Silky Soulful Eric Nolan of The Ojay's Keeps It Old School with His New Music In My Life & On My Way
Eric Nolan is the 3rd member of the Legendary O’Jays. This talented man definitely has the 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 groomer.
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 Aspen, but I’ve nicknamed him Puppy.
My husband has a Maltese. All bad boys love little cute dogs.
That's true because my husband 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 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. Thank you.
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 scarring 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. People would throw money on the ground when they saw me. 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.
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. Watching him gave me the desire to put together a singing group. So that's 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 returned to school that Monday, they were the most popular kids! All the girls wanted them!
So, I thought, if singing can get me girls, I need to sing! So, I put a singing group together. For me, it wasn't 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 survival tool. I had bills to pay.
“The Deltones” became extremely popular in the Cleveland area. Because we were so popular, people had high expectations of 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." We were the headliners.
Are they still holding it every year? Yes, it's a yearly festival. 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 to attend this massive event.
Because Gerald knew how popular this festival was, they wanted to be a part of this show. 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! 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 at his house quite frequently. They lived in a mansion. While at their home, I witnessed 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 to stay above water. I was struggling in the business. I then moved 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 the cut!
What style of music did the Deltones sing? R&B and soul. Everything we did, even our style, was similar to that of the O'jays. We thought we would be the next O'jays if they fell off. Of course, they did not.
Were you ever concerned that the fans would not accept you as a member of the O'jays because you were so young? That's a great question. I'm going to answer it in two ways.
Ok. 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 was 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. 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 was 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!”
I would get so caught up in the moment that 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!
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 since 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 thoroughly 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 felt 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 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 could become successful in this business if you stay at it.
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.
Did you find learning the dance steps of the O'jays easy, or was it 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 dancing. 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, a member of the Deltones, handled the choreography, and I made sure the music, notes, and show were on point.
If I felt the choreography we were given would not be an appropriate look for our group, I would suggest a different type of dance move to what was initially presented to us. I would change it and say I think we should do this.
We were a classy group, and I wanted to ensure we maintained that image. I didn't think that it was appropriate for us to be grinding or holding our crotches on stage. So, it was things like that, that I changed. I was considered the fix-it man because I would change wrong things and make them right. I wanted to make sure that our group looked clean.
When I became a part of the O'jays, we were taught our dance steps by the world-famous Cholly Atkins. Cholly was the choreographer for all the Motown acts. Everything that came through Motown came to Cholly Atkins.
The Temptations, The Miracles, Diana Ross, all of them! He took on a few acts outside of Motown, and the O'jays were one of them. When I started working with Cholly Atkins, I came right back to the frame of mine of challenging myself to be the absolute best I could be. The guy that came before me, Sandy's Strain, was the ultimate dancer! He was incredible! I still converse with him and watch his tapes because I want to be as good as him.
We would be flown to Las Vegas, settle into our apartments, then rehearse for six hours straight. We would spend six hours per day and six days a week locked away doing nothing but dance steps.
I wanted to be so good that I asked Cholly for VHS tapes to bring back to my apartment so I could practice for another two to three hours after rehearsal. I wanted to be good at what I was doing and understand my next assignment. I knew what I was supposed to do, but Cholly Atkins showed me the correct way to do it.
Again, intimidation didn't set in; what did set in was my competitiveness. I wanted to do well. In fact, I became so good at it that Cholly Atkins told me they usually rehearse for three months, but because I was so good, the rehearsals were shortened to two months and a week.
We gained three weeks of downtime because I learned everything so quickly. Cholly told me that I was the fastest learner and that there was only one person as good as me: Marlon Jackson from the Jackson 5.
Wow, that's awesome! Yes, that's a huge compliment from somebody so amazing as Cholly Atkins! Being competitive and trying to be the best prevented me from being intimidated.
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 that I did not have a solid relationship, and Eddie shared a word of wisdom with me. He said, “you chose this career” he went on to say that this is what I asked for.
Many responsibilities come with being an entertainer. That's why it's important that you find someone who can understand your lifestyle. It's the same as an airplane pilot or trucker 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 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. Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's have chicken, but I go to Kentucky Colonel to get chicken when I want 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 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. In my music; I wanted to create a style similar to Will Downing and Walter Beasley.
Kem and I spoke about an idea I had regarding recording my new album not too long ago at the airport. Many artists have ditched live instrumental recordings since the digital age has taken over, but I wanted to bring back that old-school flavor by recording my album using live instruments. I wanted the band to come into 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 I would do this. After signing with Motown, he recorded an album utilizing live instruments. I would never say he stole the idea from me because I don't know, but I can say that I did talk to him about the idea I had. And that's all I know.
But I will say this; I admire what Kem is doing. It's 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. Thus, I stuck with the idea of incorporating live instruments into my music,
but I made my lyrics just a tad bit edgier and more realistic.