Powell and his friends Walter Williams, Bill Isles, Bobby Massey and Eddie Levert formed the group in Canton, Ohio in 1958 while attending Canton McKinley High School. Originally known as The Triumphs, and then The Mascots, the friends debuted with “Miracles” in 1961, which was a moderate hit in the Cleveland area. In 1963, they took the name “The O’Jays”, in tribute to Cleveland radio disc jockey Eddie O’Jay who was part of the powerful management team of Frankie Crocker, Herb Hamlett & Eddie O’Jay. In that same year, The O’Jays released “Lonely Drifter,” their first national chart hit on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #93. Their debut album, released shortly thereafter was Comin’ Through.
They went on to record 10 albums and having 9 chart hits.
Throughout the 1960s, they continued to chart with minor hits such as “Lipstick Traces” (which they performed nationally on the ABC Television program, Shivaree), “Stand In For Love,” “Stand Tall,” “Let It All Out,” “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow,” “Look Over Your Shoulder,” “Deeper In Love With You,” and “One Night Affair”. However, while they issued dozens of singles throughout the decade, they never once hit the US top 40 (although “Lipstick Traces” made it to #19 in Canada.) On the R&B charts, The O’Jays were somewhat more prominent, but their only top 10 R&B single prior to 1972 was 1968’s “I’ll Be Sweeter Tomorrow”.
In spite of their success as a touring group and on the R&B charts, the group had been considering quitting the music industry in 1972; around that same time original members Bill Isles and Bobby Massey departed, leaving the group a trio. The remaining three members soldiered on and Gamble & Huff, a team of producers and songwriters with whom the O’Jays had been working for several years, signed them to their Philadelphia International label. Suddenly, The O’Jays fortunes changed and they finally scored with their first million-seller, “Back Stabbers”, from the album of the same name. This album produced several more hit singles, including “992 Arguments,” “Sunshine,” “Time To Get Down,” and the #1 pop smash, “Love Train”.
During the remainder of the 1970s the O’Jays continued releasing hit singles, including “Put Your Hands Together” (Pop #10), “For the Love of Money” (Pop #9), “Give the People What They Want”, “Let Me Make Love To You”, “I Love Music” (Pop #5), “Livin’ for the Weekend”, “Message in Our Music” and “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby (Sweet Tender Love)”.
Original member William Powell died of cancer on May 26, 1977 at age 35.
After adding Sammy Strain (born December 9, 1939) of Little Anthony and the Imperials), the O’Jays continued recording, though with limited success. 1978’s “Use ta Be My Girl” was their final Top Five hit, though they continued placing songs on the R&B charts throughout the 1980s.
William along with the group was inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2004 and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.