children through annual scholarship funds. These funds pay the tuition for the award-winning students, as well as providing funding for books and supplies. Williams loves giving back to the community. He enjoys it.

Every year, Water and Eddie raise money by doing shows and throwing special celebrity golf tournaments. For nine years, these amazing men have gone out of their way to organize the event from scratch and raise funds, even reaching out to local businesses, personally, in getting them involved.

“For those giving much, much is required,” states Mr. Walter Williams. A true humanitarian, he continues working hard to provide for not just his family, but a community with hopes of aiding the future into success. As for music, he has been a mentor to many, including Rude Boys, Men at Large, and even a hand with Eddie’s sons in Levert.

In 2010, Walter Williams shocked the World. Ever since his first bout with Multiple Sclerosis in 1983, he began living with a secret. It was virtually unknown to anyone, but those very close to Walter, that he was living with such a challenging disease. No one knew just how much of a warrior he was. And, in 2010, Mr. Williams decided to come out to the public on his issue in observance of World MS Day on May 26.

In 1999, he went through an extremely hard time in fighting the disease after living with it for so long. It was actually then that he was introduced to Avonex (interferon beta 1-a). Through treatments, he has been living relapse-free. And, because of this, Avonex chose Walter as their spokesperson for one year, whereas he became a brand ambassador. This led him to speak in front of the Black National Congress.

Walter never stopped because he didn’t want to stop. He thought “it would be the end” if he stopped. He prayed a lot, had a lot of support. He got through it. Nonetheless, he admits “There is a huge mental challenge to having MS. If you submit and give in, you stay home. If you fight back, you survive it and can have a life with MS… a good life. A decent life. That’s all I wanted to tell people.” And, he’s been living his life to the fullest ever since.

Not only did Walter Williams announce his battle was now in relapse, but in 2010, he also released “Walter Williams Exposed,” the first solo album Williams ever released. Much of his first album consists of music much different than his signature with The O’Jays.

Many of the tracks are of a classical, pop style, similar to Frank Sinatra and Louie Armstrong. It can be summed up as Classic Contemporary. While he feels that as a solo artist, he “could never be bigger than The O’Jays.” He “could only aspire for it to be that big.” He reports that he has no wish to go completely solo and if he was ever going to release a solo album, “The time was now.”

In a 2015 interview of The Sabir Bey Show Host, Sabir Bey, commented to Walter Williams on The O’Jays, “What’s amazing is you still sound good, and you still have staying power to keep going. There is not a crack in your voices.” Sabir then asked Williams what his thoughts on music today were.

Walter’s reply was that “Some artists are still doing songs with really good lyrical content… 20 years from now, someone could say, ‘Baby, they’re playing our song,’ and it would have significant meaning to the relationship that has endured 10 years… and then, you have some that really have no meaning and could be classified as junk.

"The positive side of that is that they are trying to be in the business. For some of them, they are doing fantastic, and I think it keeps them off the street. I would prefer them doing music than being in the street doing negative things. So, that’s how I look at it.”

After 18 hit albums, 52 singles and 12 number one hits on major charts, we can learn a lot from Walter Williams. Although they are still touring, in 2004, the group released their last full-album recording, “Imagination,” under the Music World Label with plans to release a new album soon.

In 2005, he was inducted into Cleveland’s Hard Rock Hall of Fame, alongside his brothers in The O’Jays, receiving a BET Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. And, while he appeared in a few movies, including the 2003 “Fighting Temptations,” with Beyonce and Cuba Gooding, Jr., he does regret not appearing in more films than he has.

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Jessica N. Abraham is a writer, designer and publicist, specializing in Business, Technology and the Jobs Industry. https://www.jessicanabraham.com | contact@jessicanabraham.com | Twitter: @jessicanabraham

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