NOTE: TV One made last minute changes to the air schedule, and Gerald Levert will now air on Monday, August 20. The next new episode of Unsung, Arrested Development, will air Monday, August 13.
Crowned by fans as “the last soul singer,” Gerald Levert was one of the preeminent forces of ’80s and ’90s R&B. He took his pedigree from his father, Eddie Levert, of The O’Jays, and while still a teenager, formed his own singing group, LeVert, with Marc Gordon and his younger brother, Sean. LeVert dominated the charts. Thanks to infectious hits like “Casanova” and “(Pop Pop Pop Pop ) Goes My Mind,” LeVert scored four straight gold records and five chart-topping singles. From there, Gerald launched a formidable solo career, including a duet with his father, “Baby Hold on to Me,” which also hit number one. But Gerald could never find contentment in his many achievements, and remained driven to top himself throughout his career — a journey which ended tragically with his untimely death in 2006 at the age of 40.
Gerald Levert’s life and career will be chronicled in the next epsidode of TV One’s “Unsung,” airing Monday at 9 p.m. and repeating at midnight.
“He was on a quest to be all that he could be,” explained Eddie Levert of his late son. “The media and the business weren’t giving him the hoopla that they gave the Babyfaces and the other great writers and performers that came into the business. He didn’t feel like he was getting the same recognition and so he kept working harder and harder. He was a workaholic.”
Following the disclosure of Levert's cause of death, a family spokesman stated that all the drugs found in Levert's bloodstream were prescribed to the singer because of chronic pain from a lingering shoulder problem and surgery in 2005 to repair a severed Achilles tendon.
“He’s the one son — and I love all my sons, that goes without saying, and they took on characteristics of mine, and I see it every day, and I have to acknowledge, even with some of the messed-up things they do — he not only took on the mannerisms, he also took on the quest. The quest was to better our family life and our family’s position so that we could have a better life. That’s why I got in show business. And he took on that whole quest, and me — without knowing it — I put that on him. I use to apologize to him for making him like that because this is all I talked about to him…he took on that fight, and in taking on that fight, it made him very vulnerable. I used to have to tell him to save some for himself and not give it all to show business, but he gave it all, and kept none for himself. I think that, in rationalizing, part of why he suffered an early death is he took on the burden and he didn’t know how to save some for Gerald.”
Shortly before his death, Levert completed work on what would be his final album, “In My Songs.” In June 2007, a book Gerald was working to complete entitled, “I Got Your Back: A Father and Son Keep it Real About Love, Fatherhood, Family, and Friendship,” was released. The book was initially planned as a tie-in for a Levert album of the same name. “I Got Your Back” explores Gerald and Eddie’s father/son relationship, the necessity of male bonding, and importance of repairing fractured families. In 2008, the senior Levert suffered another loss when his son, Sean Levert died, at age 39.
“Out of all the things that I have done in show business, some of my greatest moments were with that kid on stage because everything didn’t have to be rehearsed,” recalled Eddie of their on-stage collaborations. “We were so spontaneous. We would have a mapped out show, but at any moment that would turn into something else, you know, it would turn into a revival. We were able to, on the spot, adjust to that. And that was the kind of artist he was. I could sing with this kid all day because there were no boundaries. You know, with a lot of people, you have to spell things out for them to perform. With him and me, we lived in the moment, and whatever comes, that’s what we’re going to do and God put his hand on it and it comes out great.”
And then the father pauses, and in a reflective voice says: “You know, I really miss him. And I really miss him from that standpoint because I got so much courage and some of my greatest moments were with this kid.”
Eddie, now 70, still performs regularly with mighty O’Jays (and will be in Philadelphia on July 27 at The Mann Music Center). The father laughed and noted that his son still informs his performances. “Every day, when I think about Gerald, I go ‘Look what you’ve done to me!’ the reason why I say that is because he stole all of my moves — he got it all from me and y’all try to play me like he didn’t — and now he’s not around, and now I got to act like I still got it.”
