The O'Jays and their enduring message of love

There was no stopping The O'Jays' hit "Love Train," which raced to the top of the charts way back in 1973. FOR THE RECORD, all these years later, The O'Jays are still doing what they love -- and talking about it with our Jim Axelrod:

Nothing says "old school" like The O'Jays. With hit after hit, they practically ruled the R&B radio charts in the 1970s. And while some of the outfits may have fallen out of fashion, their songs stand the test of time.

Still performing after more than half a century together, their vintage days may be behind them. But listen to The O'Jays sing and watch The O'Jays work -- this is no nostalgia act.

The O'Jays - Use Ta Be My Girl by TheOJaysVEVO on YouTube

Axelrod said, "We've all seen the groups that are the name only, and they're not creating new, fresh moments."

"We're still having moments," said Eddie Levert. "Those hallelujah moments."

At 75 and 74 years old, Levert and Walter Williams -- together with the new kid, Eric Nolan Grant -- are still creating plenty of "hallelujah moments."

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The O'Jays - Eddie Levert, Eric Nolan Grant and Walter Williams - with correspondent Jim Axelrod. 

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Perfectly fitting, since Williams and Levert started singing together in a Canton, Ohio church choir more than 60 years ago. They formed a group, and had some local success. 

But Canton didn't change their lives; Philadelphia did. 

That's where, in the early 1970s, a post-Motown R&B sound was evolving in a studio run by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. 

"I have seen them take a song totally apart with just bass, piano, and drums," said Williams. "And then they add all of the sweetness to it with the other instruments, and horns, and strings, and it's unbelievable."

Gamble & Huff's "Philly sound" polished The O'Jays' mix of sweet soul groove and romantic ballads into 11 gold and four platinum records -- two-dozen Top 10 R&B singles -- and their signature hit: "Love Train," which went to No. 1 on the pop charts in 1973.

Not bad for improvising!

The O'Jays Love Train by Regina Côrtes on YouTube

Axelrod asked, "Is it true you didn't step into the recording session with the lyrics fully written?"

"Absolutely," said Williams. "Gamble sat at the console. He didn't have a second verse! And he wrote it right there in the studio." 

And 45 years later they're still singing it. 

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Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and Eric Nolan Grant. 

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But it hasn't been all bright lights and hit records … it never is. There have also been painful personal challenges.

Since 1983, Walter Williams has battled multiple sclerosis: "If I had gone home, probably would never come out again to work. So I wanted to work through it."

"Work through M.S.?"

"Yeah. I didn't have a choice."

In 2006, Levert's son Gerald, a hit singer himself, died from a prescription drug overdose. Two years later, his son Sean, who'd suffered from heart and lung problems, died as well.

Axelrod asked, "How'd you keep it going through that kind of tragedy, both the boys?"

"There's a lot of people depend on me; I have to stay focused. I'm no good if I fall apart," Levert replied.

Watching all this was Eric Nolan Grant, who's been with Williams and Levert 22 years now.

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Eric Nolan Grant (center) joined The O'Jays in 1995.

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Grant said, "When I got in the group I thought I was a man, and they couldn't tell me nothing different." Being with them, "I learned how to be a man."

And what happens for Grant when Williams and Levert are done? "It's done. If I don't have Eddie and Walt, you know, the bookends, it's a wrap."

Members of the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame since 2005, The O'Jays know this won't go on forever. However fine their form, it's time that always gets to close the show. 

The O'Jays say they've got two years left.

"So, let's just say it's 2020 and you're done. What do you want the legacy to be when people think about The O'Jays?" Axelrod asked.

"When they're on their way home, they should be talkin' about you," Williams laughed. "On my way out, I want them to be talking about me!"

And they still are, all these years later … drawn to The O'Jays by their music and their message.

"At the end of the day," said Levert, "what were we trying to convey? Love is the only thing that matters, man."

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The O'Jays endure, as do their scintillating romantic ballads - blends of R&B and a sweet soul groove.

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