Gerald Levert and the Black Pop Nobody Knows, but Should
To paraphrase the dead prez: Black pop is way, way bigger than Oprah, or Cosby, or LeBron James. Why, black pop is even bigger than hip-hop.
The black pop music world lost a star November 10. That a sizeable number of people in his hometown didn’t even realize it speaks volumes about the black pop music world, and all of black pop, for that matter.
The star is Gerald Levert, who succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 40. He comes from R&B royalty: his father is Eddie Levert, lead singer of the O’Jays. That band’s roots trace back to the late ‘50s in Canton, Ohio, a short drive south of Cleveland. They went through various personnel and name changes until they took a name after legendary black radio jock, Eddie O’Jay. In the late ‘60s, the band, now a trio, hooked up with Philadelphia songwriter-producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, and the rest is music history. The O’Jays became the cornerstone of the Philadelphia International juggernaut, with hits like "Love Train", "For the Love of Money", and "Family Reunion". Yet while they repped “The Sound of Philadelphia” to the world at large, on the shores of Lake Erie they were, and still are, “Cleveland’s own. O’Jays.” The connection hasn’t wavered a smidgen over the years, extending throughout Gerald’s all-too-brief life, as well.
Granted, he wasn’t as prominent a fixture in the pop galaxy as, say, Luther Vandross or Barry White, and his life had none of the tabloid baggage of an R. Kelly, so his name might not have been at the forefront of a casual pop consumer’s knowledge. But Levert was a big enough star that his death made the local news in Chicago, where I gasped in shock upon seeing the report, and was duly reported across the country.
Needless to say, it was front-page news in Cleveland, where Levert lived throughout his entire life, even during his hit-making years. This is somewhat unusual for Cleveland, my beloved hometown; Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony spent as much time in Cali as in Ohio at the height of their run, same for Joe Walsh once his solo career got rolling after the James Gang. But for every Trent Reznor who passed through town on the way to somewhere else (before he grew his Nine Inch Nails, he was a studio rat who actually engineered some Levert-related recording sessions), there’s a Michael Stanley who tasted some of the limelight yet did quite well by staying put, or a David Thomas and most of his past and present Pere Ubu collaborators. Cleveland is fiercely loyal to its hometown heroes, especially in music -- not for nothing is it the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame & Museum. It’s especially loyal to the ones who put up with the crappy winters.
But the funny thing is that such loyalty didn’t translate to at least some of the readers of the daily Plain Dealer. Levert’s death, reactions from across the industry, and overflowing funeral attendance was fully and prominently reported, as well it should have been, given his stature as a performer and his family’s roots in the community. But Plain Dealer ombudsman Ted Diadiun was surprised by the extent of puzzled, if not downright hostile, reaction to how the story was treated.
From his November 26 column, we cut to the chase:
"I don't know that I've ever seen a greater disconnect between two major segments of our audience than in the wake of this newspaper's coverage of Levert and his legacy…It is always dangerous to generalize about race, but it is impossible not to note the reaction separated along racial lines: Black readers were complimentary and grateful that the paper acknowledged Levert's passing with such sensitive and vigorous coverage. White readers were puzzled -- some even stunned -- at the fuss over somebody many of them had never heard of."
Diadiun went on to recount the readers who were so clueless about Levert that they pronounced his name LEvert, not the correct LeVERT. He also owned up to his own ignorance about the man and his music, and praised the work of pop music critic John Soeder and features reporter Margaret Bernstein for doing justice to the story (full disclosure: I once freelanced for the Plain Dealer, writing music features and reviews).
So why, then, was there such a disconnect? I’ll chalk a lot of it up to racism, especially in a city which, sadly, is home to all manner of black-white schisms (longtime black residents have never left the East Side to see how longtime white residents of the West Side might live, and vice versa). And some of that disconnect goes to musical tastes. Thomas, and also the Raspberries ("Go All the Way", 1972), are important figures in the rock continuum from Cleveland, and most black folks in Cleveland have no idea who they are, I’d wager.
