#318: The O'Jays, "Back Stabbers" (1972)

In October of 1972, one year and two months before the Wailers released Burnin’, the O’Jays dropped Back Stabbers.

In my last year of college, I experienced a 70s obsession. I took a class aptly called “The 70s.” I’m not sure if that’s what set it off, or if I was already on my way and signed up to feed my curiosity. I think it was a little of both. My parents played a lot of soul music when I was growing up, and along with all the Jay-Z, Biggie, and Nas that my roommate and I faithfully blasted from our first-year dorm room, the Isley Brothers and Al Green were also in heavy rotation. By my fourth year, what started off as interest morphed into a full-blown fixation. I listened to as much 70s soul, rock, and (especially) disco, as I could get my hands on.

I worked in our theater department’s costume shop, surrounded by beautiful vintage clothing which inspired me to search thrift shops to hunt down and collect my own vintage pieces. They became the canvas for the soundtrack I was creating. I watched Saturday Night Fever, Urban Cowboy, and Cooley High (technically a 60s theme, but made in the 70s) dozens of times. As my 70s renaissance emerged, I wondered what was so damn fixating about this period that I was determined to go there in my mind.

I knew parts of who I was and who I wanted to be but it was all still coming together. Embracing a decade that was so full of confidence, the “Me” decade, as it was called, was a gateway to discovering more about myself. I think I wanted to be close to the carefree glamour, happiness, and confidence that I associated with the era.

There’s a video of the O’Jays performing “Back Stabbers” on Soul Train and as the camera pans first to the crowd of people moving on the dance floor, then back to the O’Jays, it’s almost as though the group is moving on water. They dance in unison, they are fluid, and while the crowd around them seems to move faster and faster, they just float across the stage. Afterwards, Don Cornelius—and his beautiful afro—tells singer Eddie Levert that he has one of the greatest voices ever. Levert smiles shyly, then explains that the group started in Ohio in high school, made some records, made some more records, and now, working with the “Fantastic Gamble and Huff (in Philly), recorded some hit records.” I think they are wearing the same suits as on the Back Stabbers album cover. Everyone, from audience to singers, is effortlessly cool.

That cool is what I sought in my 70s moment. It all seemed so shiny and beautiful on the surface. I wanted to dance in the Soul Train line. I saw photos and movies and read stories about celebrities at Studio 54, and I wanted to be there. I wanted to dance with Michael Jackson and Grace Jones and Bianca Jagger. I wanted to have conversations with Warhol and Basquiat. And yet I was always aware of the other side of the glamour—it was tinged with sadness. Many of those social fixtures, and others like them, died from drug addiction.

Growing up in New York, there were always those two sides to every coin. One side of the street was safe to walk on, and one wasn’t. Kids could play safely outside until the streetlights came on but were careful never to step on a needle in the park. The city was full of life and energy and we had the world at our fingertips, but we knew always to be careful, and never to go too far, literally and figuratively. Too many of us knew someone the city had chewed up and spit out. So many people were lost that way. “Keep your wits about you,” my dad would say.

The 70s were rife with stories of brutality everywhere, and there was nowhere to hide. Violence lurked on NYC street corners, but it was also hiding in suburban neighborhoods and in secluded areas where serial killers like Ted Bundy and the Hillside Stranglers preyed on victims. The country mourned those lost in Vietnam and wondered why we needed war. The 70s were a dichotomy between danger via violence, sex, drugs, and war, and freedom via revolution, love, and empathy. “When the World is At Peace,” “Back Stabbers,” and “Love Train” bookending an album is a testament to the climate—a sign of the times. In the 2012 PBS documentary BrotherMen, producer Kenneth Gamble said, “People were looking for something. People were almost dead inside.”

Music has always been a form of protection. “Back Stabbers” warns us to be careful who to trust—perhaps it’s a shady lover but maybe it’s big brother? America was rife with suspicion and fear. Watch out for the government, serial killers, muggers, slashers, and cheaters. “What they do? / They smile in your face / All the time they wanna take your place / The back stabbers.”

Music has always been a form of escape. “Love Train” encourages us to join hands, and get on the train. “Please don’t miss this train at the station / ‘Cause if you miss it, I feel sorry, sorry for you / Well / People all over the world (Sisters and brothers) / Join hands (join, come on) / Start a love train (ride this train, y’all), love train (Come on).” The song is even used in The Martian, which details the ultimate escape—of a man from Mars.

The era brought about a new genre—the Philly Sound. A lot of work went into that sound, which to the ear is smooth, seamless chill. In an interview with Terry Gross, Leon Huff describes the famous piano roll opening of “Back Stabbers.” He says it reflects the drama of the title. Gross describes it as a “big, produced, orchestral sound.” Gamble says it was their dream to play so many counter melodies. “Radio was everywhere, it went from mono to stereo, it was more soothing, filled up more space. The music was not only funky, it was classical.”

“When the World’s at Peace” reveals the worry beneath the cool. This song could have been written today. We are still fighting for freedom. We are fighting for acceptance and for love. We are fighting to be seen and heard. We are fighting to matter.

I can see the day when it’s safe to walk the streets / When we learn to care for those lost in poverty / There would be no need for our daughters and our sons / To march up and down the streets singing “We shall overcome” / (do-it-to-me-now) / When the world’s at peace will it still be in one piece? / I pray for the day when the bombs and the bullets cease / Come let’s make a change, or leave the world in dust / Let’s be the world of love for the ones that follow us (do-it-to-me-now) / If we learn to love the way we learn to kill / then love will rule the world and hate would soon be still / Some may say they love, but love’s a sacrifice / Love is not a state of mind / Love’s a fact of life

Back Stabbers is still hopeful. The Philly sound production and instrumentation evokes strength, love, and sadness all at once. It created a timeless soundtrack for what was going on then, and now.

My 70s obsession was a mystery to me for a while. Now, I know that I was ushering in some major changes in my life. I was figuring out who I was, and I was moving away from some ideas that previously defined me and toward others that I didn’t yet understand. I was creating space in my life for creativity and a career that I didn’t have a blueprint for. Embracing a creative culture that was sophisticated, worldly, inventive, and complex, allowed me to feel that I was, too.

—Lee Erica Elder