Silky Soulful Eric Nolan of The Ojay's Keeps It Old School with His New Music In My Life & On My Way
Updated: Feb 15
Eric Nolan is the 3rd member of the Legendary O’Jays. This talented man defiantly has the necessary ingredients for long-term sustainability in the music industry. From humble beginnings, dancing on top of his mother's table doing the James Brown, to becoming one of the most polished voices of our time, Eric is unstoppable! With all the changes within the music industry today, I thought that I would have a chat with him to find out how he's navigating through it. Here's what he told me.
Hi Eric, how are you doing?
I'm great, how are you doing?
I'm having a wonderful day. I hope the same is true for you.
Oh yes, I'm making it work. In fact, I just dropped my dog off at the groomers.
What kind of dog do you have?
I have a Maltese Shih Tzu. He's eight years old. I believe that's 56 years old in dog years. His name is Ashton, but I’ve nicknamed him Puppy.
My husband has a Maltese.
All bad boys love little cute dogs.
Thats true because he loves that dog.
Your husband is tough, I promise you! He may be small, but you don't mess with that little dog!
I know that's right!
He doesn't waste any barks. If he barks, it’s something going on!
What color is Puppy?
He's grey and white.
Is this your first time ever having a dog?
No, when I was a child, we had a family German shepherd but as an adult, I always said, “I don’t need another mouth to feed.” I finally made the decision to get a dog and I fell in love with him. In fact, I love him so much that I said, “Lord, let me go before he goes.” I don't know what I would do if something happened to him. I would be heartbroken! Dogs are unbelievably loyal. If people were like that, we would have a better world. dogs will go anywhere with you at any time! Whether it's snow, rain, or sleet, they are there! I even buy him clothes. He has a Sherwin jacket; a hoodie and I buy him quality food.
Eric, first and foremost, I want to tell you to thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to chat with me regarding your musical journey. I’m truly honored.
No problem at all.
I really love your music and your voice is beautiful! It's smooth and soulful. It’s the type of music that I personally enjoy listening to.
You're welcome, so how did you get started in this business?
Well, I would try to condense my story as best as possible. I began singing at the age of 4. I've always loved singing. My favorite artist was James Brown. In fact, I was so infatuated with him that I would step up on the chair to get to the table and do the dances as James Brown did. I used to tear that table up doing the James Brown and the splits! My mother would get frustrated at me for scaring up her table. I would get whooping for that. I never could figure out how my mother knew it was because I never was there when she got home from work. I just loved to dance!
As a child, we were poor. So, my mother would take me to the bars so that I could help bring money into our home by doing the James Brown and singing his songs. When the people would see me, they would throw money on the ground. My mother would pick it up, go to the store and buy beans for us to eat. That's where my love for music began.
Now, when I saw 10-year-old Michael Jackson doing what he did, I felt like I could do it also. So, I tried to emulate him also. Watching him gave me the desire to put together a singing group. So that's exactly what I set out to do.
Now, when I was in 8th grade, there were a set of twin boys that some people used to talk about and tease because they were not what most people would consider aesthetically attractive. So, they performed in a talent show over the weekend, and when I came back to school that Monday, they were the most popular kids at the school! All the girls wanted them! All the girls wanted them! So, I thought to myself, All the girls wanted them! All the girls wanted them! Then, I thought to myself, if singing can get me, girls, then I need to sing! Then, I thought to myself, if singing can get me, girls, then I need to sing! So, I put a singing group together for the purpose of getting girls. For me, it wasn't even about making money or anything like that. I just wanted to get girls. Also, I knew that I could do a better job than them. So that's what I did. I formulated a group called the Deltones while I was in 8th grade.
As I became older, I was forced to take my singing career more seriously because it became my tool of survival. I had bills to pay.
“The Deltones” became extremely popular in the Cleveland area. Being that we were so popular, people had high expectations for us. They thought we were going to be the next O'jays.
So, you met someone that became like a brother to you. Can you tell me about that?
Yes, I met Gerald Levert. He’s Eddie Levert’s son from the O'jays. I met him when I was about 21 or 22 years old. Gerald was a few years younger than me. He just fell in love with our singing group and thought that my group, The Deltones, was going to make it big. At the time, Gerald Levert was about 15 or 16 years old. So, we became good friends. Because he thought we were about to make it, he told me, “Whoever makes it first, we will help the other get through the door.” Gerald thought that I would be the one to help open the doors for him.
How did the two of you meet?
There's a huge festival that Cleveland has every year called the Glenville Heritage Festival. Well, we were the headliners.
