Twenty years into a career that updated Barry White's heavyweight sex symbol prototype to the increasingly slick r&b sounds of the 80s, 90s, and beyond, Gerald Levert passed away from a heart attack at age forty on November 10th. The cause has yet to be officially tied to his hefty size, but his youthful age and the unexpectedness of his death seem like obvious clues. Given the tumultuous, well-publicized struggles with weight that have plagued and defined the careers of soul singers like Luther Vandross and D'Angelo, body image seems like one of those elements in soul music (like the struggle between sin and salvation) that renders male crooners both iconic and tragic.
Born in Cleveland into Philly soul royalty (the son of O'Jays vocalist Eddie Levert), Gerald released a successful string of light r&b albums for Atlantic in the 80s as part of the group Levert along with brother Sean and singer Marc Gordon. He kickstarted his solo career in 1991 with Private Life, a solid showcase for his churchy, muscular rasp. Vocally less distinctive or subtle than quiet storm king Luther Vandross, Levert nonetheless followed in Vandross' footsteps as an "alternative" sex symbol - minus the glitzy excess. Handsome, well-groomed and unabashedly rotund, Levert physically resembled the sort of down-home Joe you might encounter flipping steaks at a barbecue or cutting your hair at the local barbershop: vernacular appeal was part of his charm.
Though he chased crossover success with pop producer David Foster on ballads like "I'd Swear" and "I'd Give Anything" (and all of his solo albums from 1999 to 2002 charted in the pop top ten), Gerald Levert was a "soul man" down to his marrow. No one can forget his perennial appearances on BET Walk of Fame concerts where his sweat-drenched, stop-drop-and-roll antics during duets with divas like Patti LaBelle spontaneously ignited the audience into frenzy. No doubt he learned these boldly melodramatic stunts from touring with his father at an early age and being musically baptized by icons like James Brown.
Neither a sonic innovator nor a slave to the old school, Levert surfed the wave of r&b's increasing creep toward hip-hop in the 1990s. One of his biggest hits was 1999's outrageous domestic soap opera "Taking Everything," equal parts Timbaland drum 'n bass and R. Kelly melodrama. Levert softened his fondness for sassy confrontation and carnal themes with a heart-on-your-sleeve sensitivity that stemmed from late 60s Motown. (He not surprisingly appeared as a featured performer in the 2002 Funk Brothers documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown.) Part of that sensitivity was wrapped up in his contribution to r&b family values, given his extensive concert and recording work with his brother and father. What's more, Levert's 1997 and 2003 albums with Keith Sweat and Johnny Gill as part of the supergroup LSG featured cameos by Busta Rhymes, L.L. Cool J and Missy Elliott, helping to increase quiet storm's relevance to generations weaned on the decidedly harder sounds of hip-hop.
Levert's showy performance style may have obscured his formidable skills as an arranger, producer, songwriter, session singer and multi-instrumentalist for artists like The O'Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, Stephanie Mills and Patti Labelle. In that sense, he should be considered an r&b stalwart in the same way one might consider a composer-performer-producer like El DeBarge or Brian McKnight.
My favorite Gerald Levert-penned songs?
1994's "Practice What You Preach," a sly, old school shuffle written for and recorded by Gerald's progenitor Barry White. It remains a staple on r&b radio.
2002's "Funny," a neo-soul style gem. Despite strategically placed cameos by artists like Snoop Dogg, the quality of the songwriting on Gerald Levert's old-school throwback The G Spot turns it into a more organic project than many of the other neo-soul albums released around the turn of the millenium.
2000's "Mr. Too Damn Good," a superb romantic ballad that rivals some of the best Babyface writing. Plus, the title is a perfect way to describe Gerald Levert himself.
He'll be missed.