Despite a deep sense of loss, Levert says his faith gives him the strength to remember the good times. “I think it’s my love for God, and believing that God doesn’t put something on you that you cannot handle. I truly believe that, because you never get over it. At any point or on any day it can sneak up on you, and there you are blubbering in the car, in the bathroom. There you are using the toilet and then you’re crying. It’s like something that you never get used to, but you live with it. The one solace that I have with it is that he knew that I loved him, and I knew that he loved me. I had one of the most ‘wonderfullest’ times with that kid — I’ve had some of the greatest moments of my career with that kid and I look forward to seeing him again — and telling him off.”
One of the defining voices of the Golden Age of R&B is the O’Jays’ Eddie Levert and the iconic soul singer recently released “Eddie Levert: I Still Have It,” his first solo album in a career that spans more than 50 years.
Since 1958, Levert has partnered with Walter Williams on such R&B classics as “Backstabbers,” “You’ve Got Your Hooks in Me,” “Use Ta Be My Girl,” “Love Train,” “Family Reunion” and “For the Love of Money,” and the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2005.
I recently had an extended conversation with the jovial and accessible soul singer, and in discussing his new collection now available in stores and on ITunes, Levert was surprisingly open and candid about the sudden and painful loss his loveable and extraordinarily talented sons Sean and Gerald.
“This has almost been six years in the [making], because during the process I lost my two boys, which sort of threw me back. Trying to get past that, and then trying to complete the album, it took me almost six years,” he said.
With his legacy in the annals of popular music assured, why even take on a solo project? “I’m going to go back a little before Gerald and them started their ‘Levert’ group,” said Eddie, who obviously passed his sense of humor on to his beloved sons, along with this musical talent.
“I was really going to start a group back then. I wanted to do some things outside of the O’Jays — not leaving the O’Jays, but just trying to be well-rounded in the business — trying to make sure I don’t get stagnant. I always felt like I wanted to keep evolving, so I told Gerald, ‘Look. Your dad’s going to put together a band, and I’m going to record them, and I’m going to call it ‘Levert.’ The next thing I know, he got together with his brother and Marc Gordon, and they started a group, and they called the group ‘Levert,’ and I told him, ‘You stole my idea!’ I had to forget about that, and after they became so successful at it, I said, ‘Well, it wasn’t a bad idea. It worked for them.’ But he’s still a thief!”
Levert ultimately returned his focus to his own career, with the 12-track “I Still Have It,” which he refers to as his “metamorphosis,” being the result.
“Finally I got with some guys, and I had all of these ideas for songs going around in my head,” he recalled. “The business has changed so much since the time I got in the business. There’s no major deals given out by record companies, so if you don’t go and do it yourself, or pay the money for it yourself and then try to get some kind of distribution out there, your chances of getting a deal now are very slim, especially being in my age group. They’re constantly looking for younger and more valuable — more sellable images.”
The first single from the album, titled “The Last Man Standing,” is an inspirational anthem written by Levert. “After my boys died, and I think from talking to other parents who have lost their children — the first thing you do is blame yourself, then all of a sudden you say to yourself, ‘Why wasn’t I there? Why couldn’t I have been there? If I had been there, I could have saved him! I could have done something!’” he said.
“And then you finally get to a place where you realize that you couldn’t have done anything, because it was out of your hands. And then you go through this thing where you want to save everybody. You want to save everybody in your family, so you get overprotective over everybody — your grandkids, your nieces, your nephews, the next door neighbor’s kids — you get overprotective, and so you’re always preaching to them. So everybody gets to the place that when they see you coming... ‘Aw, here comes Eddie! Let’s hide! He’s gonna start preachin’!’ You overreact and you start alienating people. Then you get out of that dark place, and you say, ‘Well, it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be,’ and then you finally get to a place where you put it in God’s hands.
“Then you take a look at the man in the mirror,” Levert said resolutely. “And when you start looking at the man in the mirror, you come up with a song like ‘The Last Man Standing,’ because you go to looking at yourself and you say things like, ‘Low, I’ve been low, with stuff in space with no place to go.’ Cause you’ve done so many things that was frivolous. So now you have to go about changing you in order to change everybody else around you. And they have to see that change. You have to make that change and make it visible for everyone to see that you’ve made that change. And that’s how ‘Last Man Standing’ came about.”