Do they still have it every year?
Yes, it is a yearly festival. So, we were the headliners, and it was probably about 38 to 40 thousand people in attendance. It was the biggest festival in Cleveland. People waited every year just to attend this massive event. Because Gerald knew how popular this festival was, they wanted to be a part of this show. So, he was the opening act. Before Gerald put together the band, “Levert”, he was a solo artist. His brother Sean played drums and Mark, the other vocalist, played keyboards.
In Cleveland, The Deltones were like The Beatles because the audience would go crazy when we hit the stage! People were fainting, screaming, and trying to mob us! People were fainting, screaming, and trying to mob us! People were fainting, screaming, and trying to mob us! So, after seeing that, Gerald wanted to know who I was. From that point on, Gerald and I became very close friends. In fact, we became so close that we became like brothers. I used to spend the night over his house quite frequently. They lived in a mansion. So, while being at their home, I would see Eddie writing songs.
What happened to The Deltones?
It turned out that Gerald's group became the group that made it. I did everything that I could do to stay above water. I was struggling in the business. I moved to Detroit and to Dayton Ohio, but I was still having a difficult time. I tried everything to make it! The beautiful thing is that Gerald never forgot about me. He knew that I was struggling to still stay in the business, so when an opportunity presented itself for me to be in the O'jays, he told his father about me. Eddie gave me a chance to audition, and I made it! I made the cut! I made the cut! My good friend Gerald never forgot about me.
What style of music did the Deltones sing?
R&B and soul. We emulated the O'jays. Everything we did, from our style to everything we did, was like the O'jays. In our minds, we were going to be the next O'jays if they fell off. Of course, they never did.
Did you ever fear that the fans would accept you being a new member of the O'jays and being so young?
That's a great question. I'm going to answer it in two ways.
I didn't have time to think about being intimidated, what the band was going to think, or who was going to accept me or not. All I knew is that I was poor and broke. Because of my admiration for singing and the fact that they were my idols, they could have gotten me for free.
That's all I knew! I didn't even think about the other stuff! I didn't have time to think about it. See, they didn't consider me a part of the group until two years after I auditioned. They didn't even acknowledge me as being one of the O'jays. The only thing that was true to me is that I was singing with my idols, I went out on the road with the O’jays, and Gerald and I were still good friends. Pretty much, that was it.
Now, I will say this. When I finally got the chance to be on stage with Walter Williams and Eddie Levert (the original Lead singers of the O'jays) I couldn't believe how the women were acting over these so-called, “older guys.” Sometimes, while performing on the stage with them, I would have to catch myself, because I would be watching the show as if I were an onlooker from the crowd.
Then Eddie or Walter would nudge me and say, “hey sing! You're a part of the group!” You're a part of the group!” You're a part of the group!” you're a part of the group!” I would get so caught up in the moment, I would forget that I was a member of the Group and became a fan. I was watching them as if I was watching their show! I would think to myself. Wow, look at these supposedly old guys! So, as I mentioned earlier, I didn't even have the chance to think about it. And to be completely honest with you. After 25 years of performing with the O'jays, it’s only been the last eight years where I've started sitting down in the group and enjoying the fruits of my contributions. Because everything moved so fast, I didn't get a chance to completely soak up and savor the moments.
Until this day, I don't accept the fanfare for the O'jays, because the body of work was completed before I arrived. I feel like my primary responsibility to the group was to keep it at a level where they could continue to sustain and entertain. The house was built before I arrived. Because they worked so hard to build their brand before I arrived, I don't feel comfortable with taking the credit for something that was already done.
After 25 years, I'm still overwhelmingly grateful to have the opportunity to perform with two legends. I mean real legends! I'm talking about the type of legends that have paved the way for so many other pop bands that are well known today. These are the guys that showed us that you can become successful in this business if you just stay at it. So, I've been blessed to be able to perform with not only one, but two legends, and they’re living today. I don't take that for granted. I'm still in awe and I'm blessed beyond measure.
How well did you do with learning the dance steps that the O'jays do? Was it easy for you, or did you find it to be challenging?
In high school, I was recognized as the school’s best dancer. Dancing was a hobby of mine. I was extremely competitive when it came to dance. Whoever considered themselves a good dancer, I wanted to be better than them. When I started performing with the O'jays, I never said to myself, “I’m a dancer so I can be a dancer in a singing group.” I never connected the two together. I didn't make up the majority of the Deltones dance routines, but I made up the steps that counted. For example, Donald Tatum, who was one of the members of the Deltones, handled the choreography and I made sure the music, notes, and show were on point.
