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It started with a numb big toe.

Walter Williams was driving back from an O’Jays gig in Buffalo, N.Y., when he felt the strange sensation. The hit-making R&B group had just gotten new stage outfits, so he figured maybe his new shoes were too tight.

But the numbness soon spread from his toe to his entire foot to his leg, in the middle of an O’Jays tour.

“I probably stopped in every hospital in every city, trying to find out what was going on,” Williams said.

A doctor in Los Angeles determined that Williams had multiple sclerosis. The diagnosis was confirmed at the Cleveland Clinic.

“My family was devastated,” Williams said during an interview last week at a local hotel.

He got the bad news in 1983, just before his 40th birthday. Now, nearly three decades later, this Rock and Roll Hall of Famer from Shaker Heights is talking publicly for the first time about his struggle with MS, the inflammatory autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system. (Williams is a paid spokesman for Biogen Idec, a biotechnology company that manufactures the MS drug Avonex, which he takes.)

“I moped around the house for three or four weeks, really afraid, not knowing what was going to happen to me,” said Williams, 66.

“Then I got pissed. . . . I started exercising, lifting weights to tone up and make my body stronger, trying to eat better.

“I said, ‘OK — if you’re gonna get me, you’re gonna get me fighting back.’ ”

As a boy, Williams sang alongside Eddie Levert at St. Mark Baptist Church in Canton, where Williams’ father was the choir director.

Williams and Levert started the O’Jays in the late 1950s. They recorded for various record companies, although the group didn’t take off until it hooked up with the songwriting-production team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. The duo’s Philadelphia International label released an impressive run of hits by the O’Jays in the ’70s, including the Top 10 singles “Back Stabbers,” “Love Train” and “For the Love of Money.”

ojays.jpgCanton’s O’Jays had a string of Top 10 singles in the 1970s. From left are Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and the late William Powell, who died in 1977. Rounding out the current lineup is Eric Grant.

MS made it exceedingly difficult for Williams to keep up with the group’s demanding tour schedule and intricate onstage choreography, yet he soldiered on.

“We do a lot of turns and spins, stuff like that, and it was a constant effort not to lose my balance,” he said.

When the disease was at its worst, Williams felt numb from the waist down.

“When I touched my legs, it felt like I was touching this,” he said, reaching out to pound on a small table with a stone top.

“It just felt awful. . . . It would come and it would stay a year or two, then it would go away. That was the weirdest thing to me. I always thought it was something I was doing that made it go away, or made it come back. This went on for years. I found out later that I had nothing to do with it — it’s just one of the characteristics of MS.”

Williams began taking Avonex 12 years ago. He credits his weekly shot of the drug for helping to hold the disease at bay.

“Other than the side effects — flu-like symptoms that go away after maybe 10 hours — it’s fine,” he said.

“I’m able to do whatever I want to do. When we’re performing, I can do high-energy as well as Eddie or Eric [Grant] can. I play golf every day, too, when the weather is nice.

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