Back Stabbers by the O’Jays (Philadelphia International, 1972)

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I will never understand the last meal request for death row inmates. Seriously, does it matter what you’re gonna eat before you die? Food is one of the few things you get to have as a prisoner. After eating tasteless mush for 10 years, you could throw a guy a stale cracker and, in the words of Eddie Murphy, he’d ask, ” Is that a Ritz?” If you’re doing it to be humane, surely there are other things that an inmate could experience one last time: a good book, a piece of art, a moving photograph, even a round of video games. For me, if I am ever on death row (for a crime I was obviously framed for), I would have one request – a pair of headphones, a record player and the 45 of the O’Jays’ Back Stabbers.

Back Stabbers is the crowning achievement by Gamble & Huff, who as a team with Thom Bell created such a distinctive style of music, they had to create a new genre for it – Philadelphia Soul. From the opening Ellery Queen piano roll to build of the strings and horn hits – Da-da-da. Da-da. Da. – you are placed into a world of deception and paranoia, one where your neighbor might be the one with a long blade clenched tight in his fist, not unlike the world in 1972 where the Watergate scandal was beginning to brew. The music is at once hip and dangerous. You can imagine John Shaft strutting down the street on his way to a capture a bad dude just as you can imagine the criminal getting down to the same beat.

If there is a note out of place, I can’t hear it. They may buried it so far into the mix, it can’t be heard. But considering the audiophile quality of the recording, I highly doubt it. The vocal sparring between Eddie Levert & William Powell is a double blast killshot, like two excited witnesses of a happening trying to outdo each other retelling what they saw. (The third O’Jay, Walter Williams, must have been out brokering deals with the Minute Maid Company.) There’s no way a single like this could be topped.

Yet, their follow-up, Love Train, did just that, hitting #1 in early 1973. How do you go from ‘ a few of your buddies, they sure look shady’ to ‘people all over the world join hands’? Lyrically that was the difference between Gamble & Huff (McFadden & Whitehead co-wrote Back Stabbers, but hell, they also wrote Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now). They took completely different personal and political world views and wrapped them in this beautiful candy shell. They were Philly Soul’s Willy Wonkas.

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