Walter Williams Sr., one of the original O'Jays set to perform Saturday night at Cache Creek in Brooks, reminisced by phone about the hard work that went into making the singers into dancers.
The O'Jays, with the aid of a dream team of artistic coaches, helped revolutionize stage presentation with vocals highlighted by fancy stepping.
"We had a choreographer named Cholly Atkins, a tap dancer who had been part of a team called Cole and Atkins," Williams said. "He was great. He had worked with (stylish tap dancer and Shirley Temple partner) Bill Robinson. He took us on when we started as one of his side projects. He was like a drill sergeant. Let me tell you, we had to learn how to dance."
Such blending of song and step popularized by Williams' group and others such as the Pips led in a direct line to Michael Jackson.
"Was I a dancer when we started?" Williams posed the rhetorical question. "No, sir, not at all. I was not a natural dancer, and Cholly's choreography was sometimes contrary to the beat or lyrical movement of the song. We learned whether right-handed or left-handed; we used both sides. We worked at 45-degree angles. We never walked straight up to the mike or straight back from the mike.
"We would start dance rehearsals at noon and stop around 6 p.m. We'd do that six to eight weeks a year. We gave him that kind of latitude. We learned to love him to death."
The O'Jays managed to take Philadelphia soul music to a peak with 60 albums, 24 Top Ten recordings and a total of 59 charted songs. "Back Stabbers," "Love Train," "I Love Music," "For the Love of Money" and others still find airplay and occasional exposure in film and television soundtracks. They had tremendous influence on music during their time; many assert that they were a seminal influence on disco, a genre they've managed to outlive.
Williams would like to write a book about those days, and has "started the treatment," but there's a problem.
"We have truly been blessed in our career. Our story is squeaky-clean," he said. " People like dirt, but we don't have any dirt to tell."
There are plenty of funny takes on the group's history Williams could tell, though, such as what it was like to first play the casinos in Las Vegas.
"We would get locked in," he explained. "We were chitlins, and they wanted chitlins under glass. They wanted us to put in show tunes. The people from the Midwest didn't know 'Back Stabbers' or 'Love Train,' so we were told to put in songs like 'My Way' and 'I Left My Heart in San Francisco.' If we'd put those songs in our shows in, say, Augusta, Ga., they'd throw rocks at us.
"By now, I would have retired normally, but our stock went through the roof in '05. It changed everything. We had more work in better places, and they could sustain the prices we were asking.
"Now, also, our audiences are more diverse. We have more whites, more Hispanics, children, grandchildren.
"Somebody will come up and say, 'My mom raised me on your music,' so I just want to say a big thank-you to all the people who have supported us over the years, and still do."
The O'Jays play at 8 p.m. (14455 Highway 16, Brooks; $65, $75, $89; 800-452-8181 or www.cachecreek.com)
Out and about
The Reno Jazz Festival marks its 50th anniversary with three days of concerts and events Thursday through April 28 at the University of Nevada, Reno. Jazz titan Joe Lovano will kick off the festival Thursday, performing with the university's faculty jazz ensemble, the Collective.
Tenor saxophonist Lovano has played with most of the greats and has mentored many, including recent Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding. (Nightingale Concert Hall; 7:30 p.m.; $20, seniors $17, students $10)
Next Friday night, the Mingus Big Band performs under the direction of Sue Mingus in celebration of the music of the late, legendary bassist Charles Mingus. (Lawlor Events Center; 7:30 p.m.; $33, seniors $29, students $15)
A Jazz Fan Pass, good for all events, sells for $60, $50 seniors. Tickets are available at www.unr.edu or (800) 325-7378.
The Jazz Festival has been collecting memorabilia, oral histories, photographs and recordings spanning its 50 years and placed them on a timeline, which can also be seen at www.unr.edu.
"Unconventional classic music" is the term being used to promote Thursday's performance at the Grand Sierra of Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Kathryn Stott and guitarists the Assad Brothers. The concert will reflect the wide range of Ma's musical interests and the Assads' rich Brazilian tradition. (8 p.m.; 2500 E. Second St., in Reno; $60, $100, $150, $250; http://grandsierraresort.com)
The night before Ma's concert, the atmosphere in the Grand Sierra theater will be substantially different when the alternative band the Shins celebrate the release of their fourth album, "Port of Morrow." (8 p.m. Wednesday; $45; http://grandsierraresort.com)
Dwight Yoakam continues to be a crowd pleaser in his Silver Legacy concerts and returns Saturday night. Yoakam has finished recording tracks for his newest album with Beck. (8 p.m.; 407 N. Virginia St., Reno; $55, $65, $80; 800-687-8733 or www.silverlegacy.com)
The A.V.A. Ballet Theatre presents its spring performance, "Alice in Wonderland," at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, accompanied by the Reno Philharmonic. (Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts, 100 S. Virginia St., Reno; $16-$40; 775-686-6600 or http://pioneercenter.com)
Fans can "Shimmy Shimmy Ko Ko Bop" to their hearts' content next Thursday at Jackson Rancheria when Little Anthony and the Imperials (called the Chesters until DJ Alan Freed assigned them their new name in an introduction). "Little" Anthony Gourdine still heads the group, now also composed of Sammy Strain (who was also once an O'Jay), Ernest Wright and Clarence Collins. (7 p.m.; 12222 New York Ranch Road, Jackson; $40; 209-296-5495 or http://jacksoncasino.com)
Dawn Wells of "Gilligan's Island" will be among the celebrants at the first anniversary of the Siena Hotel Spa Casino, One S. Lake St., Reno, from 2 p.m. to midnight Saturday. The fully refurbished Siena is Reno's only waterfront hotel and opened against all odds in one of the toughest economies ever for northern Nevada.