O’Jays find delicate balance for new audiences

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

It’s been almost 40 years since the last string of Billboard Top 20 albums and singles for the O’Jays. And the legendary R&B group’s lead singer, Eddie Levert, is still striving for the top of the charts.

“I’m forever trying to find that gold, that vein of gold,” says Levert. “I’m forever down in the mine digging for whatever’s new.”

The O’Jays, best known for their ’70s hits “Love Train” and “For the Love of Money,” will play the Andiamo Celebrity Showroom on Dec. 29 and 30. Group members have fluctuated over the years. The lineup currently includes founding members Levert and Walter Williams Sr., and Eric Grant, who joined the group in 1995.

The O’Jays haven’t released a record since 2010’s “Christmas With the O’Jays,” and in the meantime Levert has been busy with his solo career. He marked his solo debut in 2012 with “I Still Have It.”

Levert says his solo career has been decades in the making. He originally planned to strike out on his own simply under his last name, but he says his sons Gerald and Sean “stole my name and my fame.” The younger Leverts, both deceased, had several hits with their R&B group LeVert in the ’80s and early ’90s.

When Eddie Levert resumed his pursuit of a solo career earlier this decade, some of the songs he’d written were already many years old. In crafting his solo albums, Levert describes a difficult balance between trying to play to fans of the O’Jays’ classic R&B and also trying to win newer listeners with more contemporary tracks.

“I’m 74 years old,” he says. “Trying to sell yourself to a young audience or to young people is sort of hard, because they look at you like you’re their grandfather and everybody calls you ‘Pops.’ It’s hard to be sexy.”

Levert also bemoans the difficulties of getting radio airplay for his new music. He says all modern music sounds alike — “every song is the same chords for maybe 300 bars” — but also expresses an understanding of current musical trends.

“I imagine they said the same thing about us when we were jumping around on Elvis Presley and Little Richard and Fats Domino and Sam Cooke and Otis Redding and James Brown,” he says. “I guess it’s all in what you call evolution.”

Nonetheless, Levert says the O’Jays’ shows remain popular with a range of concertgoers.

“That’s what’s amazing about it, that we’re still relevant to a young audience,” he says. “We get young kids. We get kids who have kids. We get their kids, their grandmothers, their mothers and their fathers.”

The relationships between the men onstage, while friendly, are strictly professional these days.

“This is our job,” Levert says. “When we are not on our job, we don’t hang out with each other.”

Yet Levert says the job is still satisfying.

“I’m up there for maybe two hours, maybe two hours and a half, maybe just an hour and a half,” he says. “But for that hour and a half I’m able to escape the whole rigmarole … I’m able to escape the world and its problems, my problems, my aches and my pains. It’s therapeutic for me.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

The O'Jays

8 p.m. Thurs. and Fri.

Andiamo Celebrity Showroom

Tickets: $49.50-$99.50

7096 E. 14 Mile, Warren

(586) 268-3200