Though it was almost midway through their concert at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland Saturday night that The O’Jays sang “Love Train,” the audience hopped aboard way earlier, at the opening, and stayed on throughout the soul-satisfying show.
The R&B legends, inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2005, are on a 60th anniversary tour, with original members Eddie Levert and Walter Williams – in their mid-70s — sounding as strong as ever; the “new” guy, Eric Nolan Grant, joined the group in 1995.
Looking snappy and snazzy, wearing neon green suits and backed by a tight 12-piece band (with horns!) and a few vocalists, the guys — who have a new single “Above the Law” and are slated to release an album “The Last Word” next year — blazed though their 1970s Philly soul hits, most by pioneers Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff.
Standing at the front of the stage, taking up its width, they kicked off with the upbeat “Time to Get Down,” “Living For the Weekend” and “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby (Sweet, Tender, Love)” and introduced “Forever Mine,” the first in a series of sexy ballads for the ladies in the crowd.
Serenading the women in the front row, raspy-voiced Lavert went to town on “Let Me Make Love to You,” saying, “I want to love you til you break out into a cold sweat.”
“I Love Music,” with terrific percussion and a rocking electric guitar solo, got great treatment (a video backdrop had a picture of a disco ball, but the tune seemed deeper than that); and during “Love Train,” a video from the TV show “Soul Train” showed the group (which started out as a quintet of high-schoolers in Canton, Ohio in 1968) in its heyday.
The vocalists sat down next to each other for a medley of tunes that didn’t make the top 20, yet was as thrilling as the hits. “Message In Our Music,” “Lovin’ You,” “Work On Me,” “Survival,” “992 Arguments” and “You Got Your Hooks In Me” were among the offerings.
They also sang “Now That We Found Love,” a Gamble-Huff tune on the 1973 album “Ship Ahoy,” that became a hit for the band Third World in 1978. Lavert called it his favorite, and said he liked the O’Jays’ version better.
To close, everyone in the mostly senior audience (“35 and up” is how opening comedian Speedy teased the crowd, as he led a surprisingly excellent sing-along of non-O’Jays R&B hits) at last stood for great renditions of the hits “Back Stabbers,” “Use Ta Be My Girl” and “For the Love of Money.”
Speaking of old-school, the show began with veteran Oakland promoter Lionel Bea of Bay Area Productions honoring celebrity photographer George Livingston and radio personality Nick Harper (of KSOL and KDIA) for their contributions to R&B music.