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The O'Jays

Friday, September 14, at the State Theatre.

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If you want to thank someone for the hits that put the O'Jays into the Rock Hall -- '70s soul standards like "Back Stabbers" and "Love Train" -- you can first thank the grandmother of Walter Williams Sr. Without her, Williams probably would have worked at Canton's Republic Steel alongside his father instead of signing his first recording contract as a teenager in the early '60s. "My dad wouldn't sign, but she said, 'If you don't sign it, I will. And you better not say no,'" recalls Williams with a chuckle. "He was tremendously pissed." Pissed enough, in fact, to throw Williams out of his house. But the young man would soon head from Ohio to Los Angeles with childhood pal Eddie Levert. And the O'Jays would begin their momentous R&B career.

Williams and Levert have been friends and creative partners for nearly 50 years. Their relationship has survived a rotating cast of fellow O'Jays, a bitter legal battle with producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and personal tragedy. Levert's son, singer Gerald, died last year of an accidental prescription-drug overdose.

According to Williams, Levert said to him, "There's always gonna be a hole in my heart." However, "being able to stay busy is a blessing."

As a result, the pair has regrouped to perform in support of a re-released O'Jays album, 2004's Imagination. This also gives fans a chance to hear the group's classics once again.

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