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Nashville Scene Passed Down

Father and son R&B vocalists deserve more credit

By Ron Wynn

JUNE 26, 2000:  The father-son team of Eddie and Gerald Levert might be the most unlikely duo in R&B history to enjoy multi-generational success. Neither is the kind of incredibly gifted pure singer who's dominated the genre since the early days of Roy Brown and Wynonie Harris. Nor are they visionary/artistic types like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Prince, or D'Angelo, able to craft extraordinary mergers of studio technology and vocal majesty. It wouldn't be inaccurate to label the Leverts great caretakers who've maintained various black musical traditions since the late '50s and early '60s. But as with some fantastic jazz musicians whose contributions remain undervalued because they're not considered innovators, the Leverts are underappreciated and get little credit for their accomplishments.

Eddie Levert's career began in 1958, with a Canton, Ohio-based ensemble known as The Triumphs. Levert and mates Walter Williams, William Powell, Bobby Massey, and Bill Isles didn't attract much attention in their first incarnation, nor as The Mascots in the early '60s. It was the legendary Cleveland disc jockey Eddie O'Jay who gave them the right formula--and who suggested they give it another shot with yet another identity, renaming them The O'Jays. He also suggested the group give Levert more visibility, contrasting his coarse, dramatic delivery and charismatic onstage personality with those of the more easygoing Williams and deeper-voiced Powell, Massey, and Isles.

The 1963 single "I'll Be Sweeter Tomorrow (Than I Was Today)" signaled the arrival of The O'Jays. The hit also made it clear that Levert, despite his relative vocal shortcomings and less-than-matinee-idol looks, was a rising star. When Philadelphia producer/composers Leon Huff and Kenny Gamble began compiling talent for their own label in the early '70s, The O'Jays were among the first acts they recruited. By then the group was a threesome, sans Isles and Massey, and went on to dominate '70s and '80s R&B. From "Love Train" and "Backstabbers" to "For the Love of Money," "I Love Music," and "Use Ta Be My Girl," The O'Jays excelled with classy, minimally produced, exuberantly performed tunes. While Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes featured a more dazzling, photogenic spotlight vocalist in Teddy Pendergrass, The O'Jays had more of a presence as a group, because Levert never insisted on outshining his mates.

Given the success The O'Jays enjoyed, few people were surprised when Eddie Levert's sons Gerald and Sean announced plans to form a group in the mid-'80s. Though many felt Sean had a better voice than Gerald, the similarities in inflection, tone, and sound between Eddie and Gerald couldn't be missed. When the single "(Pop, Pop, Pop) Goes My Mind" from Levert's first Atlantic LP Bloodline became a number one R&B hit in 1986, history repeated itself: Gerald became the group's dominant figure and de facto executive producer. He deftly walked the fine line between infusing his work with his father's influence and incorporating current sounds and styles. Such Levert CDs as The Big Throwdown, Just Coolin', and Rope a Dope Style nicely interspersed the impassioned exchanges and terse crooning emblematic of vintage O'Jays while offering the raps, samples, and intricate production youthful fans demanded.

Levert had a good run into the late '90s, at which point Gerald began establishing himself as a solo artist. Unlike The O'Jays, who continue to survive as a group despite being out of the limelight, the Levert ensemble couldn't flourish without hits. Ironically, at a time when fresh faces are breaking out all over the R&B circuit, the Leverts are enjoying revived attention thanks to two current releases. Gerald Levert's latest, G, is his best as a lead act. Meanwhile, The O'Jays' 1975 gem Survival has just been reissued as one of the latest discs in Sony/Legacy's indispensable Rhythm & Soul series. Taken together, these discs not only provide a blueprint for soul music and R&B past and present, they reveal the impact Eddie Levert has had on his son's style, even as Gerald has established his own approach.

In some ways, these discs represent changes in R&B studio techniques and methods. Seventies R&B sessions were mainly single-producer affairs, and five of Survival's eight tunes were written by Gamble and Huff, who cowrote two of the remaining three songs with Bunny Sigler. There are so many songwriting collaborations on G that each tune boasts its own list of contributors. Survival has a spontaneity that comes from mainly having been cut live in-studio during the same session. G, on the other hand, was assembled from many parts; while the disc boasts a unified sound, many songs were cut out of sequence, reedited, and compiled. G may outshine Survival technically by miles, but it lacks a sense of vocal togetherness.

Still, there are times on G when Gerald's work recalls the days when his father and Walter Williams were swapping vocal licks. "Misery," on which the vocalist duels with himself via overdubbed backing vocals, or the bombastic "It Hurts Me to Stay," on which he reaches back and moans to escape being eclipsed by the dynamic Kelly Price, both stand up against any vintage soul tune. The CD's big hit, "Mr. So Damn Good," demonstrates Gerald Levert's growth as a ballad singer. On past works, he'd zip through the opening and head straight for the hooks; now he develops key phrases and sustains anticipation throughout the entire song, but without losing intensity. Other fine tracks include "Application," the mournful lament "It Hurts Me to Say," and the more upbeat "Second Time Around"; "Baby U Are" is his best attempt at a Curtis Mayfield-type tribute ballad and light falsetto lead.

When Survival came out in the mid-'70s, The O'Jays were riding so high that it was considered merely a good, rather than great, record. Coming on the heels of transcendent works such as Backstabbers and Ship Ahoy, it was a modicum of efficiency: eight powerhouse tracks carefully split between passionate romance epics and unrelenting anthems. "Give the People What They Want" spelled out demands for social justice in unadorned fashion, while "Rich Get Richer" and the title track were practically political manifestos.

Eddie Levert is among the rare vocalists who can bounce from singing "we want freedom, justice, and equality" to delivering songs like "Let Me Make Love To You" or "Where Did We Go Wrong" without losing any credibility. Gamble and Huff sometimes opted for spare production, placing driving horns and funky bass lines behind Levert and company; other times, they supported the vocals with sweeping strings and magnificent orchestration. Their arrangements never completely erased Levert from the process, instead keeping the musical scales balanced. Like Motown and Stax, the Gamble/Huff combine didn't simply plug their acts into a sound, but rather shaped the music to the singers' strengths.

While offspring like Nona Gaye, Neneh Cherry, and Lalah Hathaway have encountered mixed success following their famous fathers, Gerald Levert thrives as Eddie Levert's reputation and greatness remain intact. Father and son are among R&B's best stories, and worthy of far more attention and notoriety than they've enjoyed.


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