“Eddie Levert: I Still Have It,” also features the Levert compositions “Get Over It” and “All About Me and You.”
Many of Levert’s fans have wondered allowed how the iconic entertainer has managed to survive and thrive in the aftermath of such unspeakable tragedy, and he answers that question with the same heartfelt conviction that pours into every song.
“Because I have other people depending on me,” Levert said. “I have my daughters, I have my grandkids and my nieces and nephews that needed someone to be in their lives. At that time, my grandkids were really in a way, because that was their fathers, and they didn’t have no more of that man image, so I had to pick up the slack. I had to sort of be all of that to them, and I really enjoyed it, because I got closer to them. I got to be part of their lives, and I got to be part of molding them into the people they are now. They’re in college, they’ve got jobs. I’ve still got a few knuckleheads, but they’re less knuckleheads than there is the positive. I’ve got more positive out of all of them than I did the negative.”
Levert is happy to be able to spend more quality time with his family now than when his own children were young, and he was constantly recording and on the road with the O’Jays. “That’s what I’m saying about ‘The Last Man Standing,’” he explained. “I had to transform myself and be that person, and be around for them. I had to become a more ‘hands-on’ person with my family, which I think has done well for me. It really helped me a lot, because to be loved is really a great thing.”
Excited that his solo project has finally come to fruition and available to the public, Philly’s happy-go-lucky adopted son had parting words for his Philly fans saying, “I’d like them to know one thing — that it’s pretty damn good, if they listen to it!”
The 2012 Essence of Entertainment series at the Dell Music Center continues Thursday with an evening of sophisticated soul featuring Tizer, beloved balladeer Will Downing, and the gospel-inspired vocals of Kelly Price.
An accomplished singer, songwriter and producer, Kelly Price, a Queens, N.Y., native who has collaborated with such high-profile artists as Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, George Michael, Mary J. Blige, Brian McKnight, R. Kelly, Wynona Judd, Gerald Levert, and most notably, the incomparable Ronald "Mr. Big" Isley, recently talked about the ups and downs of a rewarding career, as well as her last bittersweet moments with the late Whitney Houston.
Kimberly C. Roberts: You're coming here to the Dell Music Center next Thursday with Tizer and Will Downing. How long has it been since you last performed in Philly?
Kelly Price: Actually, it hasn't been that long. I was there in September of last year with Kem. It was an amazing crowd, but I always like to come to Philadelphia. Philadelphia is probably as close to home as I can get without actually being there. The crowd is pretty much the same as the at-home crowd, so it's always really comfortable performing in Philadelphia, because it feels like home.
K.C.R.: You're a very talented writer and producer, but I think you really broke through when you started working with Ronald Isley. What did you learn, and what was that experience like - working with such a legendary artist?
K.P. - Honestly, the difference in working with Ronald than all of the other artists I had worked with - I don't know if it was because he was older, if it was because he was already legendary, but when I first came out, everybody said, 'Oh! That's Kelly Price's godfather!' He was really kind of that for me, even though I didn't know him from a child. He pushed me into believing that I could do for myself what I'd done for other people, and I'd had Top Ten hits as a writer for some of the biggest name artists at the time - during the 90s. But the industry has a way of making you feel like - particularly when it comes to imaging, and that was a big deal when I first came out - if you don't look a certain way, then it doesn't matter how talented you are. We had the conversation. He told me, 'I don't care if you weighed 2,000 pounds and you were blue, if you do for yourself what you have done for other people, you will skyrocket.' It was those kinds of conversations that we had that really, really pushed me to believe that Kelly Price as an artist was possible.
K.C.R. - Are you working on any new music right now?
K.P. - I'm always working on music, and it sounds cliche', but I am always working on something. I'm always writing something. This probably sounds weird. I was in bible study with my ipad last night, and a song came to me, so I'm trying not to look like I'm on my ipad Googling while the pastor is teaching the class, but I was writing a song! I'm always writing! I'm in and out of the studio, and developing ideas and concepts. The last thing that I had that came out just strictly on the writing tip is a song that I have on Bonnie Raitt's new project, but then the next collaboration that I have as an artist coming out is with Fantasia and Faith Evans, on the "R&B Divas" soundtrack to the television show. So that will be out in October.