Now, if I felt that the choreography that we were given would not be the right look for our group, I would suggest an alternative dance move than what was originally introduced. I would change it and say I think we should do this. We were a classy group and I wanted to make sure that we maintained that image. I didn't think that it was appropriate for us to be grinding or holding our crouch on stage. So, it was things like that, that I changed. I was considered the fix-it man. I would change things that were wrong and make them right. I wanted to make sure that our group looked clean.
Now when I became a part of the O'jays, we were taught our dance steps by the world-famous Charlie Atkins. Charlie was the choreographer for all the Motown acts. Everything that came through Motown came to Charlie Atkins.
The Temptations, The Miracles, Diana Ross, all of them! He did take on a few acts outside of Motown, and the O'jays were one of them. When I started working with Charlie Atkins, I came right back to the frame of mine of challenging myself to be the absolute best that I could be. The guy that came before me, Sandy's Strain, was the ultimate dancer! He was incredible! He was incredible! I still converse with him and watch his tapes because I want to be as good as him.
They would fly us to Las Vegas. We will get settled into our apartments; we would meet up in a room then we would rehearse for six hours straight. We would literally be locked away. We did nothing but dance steps for 6 hours a day and 6 days a week.
I wanted to be so good that I would ask Charlie for a stack of VHS tapes back to my apartment and rehearse 2 to 3 hours after rehearsal. I wanted to be good at what I was doing and understand what my next assignment was going to be. I know what I was supposed to do, but Charlie Akins showed me the correct way to do it. Once again, intimidation never set in. What did set in, was me being competitive. I wanted to be good at it! In fact, I became so good at it that Charlie Atkins told me they usually rehearse for three months, but because I was so good, the rehearsal was cut down to two months and a week. We gained three weeks of downtime because I learned everything so quickly. Charlie told me I was the fastest learner. In fact, he told me that the only person that was as good as I was Marlon Jackson from the Jackson 5.
Wow, that's awesome!
Yes, that's a huge compliment coming from somebody so amazing as Charlie! Yes, yes, huge compliment coming from somebody so amazing as Charlie! Basically, I didn't get intimidated because I was so focused on my competitive nature of trying to be great.
During the time that you've been on the road with the O'jays, were you married?
No, I've never been married. I remember complaining about the fact that I did not have a solid relationship, and Eddie shared with me a word of wisdom. He said, “you chose this career” he went on to say that this is what I asked for. It's a lot of stuff that comes with being an entertainer. That's why it's important that you find someone that's able to understand your lifestyle. Is the same as an airplane pilot or a trucker who's on the road five or six months out of the year. You have to have someone that feels what you feel and is willing to go through what you go through. I'm not saying that I haven't found that person, I'm just saying it hasn't happened yet.
Do you have any new projects coming out?
Yes, I write and produce along with my partner J. Shawn Champion. I do everything with him. He was the writer of the song, “Same Girl”, recorded by Usher and R. Kelly. Because we become partners, everything I do, I do it through him. Personally, I've been writing and producing for a long time. Both Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's have chicken, but when I want chicken, I go to Kentucky Colonel to get chicken. Do you understand the parable?
Yes, I hear you loud and clear.
See, if you want to eat good chicken, you should go to someone who specializes in chicken. That's what they do. That's the same with J. Shawn. He eats and sleeps songwriting and producing. That's what he does. Me, I do a lot of everything. But for him, that's his specialty. He doesn't do anything but that, so I thought to myself, this would be a perfect marriage. The soulful sound that you hear in my music is deliberate. The O'jays do Soul and R&B. So, I dare not go down that lane. I wanted my music to be more in the style of Will Downing, Walter Beasley, and so on.
Not too long ago I ran into Kem at the airport, and I was speaking to him regarding an idea I had regarding recording my new album. With the digital world being so prominent a lot of artists have ditched live instrumental recordings however, I wanted to bring back that old- school flavor and record my album utilizing live instruments. I wanted the band to come to the studio and record with me.
On my “Mood Swing” album, four of my songs were recorded with a live band in the studio. I had the entire band playing collectively like James Brown had his band record. To me, it felt better. When music feels good, it just feels good! You know when it feels good. So, I allowed the band to record in one room. Once they finished, I came in and recorded my vocals.
So, I confided in Kem and told him that I was going to do this. Well, after he signed with Motown, he recorded an album utilizing live instruments. I would never say that he stole the idea from me because I don't know, but what I can say is that I did talk to him about the idea I had. And that's all I know.
