You'd think being part of the local Levert dynasty--the one headed by papa Eddie, leader of the unstoppable O'Jays--Gerald Levert would have had an easy time breaking into the music biz. But ask him about his father's encouragement, and his ties and pulls within the industry, and Gerald Levert shrugs off any sort of nepotism.
"He never really said to do this," Levert explains. "He never pushed me. He basically said, 'I see you're going to try to do this, but I'm not going to give you any special treatment because you're my son. As a matter of fact, you're going to have to work a little harder than the average guy.'
"He was very critical. But I think that's what helped to make me a good writer. He was so critical because he didn't want me to think it was easy. He didn't want me to think it was all fun. When I was young, it was all about riding in the limos and going to the shows. It was fun going to all these different places around the world."
Now that Levert has made it on his own, he can laugh about those old days. But as a struggling writer trying to break into the music business fifteen years ago, Levert was hardly living the high life. But in 1985, at the age of eighteen and with brother Sean and pal Marc Gordon in tow, Levert formed the group under his surname and dented the R&B charts with "I'm Still." A little more than a year later, the trio would have the first of five R&B No. 1 hits, "(Pop, Pop, Pop, Pop) Goes My Mind," and a career was born. The threesome has scored nearly two dozen R&B hits since then, including the 1987 crossover smash "Casanova," one of the '80s' most durable stabs at the classic soul sound on which Levert was raised.
"All I really wanted to do at first was write," the 32-year-old Levert explains. "I wanted to write songs for the O'Jays. After we got our first hit record, people started to compare us to our father. I wanted to get away from that. They were saying, 'He'll never be his dad' and stuff like that. That really bothered me for a while, because I always tried to do something extra, do more, to win over fans. That makes it so much harder; you want people to respect you for your talent.
"Then things started changing, and I started coming into my own. People used to say, 'I like your dad, but you're okay.' Now he has to deal with 'Aren't you Gerald Levert's father?' It's kind of cool now, because I was described as his son for so many years. Now I have my own thing."
His own thing is a solo career spun off in 1991 (following a Top 5 duet with Miki Howard three years earlier) with two R&B No. 1 hits: "Private Line" and "Baby Hold on to Me," a duet with his dad. Levert the group released an album in 1993; Levert the solo artist released his second album a year later. Father and son did an album together in '95. Levert recorded another group album in 1997, and Gerald hooked up with fellow soul-stirrers Keith Sweat and Johnny Gill for the LSG project, which gave him a couple more huge hits to add to his resume. Last year he released his third solo album, Love & Consequences, perhaps his most satisfying outing since his breakthrough more than a decade ago.
"This album is going back to where my roots are, which is my being a fan of '60s and '70s R&B music," Levert says. "That's basically what I grew up on: the O'Jays, Marvin Gaye, Sly Stone, the Isley Brothers. I wanted to interpret that in a way where young people can get into it, too. They only understand the different types of beats that are used today, but you can pretty much win everybody over with the R&B harmonies and melodies."
With shrewd beats and a classic crooning style, Love & Consequences sounds like a splash of retro soul touching down in the shallow waters of today's cookie-cutter R&B scene. New pops and rhythms are sprinkled throughout the work (guests include Lazy Bone and Mary J. Blige), but Levert's bedroom-inviting voice, plus a pace that's deliberate in its slow build, recalls a time when soul music was pretty much just that: music from the soul.
Look no further than Levert's own father's group, the O'Jays. When they busted out of Cleveland in the early '60s, radio had a small place for the generic trio; a decade later, primed by the writing and producing team of Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, the O'Jays were at the top of their game. They're still making commercially prosperous records today. But it's their classic string of early-'70s radio hits--"Back Stabbers," "Love Train," "For the Love of Money"--that defined the decade's greatest soul movement. That's what Levert wanted to achieve with Love & Consequences, and while the results aren't nearly as grand, they're certainly in the same spirit.
So much so, in fact, that Levert copped a bit of his old man's "Back Stabbers" for one of Love & Consequences's tracks, "Point the Finger." "I did it, but I didn't think I was going to have to pay anyone for it," he laughs. "I had to pay for that little part, and I was kind of upset about that. Gamble and Huff have the publishing rights, but I didn't think they would get me for all of it. Greed sometimes takes over in this business, and you have to deal with it."
Levert says his father had no say in the matter and just chalks it up to another one of those industry things that he's more than used to by now. Father and son get along fine these days; Dad has become more encouraging, Levert admits. After a collaboration on his first solo album, Private Line, and a showstopping duet of "Wind Beneath My Wings" at the Essence Awards, son suggested to father the possibility of recording an entire album together. "Everybody thought that was a great idea, so we went and did it," Levert says. The Father & Son album was a hit, bridging generations and opening up yet more future collaborative possibilities for the junior Levert. "It did so well, I guess we'll do another one later."
Spread out among all these recordings is another Gerald Levert, the producer and songwriter who has teamed with Stephanie Mills, James Ingram, Troop, Anita Baker, and Barry White, among others. "I still like to write more than anything," he says. "Producing has gotten too rough for me, because I don't have as much patience as I used to. And I don't like to hear anybody's opinion. I'm like, 'I'm the producer, let me produce it, shut up.' I now see why a lot of artists who used to produce early in their careers don't do it much anymore."
Levert is on tour with Patti LaBelle, working crowds with Love & Consequences's two hit singles, "Thinkin' Bout It" and "Taking Everything," as well as a huge chunk of his ever-expanding catalog. He says he's having fun on this tour with the mother-like LaBelle (he's produced her in the past, and the two have built a friendship), but he admits that the best thing about being on the road with her is that her all-out performances push him and his band to match her night after night. "Everybody loves Patti, and critics love to hate anybody who's on a show with her," he laughs. "So I'm doing this the best I've ever done it." Levert says that the two hopefully will get together on stage for a duet, something that's been planned for a couple shows but has yet to materialize.
"Just watch me" is all Levert (who still calls Cleveland his home; "And I'm not going anywhere," he adds) says of his 1999 plans, but he did say that a new solo album is in the works and will probably be released in August. "I have so many things I can do now in my career," he points out. "I have the LSG project with Keith Sweat and Johnny Gill I can always go back to. If things get rough, I can go back to the father and son thing. There's always something for me to go back to. I think it's great; it makes me have more longevity.
"And it's great just to be able to tour with the people I tour with, like Patti LaBelle, the O'Jays, and Frankie Beverly. Then to be able to go out with Keith Sweat and others from today, I think, is a great accomplishment for me, because I'm right in the middle.
"I'm not too old, I'm not too young," he concludes. "I'm right in the middle. I balance everything off for everybody."
Gerald Levert, opening for Patti LaBelle. 7 p.m. Sunday, February 7, State Theatre, 1519 Euclid Ave., $45.50/$50.50, Advantix 216-241-6000.