I heard laughter first - the joyous, familiar, head-thrown-back kind. It sounded like a party in the background, but Gerald Levert was calling me from a rehearsal in his hometown of Cleveland. It was about this time last year, early November. The soul star was prepping for a national tour with his father, the great Eddie Levert of the O'Jays.
In addition to the show, which last year warmed the walls of Constitution Hall in Washington (more on that later), Gerald was promoting his new CD, Do I Speak For the World? The album, his ninth overall, was his only socially conscious set, a break from the sexy, after-dark records he had made for more than a decade as a solo star. Though uneven, Do I Speak For the World? showed promise as Gerald stepped out of his stylish playa persona and lyrically addressed societal ills troubling America.
But unfortunately, the singer, one of the best of his generation, won't get a chance to build on it. He died Friday at his home in Cleveland. An apparent heart attack. The man was only 40.
Gerald's primary audience - the people who flocked to his shows and bought his albums by the truckload - was predominantly middle-class and black. So it didn't shock me that his death received scant coverage in mainstream media. It's a shame, because Gerald was one of the few performers out there who kept the soul flame lit. And it wasn't as if he toiled in obscurity. With the '80s group Levert, as a '90s solo artist and with the all-star trio of LSG that included his buddies Keith Sweat and Johnny Gill, Gerald scored several gold and multiplatinum records. He also wrote and produced hits for others: Barry White, Stephanie Mills, Millie Jackson, the list goes on.
Though his sound was contemporary, sometimes a bit too trend-conscious, the singer's delivery was decidedly churchy, a throwback to the golden days of soul. Every line resonated with feeling. Gerald was every bit the singer his father is - a torrid vocalist capable of tearing a song apart and beautifully putting it back together again. But unlike Eddie, Gerald possessed a silken sensuality. Put that with his round-the-way charm, manly good looks and amazing stamina on stage, and you had perhaps the earthiest R&B loverman since Teddy Pendergrass. At a Gerald Levert show, the sistas would go bananas when he hit the stage. And the singer soaked it all up. "Oh, I always represent," Gerald told me once. "And I will take your woman."
The fellas recognized his game and gave the man his props. With plenty of grit and sly humor in his music and certainly in his shows, Gerald never alienated the men. He sustained a hit-filled career for two decades, adjusting to many changes in R&B with his old-school soul aesthetics intact. However, pop success didn't come too often.
Gerald was born on July 13, 1966. He and his younger brother, Sean, grew up watching their father's star rise in the hit '70s group the O'Jays. The boys had a comfortable childhood in Cleveland as their pops scored a long string of gold and platinum hits, including "Love Train," "Back Stabbers," "Message in the Music" and "Used To Be My Girl." Early on, Gerald was exposed to the inner workings of the music biz. By the time he was 18, the budding singer-songwriter-producer, Sean and childhood friend Marc Gordon formed Levert. When the trio broke out in 1986 with the No. 1 R&B single "Pop, Pop, Pop (Goes My Mind)," many thought it was a new slow jam by the O'Jays. With Gerald's gruff lead vocals echoing his father's style, the group's sound was old and new: Levert bridged classic soul with burgeoning New Jack Swing, and the mix produced the trio's only Top 5 pop smash: 1987's "Casanova."
Other hits - "Addicted to You," "Pull Over," "Just Coolin'" - quickly followed. But Gerald left the fold for a solo career in 1991. Private Line, his debut CD released that year, spawned two No. 1 R&B hits: the title track and "Baby Hold On to Me," a duet with Eddie. In 1995, the two recorded a stirring and often touching album together, the gold-selling Father & Son. But because of scheduling conflicts, 10 years passed before Eddie and Gerald had a chance to tour together.
When we talked last year, the singer seemed very excited to share the stage with his dad. And that enthusiasm burst through every note they sang together at Constitution Hall. There was nothing stagy or sappy about the show. Backed by a dynamite band, father and son matched melismatic vocal runs, danced together, flubbed lyrics and laughed it off. Gerald often threw his arm around Eddie and kissed his cheek. The unabashed affection they shared warmed the place. It was wonderful to see the open, loving exchange between these gifted black men. At one point, tears burned my eyes.
"With a lot of people passing in the business, like Barry White and Rick James, good friends of ours, we wanted to be able to say we did something like this," the artist told me. "[My father and I] could go any time. It sounds morbid, you know. But it's true."
It's so sad Gerald had to leave so soon.