But, I will say this, I really admire what Kem is doing. What he's doing is what I want to do. I admire how he took that sound and made it work. I knew the industry was missing that sound. I could hear that because I listen to music every day. At that point, I knew I had to revamp what I was doing. So, I still stuck with the idea of putting life instruments in my music, but I made my lyrics just a tad bit edgier and more realistic. I wanted to make my lyrics closer to the streets. I wrote lyrics like, “I miss you.” These are things that guys don't like to tell women. You know, like the truth. Also wrote lyrics like “you're the best thing that ever happened to me or, everything reminds me of you.” I set out to say the things that most men won’t say. I was inspired to write that song because I was at a mall and I saw a dress that I knew that my lady would like, I saw Jelly bellies that she loves to eat and even a movie that she wanted to see.
So, I was with J. Shawn, and I told him everything I'm looking at today reminds me of my girl. He said that's a record. Everything in this world that's good reminds me of you. So, we wrote that record. That's how I write. My latest project is called, In My Life and the one before that was called, On My Way. The song is about all the good things happening around me, because of an amazing woman in my life. I wrote a song called, On My Way. That song talks about the journey I experienced, while on my way to pick up my woman, and show her a good time.
Those are my two latest projects. We started using hashtags, MW, and IML to create buzz around the releases. I'm going to include those songs on my new CD called, In My Life. At the present, I'm four songs away from the completion of my life album. The album is actually completed. The only thing left to do on my song called "ASAP", is to add horns. The other songs that will be added to the album are called, Don't Worry and Available. In My Life will not be the next album I release, but it’s completed.
I've listened to them! They're Amazing!
Thank you, that's the goal. The music industry has changed so drastically. The music industry is extremely challenging today. They're not signing anyone to record deals anymore. Because everyone is independent, it makes it difficult to obtain distribution.
And radio has changed so much that it has become an industry. Is almost comparable to an assembly line. I also feel that music today has lost authenticity.
Now I'm going to share with you a little sneak preview of an idea we’re working on. J. Shawn and I came up with an album idea called, Eric Nolan Features. The artists I’m approaching to be on this album and do a duet with are Walter Williams from the O'jays, Glenn Jones, Russell Thompkins Jr. from the Stylistics, Conya Doss, Leanna Clency Lyons, known as Lee Lee from SWV, and Will Downing. If I can't get Will Downing, I do have another amazing artist in mind. Glen Jones and Lee Lee from SWV have both confirmed that they will be on the project.
Lots of people don't realize the vocal ability of Lee Lee because Coco was the lead vocalist of the group, SWV, but, let me tell you, Lee Lee has vocals out of this world! She can really sing! She can really sing! This will be the first time that anyone will be able to really hear Lee Lee’s vocal ability.
So, that would be the second CD. As a matter of fact, Walter Williams and I have already done a song. If you listen to the Mood Swing CD, a duet with Walter and I is on there. It’s called, Give Her Your Love. So, we're going to re-release, remix and update the song.
Our plan is to have it released by the first week of February, right before Valentine's Day.
Do the O'jays have any more albums that they will be recording?
Yes, we're going to do one more album. This is because we have one more album on our contract. I'm not sure exactly when it's going to be recorded. It could be in either 2022 or 2023, I'm not sure. At some point, we will have to honor that contract. The last album recorded was called, The Last Word.
I like to close the interview with the question that I asked. Pretty much everyone and that is, from your industry experience, what advice would you give to up-and-coming artists?
Whatever it is that you're trying to achieve in life, whether it be sports music or politics, hone your craft. Understand that none of us invented this, so stay humble and don't be arrogant. Don't get big-headed. Don't act as though you've invented the first computer ever. You didn't invent any of this. Maybe the person who invented the computer has a right to be boastful because the computer was invented. But when it comes to music, we didn't invent it.
The only thing we're capable of doing is enhancing it or inviting it to our class of people. Even as it relates to the O'jays. The O'jays followed The Drifters, the Coaster, and even the Temptations. They watch them. The Deltones watched the O'jays and the Jackson 5. Whether you're a rap artist or a vocalist, always be aware of where your musical style came from. The only thing that we can do with music enhances it and make it ours, but we did not invent it.
To summarize what I’m saying is, stay humble, know that you did invent music, and know where your grassroots come from.
It's been a complete honor to do this interview with you. You're an amazing artist and I feel blessed to have the opportunity to speak with you today.
Thank you, Gina, likewise!
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