K.C.R. - We all saw that bittersweet moment when you and Whitney were singing onstage that night, which turned out to be her very last appearance. What was that moment like for you?
K.P. - In the moment, elated, excited, happy to have her there with me. The whole talk leading up to that night was, 'I'm going to be there! I want to be there for you!' And even earlier that night, before I came to the stage to start the party and begin the show, she just looked me and told me, 'I'm so proud of you and I love you so much!' I wasn't expecting her to take the stage with me. I wouldn't have even asked her to. It just meant a lot that she would show up, because she didn't do a lot of that anyway. If she went, it was because she really either needed to be there because it was work, or she wanted to be there because she cared, and she wanted the person to know that she was there and supported them. That wasn't work for her that night. She came because she wanted to support a friend. I wasn't singing. I was talking and thanking her for being there, and thanking her for being a friend, and always being very honest with me, and caring about me as a person. That was the basis of our relationship. She cared about me, the person, outside of the industry, and she decided that she wanted to come to the stage and sing a little bit. In retrospect and in hindsight, I look at it, and for me, it was a gift. I feel like I had the opportunity to share that moment with her, and could have never known that it would have been her last moment. None of us would have known. But I feel like God gave me a great, great gift, and that I was able to share that. And then, how more appropriate than to share that moment, and sing about God's love? I was very, very grateful.
The Dell is at 33rd Street and Ridge Avenue. For tickets and information, call the box office at (215) 685-9560 or visit www.mydelleast.com.
Some truly amazing R&B acts will join together Friday July 27 on the stage at the Mann for an unforgettable night filled with legend and soul, including the iconic Patti LaBelle, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, Tank, and the truly American musical treasures, The O’Jays.
Having secured their rightful place in music history with 24 Top Ten smashes and 59 total charted songs, The O’Jays have received many honors and awards over the years, including their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
There may have been others who helped them to the top, but Eddie Levert, one of the group’s founders, thinks the thanks should all go to themselves for having providing super smooth music, which led to them now being labeled a “Living Legend.”
Levert says, “Even after more than 50 years in the business, The O’Jays continue to draw in audiences. And that’s because we take great pride in what we do and try to give our all each and every time we perform.”
The original vocal group form Canton, Ohio originated with Levert Sr., Walter Williams Sr., William Powell, Bobby Massey and Bill Isles, and they were named after Cleveland DJ Eddie O’Jay. Today, Levert and Williams are the only originals still performing.
“We were originally called the Triumphs then the Mascots and finally the O’Jays when we released a record that required a new name,” Levert remembers. “We decided to use Eddie’s last name and later change it to something we liked better. But it stuck. And so here we are today.”
For Levert, although he sang most of his life, he still considers himself “very lucky to be where I am today. I had a gift for song and a third-grade teacher who made us sing from the diaphragm. She’d stand up in front of us and poke us in the stomach just to make sure we were doing exactly what she told us to do.”
Levert wisely followed orders and has found a lifetime of success along with the others, producing such timeless hits as “Love Train,” “I Love Music,” and many, many more. Their song “For the Love of Money” became the theme song to Donald Trump’s hit reality TV show “The Apprentice.”
The O’Jays have proven time and time again that the mixture of “ol’ school” and contemporary is a winning formula which always reflects their uncompromising stance on love and relationships — such as the one between Levert and Williams.
Because of their lifelong relationship, there’s a bond that keeps them in good stead and strengthens their business relationship, admitting, however, that they had to grow on each other because, Levert insists, they were like two wild bulls when they first became friends.
“We’ve been friends since he was six and I was seven,” says Levert. “And do we wrestle with ego problems? Are you crazy? Of course we do. It never stops. But one key thing we are able to keep in mind is that this is a business and this is what we do, so we can’t let personal problems disrupt what we do. This business is how we pay the rent and feed our families. So we can always get past all the personal and ego stuff that might get in the way.”
In addition to their music, The O’Jays embarked on acting careers and writing books — and, of course, producing great music and winning more awards.
