Interview with Gerald Levert

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geraldlevert.JPG It's already almost a year ago that Gerald Levert died. For me he was the greatest male soul singer, producer of the ninetees till 2006. In the soul and funk music archive I found an interview from B&S with Gerald from 1994.  In that year he released his album Groove on.

  There are some soul acts that can be relied upon to sell consistently well to their core base. Year after year, album after album, tour after tour, they'll have singles hovering about the charts either on themselves or acts they've produced and they'll, of course, be featured on a regular basis within these pages. Just when it all starts to become fairly predictable, they'll release an album that will explode out of the blocks and show no signs of slowin' up, heading on to that much sought after cross over status. It happened to Luther Vandross in the mid '80's around the time of his "The Night I Fell In Love" and "Give Me The Reason" sets and my bet is it's about to confront Gerald Levert with the release of his second solo offering, the masterful, "Groove On".

After years of consistently strong material with his brother Sean and Marc Gordon as the front person in Levert, Gerald, has, with co-writer Tony Nichols crafted together the type of no messin' R&B collection that's happy to shake a leg to the grooves of '94 but is at it's most contented when wallowing proudly in the R&B tradition of yesteryear. That's not to say it recreates pale imitations of 70's classics. It's created all new classics. You know, the kind of songs, which, if they were recorded twenty years ago would have been committed to the annals of celebrated R&B history. My God, that's a lot of gushing for you, even by B&S' sometimes OTT praiseworthy standards, but believe me in this case it's not unwarranted.

The days of Gerald walking in his father, Eddie's (O'Jays) shadow are of course, long gone. At East West Records Gerald's the golden boy. He's had head honcho Doug Morris personally select his first single, the only cut off the album that he didn't co-write and produce, the very cross-over "I'd Give Anything" and as if that wasn't enough David "The Bodyguard" Foster lent his lavish production prowess to the cause. Gerald describes East West (and now also Elektra ) Ms. Corporate Superwoman, Sylvia Rhone and a "second mother", which may well be news to her, but suffice to say Eddie Levert's son, sure is keeping some lofty acquaintances these days. But what does our man Gerald make of the whole thing? How's he handling it? Pretty darn well I'd say, after an hour talking to him at East West's NY offices. Ysee Gerald is as down home, friendly, down to earth and mid-western as they come. No ego, no trips, just a whole lotta soul.
It must admit sounded funny when describing his determination to create the classic soul sound of the '70's Gerald told me, "Man, I spent $90,000 worth of strings on this album", as if he walked into a shop and said "Excuse me, I'd like $90,000 worth of strings, please", but one listen to the rich production on the likes of "Answering Service", "How Many Times" and "Have Mercy" and you'll see what he means.
"Getting that old authentic Philly International vibe was so important. I mean I had everything in there, including the harp, French horns and the old Fender Rhodes and Moog synthesiser" explained Gerald.
"I think it's something the older and younger audiences can appreciate, but I don't wanna just appeal to the young people
because young people are fickle. I was young once, so were you (speak for yourself Gerald!) and you didn't know if today you wanted to be a fireman only to change your mind and wanna be a lawyer the next. You know, your mind's always changing but when you get older, you get more set in your ways and know what you want. I want to be able to appeal to both."

It was under the guidance of execs Sylvia Rhone and Merlin Bobb that Gerald slanted his album heavily towards ballads.
"Because I realise that people want to hear me sing and you can really do that with a ballad. I really make an effort to put over the emotion and intensity when I deliver a song. I really want people to know that there's a meaning behind what I'm singing, that they're not just a buch of lyrics thrown together. I want them to feel the songs" he stated.

