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Music Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13


Oh Brother 2006: Remembering Gerald Levert
By Mark Anthony Neal--SeeingBlack.com Contributing Editor
Nov 27, 2006, 21:04

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The Wind Beneath Him
When Gerald Levert died of cardiac arrest on November 10th, mainstream media was well behind the curve in reporting the story. Instead it was left up to so-called second-tier media outlets like BET.com, BlackAmericaWeb.com and Electronic Urban Report (EUR) to deliver the shocking news to many of Levert’s fans. I imagine that for much of mainstream America, Gerald Levert was simply an “R&B” singer in a world where “R&B” singers rate little interest (unless they are charged with sexually molesting underage girls).

In contrast, seminal New York urban stations such WBLS and WRKS and many others throughout the country devoted hours of programming to Levert’s memory, as part tribute and recognition of the fact that Levert always valued their presence and willingness to support his artistry. In reality, had Levert waited on mainstream recognition of his work, his music might have never been heard. As so many of his younger peers craved mainstream visibility and the celebrity driven surveillance that came with it, Gerald Levert was seemingly content with simply being a “R&B” singer.

Gerald Levert had little choice but to be simply a “R&B” singer. Levert’s father Eddie Levert Sr., a founding member of The O’Jays, is a mythic reminder of an era when the “Soul Man” was the peer to the “Race Man”. Indeed in the mid-1970s when The O’Jays were at there artistic and commercial peak with recordings such as “For the Love of Money”, “Living for the Weekend” and “I Love Music,” one could argue that the voices of Eddie Levert, Sr. and his longtime partner Walter Williams were more relevant in many households across Black America than some of the popular political agitators of the time. This was the context in which a young Gerald Levert was introduced to Soul music and its more corporatized offspring, R&B. Understandably when Gerald Levert and his brother Sean decided to pursue careers in the recording industry, as part of the trio Levert which they formed with Marc Gordon, they did show within the musical conventions of their peers. Tracks like “Casanova”, “(Pop, Pop, Pop, Pop) Goes My Love” and “Just Coolin’” (with Heavy D), were firmly within the New Jack Swing tradition that linked the urbane R&B of the early 1980s, which the sample-based hip-hop inflected R&B of the mid-1990s.

Tellingly when Gerald Levert embarked on a solo-career, he embraced the Soul Man tradition of the past, albeit on the terms of contemporary R&B. What marked the best of Levert’s music was not necessarily innovation—in fact Levert’s stylistic choices were considerably safe and conservative—but his devotion to the work ethic that marked the Rhythm & Blues and Soul traditions of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Gerald Levert simply put in the work: lay down the tracks in the studio, promote the recording by going directly to black radio, tour in support of the recording and a year later, go back in the studio and do it again. What such efforts meant for Levert was nine solo studio albums in a 15-year period (the last of which will be released in early 2007), making Levert one of the most consistent and productive R&B performers of his generation. And while some of Levert’s peers were more celebrated—Keith Sweat, R. Kelly, and Brian McKnight to be specific—Levert defined the possibilities of R&B for his generation by making longevity and not crossover appeal the goal. That Levert did so, by so unabashedly embracing the “shouter and honker” aesthetic that was the hallmark of classic performers like Wilson Pickett, Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, Solomon Burke, and his father Eddie Levert, Sr., gave creative license for the generation of shouters behind him—Calvin Richardson, Urban Mystic, Dave Hollister, Ricky Fante, and of course Anthony Hamilton—to see that aesthetic as a viable commercial option. When Levert released Do I Speak for the World? in late 2004, he had come full circle, recording a project that echoed the very politically minded recordings of The O’Jays.

Gerald Levert took quite literally the notions of generosity that undergirded the Soul tradition of his father’s era. Celebrated record labels like Gamble and Huff’s Philadelphia International Records (PIR), Stax and to a certain extent Motown were, in part, premised on the belief that the music was about giving back to the communities that birthed it. While WattStax, the legendary music festival held in Los Angeles in 1972 and financed by the Stax label, is a more obvious example of such generosity, less obvious is the matter of artists who absolutely believed that they should give their all for the consumers who buy their records and the audiences that support their concerts. For anyone who ever attended a Gerald Levert performance or watched him during his many television appearances, it was always clear that he left everything he had on stage. And that generosity extended to the many tribute shows he performed at, seemingly becoming a regular on BET’s annual Walk of Fame broadcast. It was only a year-ago that Levert was part of a tribute for Lou Rawls, the longtime spokesperson for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), who died shortly after the taping. Levert also found time to write, produce, and contribute backing vocals for other artists like Millie Jackson, James Ingram, Miki Howard (who he was romantically linked to in the late 1980s), The O’Jays, Joe, Yolonda Adams, The Rude Boys (“It Written All Over Your Face”) and most notably Barry White, for which Levert earned a Grammy nomination for co-writing White’s grand comeback recording, “Practice What You Preach” (2004). And of course there was Levert’s two recording with the super-group LSG, comprised of Levert, Keith Sweat, and Johnny Gill.

Even in death Gerald Levert gives his fans and his community one final gift. His musical legacy aside, Levert publicly confronted the weight issues that he struggled with throughout his adulthood, whether it was the good-natured jabs he endured from his friends on the Tom Joyner Morning Show or the irony that he was taping a weight-loss reality show at the time of his death. As we all lift a glass to the artist, son, father, brother, uncle, lover and friend who was Gerald Levert, we should all encourage those around us to see our physicians regularly and to live a healthy life befitting the vibrant spirit that Levert represented.

© Copyright 2006 SeeingBlack.com

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