“We’re touring right now, and then we’ll go in the studio to record some new O’Jays material,” Levert explains. “We have lots of plans and lots of things to do. But even after all these years, the best thing we have going for us are our fans and their response to our music even now, even after all these years. All our music has stood the test of time and seems very much in tune with what’s going on today. But most of all, we love the way people respond to it all.”
For times and ticket information, call (215) 893-1999.
Philadelphia’s Overbrook section is home to a place where art comes alive on the canvas.
As an artist and the owner of Philadelphia Framing and Fine Art, LaReine Nixon views her work as way to share stories with others.
“The writer writes the story and the painter tells the story. What I like is being able to have a story that I want to tell. I’m able to, in a visual way, take some sources and put it all together on a canvas and say something that has some significance. I can paint something that will make you think,” says the 54-year-old artist.
The gallery, located at 61st and Lancaster Avenue, houses Nixon’s vibrant, signature pastels in addition to paintings and sculptures by other artists.
When customers come into the gallery to browse, Nixon encourages them to purchase a piece of art that elicits a response.
“It’s the piece that you’re affected by, tugs at your heartstrings, reminds you of something, makes you feel something — that’s what you ought to buy,” she advises.
Throughout her seven years as an artist, Nixon has painted about 300 pieces and a dozen book covers.
Nixon’s favorite piece is her first published work titled, “Not for Sale.” The painting depicts a little Black girl with blond locks and bright blue eyes who is peering out from behind of the American flag. To the girl’s right is a replica of a poster advertising slaves slated to be sold. The piece is one of Nixon’s top sellers.
“The most challenging (thing) is having people understand what art is — and that it’s not decoration. It’s not an accessory like pillows and drapes. It’s consciousness. It’s history. It’s culture,” Nixon says of art.
“Whoever is telling the story through visual arts, it’s usually going to reflect the history and culture and consciousness of that person.”
During her 20 years in the art world, Nixon endured challenges as she moved her business to various locations throughout West Philadelphia.
Nixon’s foray into the art business came in 1992 after she was laid off from her job as a fundraiser for New Jersey-based nonprofit agency. With the assistance of a friend who owned a framing shop, Nixon quickly learned framing techniques. Armed with an inventory of framed prints, Nixon became an outdoor art vendor on the 52nd Street corridor.
“I averaged about $800–$900 a week selling art on a corridor where sneakers were the order of the day, but because people were exposed to the art, they bought it,” says Nixon.
Two years later, she relocated to empty lot at 49th and Market and ended up turning the site into an open-air fine art gallery.
After two years of solid sales, the 49th Street Art Gallery and Custom Framing was impacted by SEPTA’s reconstruction project of the Market-Frankford Elevated Line.
When the 10-year construction project caused the intersection near Nixon’s location to be closed off, customers couldn’t get to the gallery and sales dwindled. Nixon was in for a struggle that would leave her business on life support.
“It was just sheer determination and the will to stay put and to stay in business. I do not know how I managed. I know that for eight years it was a nightmare,” recalled the West Philadelphia native.
When things had gotten to the point where Nixon could not afford to restock her inventory, she opted to produce and sell her own work. In 2005, the self-taught artist started doing oil paintings and then switched to pastels.
“Literally, if I had not started to produce work, I would have been out of business,” she admitted.
Nixon’s efforts paid off, and she became a noted portrait artist. In 2007, she was featured in Jet magazine as the “Portrait to the Stars” after her pastel of R&B singer Gerald Levert took center stage during his memorial service.
Now Nixon is preparing to launch her newest venture — Khalil’s Place, a new restaurant named in memory of her 6-year-old foster grandson, Khalil Wimes. Wimes died in March of malnutrition and abuse.
Slated to open this summer at 43rd and Ludlow streets, Khalil’s Place will offer a healthier take on traditional breakfast and lunch offerings. Nixon looks forward to serving up what she bills as the best breakfast and lunch in Philly.
“That’s not just an advertising or marketing ploy. I really care about the food and the food supply. We’re not just opening up a restaurant to sell food to people,” Nixon added.