Although media attention hasn't been lavished on Gerald and Tony Nichols writing partnership as say LA & Face's or Jam and Lewis, there's little doubting their prolific abilities. With songs penned recently for Barry White and Drama as well as Teddy Pendergrass (the excellent "Voodoo") not to mention work with protegees the Rude Boys, Men At Large and of course Gerald and Levert's own albums, the G.Levert/T.Nichols team isn't to be taken lightly. Their roles within the partnership are pretty well defined. Gerald writes the lyrics and melodies and Tony lays down the chords.
"I took piano lessons for about a year when I was younger" relayed Gerald, "but my piano teacher was about 80 and she had a ruler (Gerald picks up a drum stick from the desk to illustrate his point) and whenever I'd mess up she'd hit my hands. I got tired of that because I'd never practice the songs she wanted me to. I'd always try and write my own songs. She kept hittin' me, man with that ruler and I couldn't take it! (laughs) .I learned enough to put my ideas down but Tony can take it to the next level. I listen to a lot of old soul music and ideas just come to me."
Gerald explained how their partnership came to be.

"The funny thing is, is that when I first met Tony he was a player in Levert's band and I thought he was a total nerd and I didn't want to be bothered with him. But he had a whole bunch of equipment and we had a midi room in our studio facility so he brought some of his gear in there and he started writing songs with my father. At night I'd come in and put down some ideas and say, "What do you think, man?' even though I didn't really care what he thought because like I said, I thought he was so nerdy! From that, though we built a friendship. We went on to do my first album, "Private Line" which went gold and we just carried on writing together and now we've written songs for Men At Large, The Rude Boys, Drama and I can't forget Teddy Pendergrass and we've got the first single for Barry White (an experience Gerald described as "Knowledge heaven. Being around him was a heartfelt experience We spent days just talking. We talked more than worked!"). Now, obviously it's a really natural relationship. I find it easy to write for other singers, though because I am a singer, so it's easy to convey the idea."
For those who have only witnessed Gerald live during his formative days with Levert, having seen him a couple of times over the last year in concert, his evolution on stage has been considerable.

"I've become more patient on stage. I pace myself and I'm not trying to give them my all at the beginning. I think I know how to reel the audience in now. My father's a legend. I consider myself a consistent artist now. With most black people when you achieve a certain consistency and they see you've put in your time and you've given them the best that you've got over the years, they give you your props and respect, so it's become easier over the years for me.

"When I first started out, I wanted the crowd to go crazy all the time and give me the same response as my father got, which is stupid because he's been at it for 25-30 years. I'm still a youngster in comparison. I think I'm coming into that stage now where people respect me as Gerald Levert and not Eddie Levert's son, the son of an O'Jay. Having said that, my dad has taught me a lot as far as being an entertainer goes. He's from the old school and I've learned from him how to pick my points during a show.

It's like Michael Jackson. He won't do the moonwalk on every song but when he does do it during "Billie Jean" the crowd goes crazy. Now I don't do that, but I'll pick my spot when to drop down on my knees and I'll do it no more afterwards. Some people come out and over sing. I've learned how to build a show up to a climax and take my time."

The one noticeable difference between Gerald and his father onstage, though concerns the way they choose to create a rapport with a crowd. Gerald is all about the songs. He's actually quite conservative when it comes to any sexual antics. His, father however is another story. The proverbial "dirty ol' man" with more hip thrusts than a Chippendale revue and a discourse that's far bluer than the saddest of his love songs. Shouldn't it be the other way round? Doesn't Gerald get embarrassed by a libido that knows no boundaries from a man that's not only old enough to be his father but actually is his father?
"He's older, he can do that!" spluttered Gerald amidst fits of laughter.

But was he always like that, even when he was your age? "No, he was more laid back"
But normally it goes in reverse, when people get older they mellow out.

"My dad is crazy, man! As he's gotten older, with me comin' up behind him, he gets a lot of people sayin' "You better watch out for your son!" It's competition to him. Me and him are competing, man, I can't deny it".

Whilst Gerald almost fell off his chair laughing as we talked about the strange example his dad sets him onstage every night, his expression suddenly changed when I asked him about his dad's influence when he was growing up.

