Motown dominated 60s soul, there’s no denying that. Some contend that the greatest of soul music died with the end of that incredible decade of music. Backstabbers, released only a year after Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (1971), begs to differ. By the early 70s, Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff were at the center of a dream-team of writers and producers located in
In 1972, the appropriately named Mighty O’Jays had already been together for almost 15 years with few notable successes. It was Gamble and Huff’s magnificently conceived Backstabbers that would shoot The O’Jays and Philadelphia International Records to the top of both the pop and R&B charts, and the album set the tone for what would become the definition of 70s soul music.
Backstabbers is a musical mash-up of jazz, funk and blues featuring phenomenally complex arrangements by fellow Philly Soul pioneers Thom Bell, Ronnie Baker, Norman Harris, Bobby Martin, and Leonard Pakula. Combining Gamble and Huff’s brilliant, sleek production, and the arranger’s lush orchestral arrangements with O’Jays vocalists Eddie Levert, William Powell and Walter Williams makes for a powerful record that packs just as much punch, perhaps more, than any soul record that had come before it.
Lead singer Eddie Levert guides and harnesses the O’Jays’ vocal prowess through ten songs tackling everything from political protest to friendship to adultery. Album opener “When The World’s At Peace” is a James Brown-inspired funk anthem addressing a world at war. The record’s title track and first single explores adolescent hypocrisy and sneaky girlfriend stealing: “They smile in your face, all the time they want to take your place, the backstabbers,” sings Levert over one of the most noticeable and memorable refrains in pop music history.
The beautiful and heartbreaking “Who Am I” grapples with personal regret while “(They Call Me) Mr. Lucky” is a textbook bubblegum tune about the joys of young love. Standout track “Time To Get Down” is Philly Soul perfection; why it didn’t climb any higher than #33 on the pop charts is baffling. “992 Arguments,” “Listen To The Clock On The Wall,” and “Shiftless, Shady, Jealous Kind Of People” occupy filler slots on the record and the amateur listener might label them as such, but they’re anything but filler tracks. In fact, Backstabbers ought to serve as an example of how best to fill in the spots between hit singles. The record closes with “Love Train,” which is not only the most popular O’Jays single, but one of the most popular singles of the seventies. “Love Train” delivers in a perfect pop music format a prominent and reoccurring Christian theme in soul music: worldwide love, peace, and harmony.
Assessing the lyrical elements of Backstabbers -- and other soul records like it – which at times can be sort of (or very) cheesy (“Baby, they call me Mr. Lucky, cause I’m so glad I’ve got you”) wouldn’t be of much use and misses the point. The beauty of soul music has more to do with delivery and passion than the quality of lyrics. This album is a stunning showcase of talent and raw emotion. Records like this make giving the music of the 70s a closer look more worthwhile. This record was a monumental success in 1972 and listening to it 36 years after its release, although musically and lyrically dated, it’s easy to hear how Backstabbers enhanced the soul-music format and consequently revived the genre altogether, providing a welcomed contrast to the other (often wretchedly bad) popular music activities of the 70s.