And there’s a third piece to consider too: Levert is exactly the type of black pop star most white people have never heard of. He never crossed over.
Sure, Eddie is a worldwide star, and Gerald had a lot of success. But he sang mostly mid-tempo R&B ballads in an era when hip-hop was getting all the headlines and seemed to be the only black music young white fans were interested in, or at least heard on radio and MTV. Levert’s heyday happened in the wake of a massive change in pop radio formats. Whereas Barry White could be heard alongside the Bay City Rollers or Fleetwood Mac on all-the-hits radio in the '70s, the rise (and fall) of disco helped trigger an end to such playlists. Unless they sold records by the truckload to white audiences, black artists stopped getting airplay anywhere besides black radio. It was huge news when in 1983 MTV finally decided to play a black performer’s video, and they did so primarily because there loomed the real possibility of no further free product from Columbia, Michael Jackson’s label, if they didn’t break down and screen "Billie Jean". Prince was the next artist to break MTV’s color line with "Little Red Corvette" (1983), but after that there weren’t many more, at least not in their main rotation.
When pop radio rediscovered black music half a decade later, it latched onto the big beats of Run-DMC, the Fresh Prince’s warm-hearted yarns, and other easily-digestible examples of early rap. By that time, rap was well on its way to becoming the new sound of young America, or at least young black America and those who found it intriguing, exotic or otherwise cool. But black grown-ups hated rap (many still do, and probably always will), and preferred the softer R&B sounds of the Luther Vandrosses and Patti LaBelles of the world. So while Snoop Dogg and Mary J. Blige were becoming household names, and Redman and Method Man made commercials, and Funkmaster Flex started tricking out cars, and rappers started winning Academy Awards, a parallel universe kept right on going, oblivious to any and all of hip-hop’s style and brashness and proud of it, thank you very much. This world didn’t rack up the sales numbers of a Jay-Z but had a reliable following, put on a good show, and may not have been written up on the society pages like Diddy but managed to stay out of the police blotters, which was crucially important to the fans who supported it. This was the corner of the black pop pantheon Gerald Levert called home at the time of his death, the corner fueled by a virtually all-black audience. And it’s a corner bigger and richer than many might possibly imagine.
And so it goes: black audiences make movies like Barbershop (2002) enormously profitable, enough to cross over eventually, and white movie execs scratch their heads to figure out just how this happened without their direct involvement. Black audiences support Tavis Smiley on the air and in print years before he gets Wal-Mart underwriting to do a show on PBS. There are probably more black people casually aware of Rick Warren and The Purpose-Driven Life (Zondervan, 2002), than there are white people familiar with T.D. Jakes and his empire of books, broadcasts and stage plays; at least there were before Time blessed the Dallas-based mega-preacher -- make that "the next Billy Graham" -- with a cover story in 2001.
So to all those who think that hip-hop is the alpha and omega of black pop, that it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that bling, that African America takes its cultural cues from rappers and their various projects, hustles and imbroglios, hold onto this image: thousands of black folks in a city paying tribute to a contemporary black performer half the white folks who lived there never knew existed, a performer who wasn’t much about hip-hop at all but had the love and respect of the entire music industry. It may be slightly ironic to quote agit-rappers dead prez right about now, but it fits: Black pop is way, way bigger than Oprah, or Cosby, or LeBron James (to keep the Cleveland theme going) or any of the slices that make their way into the mass cultural mainstream. Why, black pop is even bigger than hip-hop.
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In '60 he settled in Cleveland, put down roots, and spent the rest of his life recording for labels local and global, touring now and then, and becoming the tentpole of the local blues community. His fluid, single-string style, which many considered closer to jazz than blues per se, made him a one-of-a-kind stylist. He led his band in a weekly gig right up until two days before he suffered the stroke that would eventually claim him. I don’t know if anyone ever captured his life story for posterity, but if not, his music will surely live on.