"He was never around" was the sudden, serious response as I obviously hit something of a raw nerve, "My dad was never there. He was basically working all the time. I never really knew him when I was a kid. All I knew was that he was a singer and he was on the road. Sometimes he'd take me on tour with him but then I'd never see him because he was always doing interviews or soundchecks or somethin'. Basically I never got a chance to know him 'til I was 18 or 19. Now I love him.He's a beautiful person. That's my buddy."
Despite his father's absence, Eddie's influence on his son was paramount. The young Gerald would idolise his soul star dad's vocal style and stage moves. "Whenever I got the chance to see him in concert I'd write down all the things I learned from his performance. I used to study old tapes of him performing. I never really got the chance to hang out with him, though or be around the guys at Philly because when they were recording I was at school. Sometimes I'd go over there at the weekends."

Being the son of an O'Jays, though did have it's advantages financially.
"We stayed in Shaker Heights which was like an upper class suburb and all the kids' parents did something and had money, so they weren't impressed by me and what my father did. That was cool because it made me a regular person. Some people tried to use me because I had a little more than others. Cleveland has always been very supportive of me and my music. Now I have my own studio there with a live room and I'm happy living there. In fact my father and myself are gonna do a duet album. It's gonna be the first album we'll cut in the new studio.

"I'm not into the party scene or being in New York or LA. There's too much hype there for me. Cleveland's away from all the B.S. If I lived here, when people saw me it would be no big deal. Now when I come to town they pay an interest. Plus as a person I like to be at home and relaxed, watching the T.V. with my family or playing pinball or somethin'. That's fun to me. Making sure my mom is healthy."
His mom, has over the years, had some strange observations to make on her son's considerable vocal ability.

"She says me and my dad sing like we've got spit in our mouths!" laughed Gerald. "She loves my new album, though and that means a lot to me. I love her dearly and that's from the heart."

The incessant touring and hours put in the studio, has inevitably, as with his father before him, taken its toll on Gerald's personal life.
"I don't have a personal life" stated Gerald flatly. "That's what I'm trying to work on, gettin' my personal thing together. It's been hard because there's always work to do. Now I'm supposed to do a couple of cuts on New Edition who are gettin' back together. Then I got a call from Daryl Hall to do some things on him and you know I loved Hall & Oates. Then I've got a girlfriend sayin' "When can you spend some time with me?" So I'll say, "Okay, I'll take August off'. Now I've been told in August I'm gonna be doing promotion. So I end up sayin', "Well baby, err....!" Then the tour starts in September and again I'm saying, "Err, see baby, err...!" So then I'll end up losin' my girlfriend and I'm back to lookin' for another girlfriend again. It's rough. You just have to find someone that's gonna stick it out with you and that's rare."

Philosophing on the big picture, his overall goal, Gerald said, "I just wanna have a good life. Away from the music and everything, I wanna enjoy life. It just happens that part of that enjoyment is being able to write good songs and find talent and help to make people's dreams come true. I'm not saying that so people will think, "Oh he's a great guy", because I have my faults, too like anyone. I take a great pride in what I'm doing and I want to keep doing quality work, even if it doesn't sell a million records. That's why I like Tony Toni Tone because they went back to the old school regardless of what was popular." It's rare to find an artist of Gerald's magnitude to be quite as humble as Gerald is, but believe me, he is Mr. Humility personified. Asking him if he wanted to add anything at the end of our interview, he stated simply, "I just want to thank you for takin' the time to talk to me. So many times I've been at things like the American Music Awards and Grammies and I'd be backstage at the press conference and they'd announce me and I'd stand infront of the press and they wouldn't have anything to ask me. Silence! Then Elton John walks out and they've got fifty million questions for him, so I always thank people for interviewing me because I know what it's like when I'm not considered interesting enough for some people to ask me questions, so I appreciate you doing this interview". The pleasure's our's, Gerald. (B&S)

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