The O'Jays: how we made Love Train

‘Donald Trump used it in his campaign – join a Trump train. Our lawyers sent him a cease and desist letter’

Eddie Levert, singer

We started the O’Jays at school in Canton, Ohio, in 1958, but struggled to find our identity and took years to make a breakthrough. At one point, we were doing beach music, playing shows supporting the Dave Clark Five and Sonny and Cher. I’d always thought we’d make a record and be millionaires, so it was a rude awakening.

Then Bill Isles fell in love, said he was going to California for four weeks and never came back, and Bobby Massey quit to become a songwriter and producer. The remaining trio weren’t anything like the O’Jays as people know us now.

Everything changed in 1972, when we met [songwriters and producers] Gamble and Huff and signed to Philadelphia International. They recognised our gospel roots and ability to switch between lead vocals. Kenny Gamble was a prolific songwriter, and Leon Huff could make a piano sound like a whole band. We just clicked. They had dozens of songs and we were able to pick the ones we liked. When we started recording, Love Train didn’t even have lyrics, so Kenny came up with them in five minutes, on the spot.

At that stage, I don’t think any of us had any idea how big that song would become, but by the time we started laying down the vocals, we knew we had a hit. Love Train felt like destiny. It had such perfect, timeless lyrics that it was almost as if they’d come from God, and we had to deliver them to the people.

The O’Jays in 1973.
The O’Jays in 1973. From left: William Powell, Walter Williams and Eddie Levert. Photograph: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

I was very young, conflicted between my spiritual upbringing and becoming a superstar, but when we made a promotional film on a train that went through a zoo in Griffin Park, California, I felt humbled by the children, who were – and are – our future.

To this day, people hear it and want to start a train. At one gig, we played it for 30 minutes, while the audience formed a dancing train that went all the way outside the building.

Walter Williams, singer

Gamble and Huff saw us when we supported the Intruders at the Apollo in New York, and were somewhere down the bill. We learned so much from them. You could rehearse a song, think it was finished and in the studio they’d suddenly try a different groove. I watched them dissect each song until it really worked.

Eddie and I brought the gospel feeling that we learned at St Mark Baptist church, where my dad was the choir director, my stepmother was the pianist and her sister was the organist. Love Train was the first of our big message songs: “People all over the world (everybody), join hands, start a love train.”

1972 was explosive – Vietnam was rumbling on, the rich were getting richer - so it was the perfect time to sing about social issues. The song mentioned places that were having human rights problems, but in a positive, hopeful way: “The first stop we make will be England … tell all the folks in Russia and China too.” We’ve performed in it England many times, but I’d still love to sing it in Russia or China.

I was offended when Donald Trump started using the song, supposedly with our involvement, as “Join a Trump train.” Oh no we won’t! Our attorneys sent him a cease and desist letter. We’re about unity, not division. Trump says he’s gonna make America great again. I would ask him: “When was it not great for you?” My dad didn’t give me a million dollars. What a joke. I’ve experienced what it’s like being a black man in America and being successful through hard work.

For most people, the biggest problem is how to cope. You have to learn not to jump off a bridge or put a gun to your head. The timeless message of Love Train is that if we pull together, we can make things better for everyone.

It went to number one and is still the biggest song we’ve ever done. I never get bored of it.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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