If I Could Only Take One

My desert island tune by The O’Jays

It’s it really Wednesday again? Yep, the calendar doesn’t lie. This means it’s time to pack my bags anew and head to that imaginary desert island. But before leaving, I must pick one song to take along.

It can’t be just any tune. It must be a song by an artist or a band I’ve rarely covered or not covered at all. And it must be an artist or a band whose name starts with the letter “o” since I’m doing this exercise alphabetically and did my pick for “n” last week.

For the letter “o”, some of the choices included Oasis, Sinead O’Connor, Phil Ochs, Old Crow Medicine Show, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD), Roy Orbison and Ozzy Osborne. And my pick is a smooth Philly soul tune I’ve always loved but not covered yet: Back Stabbers by The O’Jays.

Back Stabbers, co-written by Philadelphia International label songwriters Leon Huff, Gene McFadden and John Whitehead, is the title track of The O’Jays’ sixth studio album. Released in August 1972, it was their breakthrough and the first for Philadelphia International Records, a label that had only been founded in 1971. I dig the nice contrast between Levert’s rough voice and Williams’ smooth singing.

The O’Jays originally hailed from Canton, Ohio and were formed in 1958 as The Mascots by Eddie Levert, Walter Lee Williams, William Powell, Bobby Massey and Bill Isles while they were still in high school. They changed their name to The Triumphs before becoming The O’Jays in 1963 in tribute to Eddie O’Jay, a Cleveland radio DJ.

In 1963, The O’Jays released Lonely Drifter, their first charting U.S. single, which reached no. 93 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song also appeared on their debut album that came out in 1965. But as noted above, the group’s breakthrough didn’t happen until they signed with Philadelphia International Records and released the Back Stabbers album. By that time, The O’Jays had become a trio featuring Levert, Williams and Powell.

After 64 years, The O’Jays are still around, with Levert and Williams remaining part of the current line-up that also includes Eric Nolan Grant. In fact, they have upcoming tour dates in July and August. To date, they have released 29 studio albums, 20 compilations, one live album and nearly 100 singles. The O’Jays were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame (2004), Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2005) and National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame (2013).

Back Stabbers ranks among The O’Jays most successful U.S. singles, topping the R&B chart and reaching no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Only Love Train, another track from Back Stabbers, ever topped the Hot 100. Other hits included Put Your Hands Together (1973), For the Love of Money (1974), I Love Music (1975), Livin’ For the Weekend (1976) and Use ta Be My Girl (1978).

Here’s a nice clip of The O’Jays’ 2005 Rock Hall induction performance, a medley of Back Stabbers, For the Love of Money and Love Train.

Following are some additional tidbits on Back Stabbers from Songfacts:

This song starts with a piano roll that Leon Huff played. He explained in an interview with National Public Radio: “‘Back Stabbers sounds like something eerie, so that roll was like something horrible, because that’s what back stabbers are. It reflected that type of drama.”

Regarding the elaborate production and orchestral sound, he added: “Our dream was to play so many counter-melodies that came with those songs, and the orchestra was able to put that together. Plus, stereo radio had just come around, and you had a lot of space to fill up. Stereo was much more soothing than mono, so we thought about the mixes we could do. The music was funky and classical at the same time.”

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; O’Jays website; YouTube

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Best of What’s New

A selection of newly released music that caught my attention

It’s Saturday, which means the time has come again to take a fresh look at newly-released music. As more frequent visitors of the blog know, my favorite decades are the ’60s and the ’70s, which can make finding contemporary music that speaks to me a tough proposition. But after having written this weekly feature for some 20 months, I can safely say there’s still some new music out there I dig. Some weeks it’s a longer process to find it than others. This time, putting together the post went pretty quickly. My picks include some country, rock and indie rock. All tunes are on albums that were released yesterday (October 29).

Emily Scott Robinson/Things You Learn the Hard Way

I’d like to start with Emily Scott Robinson, who according to her website is a Colorado-based singer-songwriter: Robinson grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, and turned toward guitar at age 13, after a summer camp counselor closed out the nights by playing songs by Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, and Dar Williams every night. She taught herself to play in the early 2000s by printing guitar tabs from the internet and singing to CDs by Indigo Girls and James Taylor. But she didn’t pursue songwriting until after seeing Nanci Griffith perform in Greensboro in 2007… Graduating from Furman University with degrees in history and Spanish, Robinson took a job as a social worker and translator in 2011…In 2013, she found kindred spirits at Planet Bluegrass’ The Song School, a songwriting retreat in Lyons, Colorado, where other participants encouraged her talent, and just as importantly, showed her that being a touring musician could be a viable financial option. I wonder how many other young artists share that view. Robinson’s debut album Magnolia Queen appeared in 2016. Things You Learn the Hard Way is a track from her new album American Siren, a mix of bluegrass, country and folk. Like all other tunes on the record, the song was written by her – pretty music, and I also like Robinson’s voice.

Jerry Cantrell/Brighten

Jerry Cantrell is best known as lead guitarist, lead vocalist and the main songwriter of Seattle rock band Alice in Chains, which he formed in 1987. While I definitely know their name, I don’t believe I’ve heard any of their music. In addition to recording six albums with the group and collaborations with Ozzy Osborne and other artists, Cantrell has released four solo albums to date, starting with Boggy Depot from March 1998. Brighten, written by Cantrell, is the title track of his new album. Nice rocker!

Charlotte Cornfield/Blame Myself

Charlotte Cornfield is a Canadian singer-songwriter who was born in Toronto. According to Wikipedia, her music has been compared to the likes of The Band, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt and Neil Young. Cornfield has also mentioned David Bowie, Joni Mitchell and Gillian Welch among her influences – many big names here! During her childhood, Cornfield played the piano, drums and French horn. Following her relocation to Montreal where she studied jazz drumming at Concordia University, Cornfield decided to pursue a professional career as a solo artist. Her debut EP It’s Like That Here came out in 2008. Her first full-length album Two Horses was released in March 2011. Blame Myself, penned by Cornfield, appears on her new album Highs in the Minuses, her fouth.

The War on Drugs/Change

The War on Drugs are an indie rock band that was founded in Philadelphia in 2005. Again, while I’m definitely familiar with their name, I can’t identify any of their songs. According to their profile on Apple Music, the group has been a vehicle for singer-songwriter Adam Granduciel, whose synth-infused folk-rock storytelling has drawn comparisons to Bruce Springsteen. The War on Drugs began as a duo with Granduciel and singer-songwriter Kurt Vile, who appeared on 2008’s debut Wagonwheel Blues before making a name for himself as a solo artist. Their breakout LP Slave Ambient, which landed at No. 5 on Billboard’s Heatseekers Albums chart, was named on Pitchfork’s list of the Top 50 Albums of 2011. This brings me to the band’s fifth and new studio album I Don’t Live Here Anymore. Here’s a great tune called Change, co-written by Granduciel, together with band members Anthony LaMarca (guitar, percussion, drums, vibraphone, pedal steel guitar) and Dave Hartley (bass, guitar). Based on this and a few other songs I’ve heard from the new album, I want to further explore this band.

Sources: Wikipedia; Emily Scott Robinson website; Apple Music; YouTube