Music

Gerald Levert: Do I Speak for the World

Mark Anthony Neal

A bold (and blatantly commercial) attempt to bring purpose to R&B -- and to bring soul music back to the world.


Gerald Levert

Do I Speak for the World

Label: Atlantic
US Release Date: 2004-11-30
UK Release Date: 2004-11-29
Amazon
iTunes

On February 1, 1960, four young men -- black students at HBCU North Carolina A&T -- sat-in at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in an effort to challenge segregation practices in the South. Their brave efforts became the stimulus for a full-blown youth movement that helped bring vitality and swagger to the Civil Rights Movement. Even as -- in various locales across the South -- members of the burgeoning Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were staring down police offers, racist protesters, and the Civil Rights old-guard, there was another revolution occurring in popular music. That revolution -- soul music -- would become the soundtrack to the most important twentieth-century social movement in the United States. Indeed, it was an era when the "Soul Man" -- the secular and gendered compatriot of the "Race Man" -- became the "voice" of that movement. Do I Speak for the World? is an apt query for the "Soul Man," and this is what is so compelling about Gerald Levert's latest release: it is a bold (and blatantly commercial) attempt to bring soul music back to the world.

Do I Speak for The World? is Gerald Levert's eighth solo recording. While that might not make him the "greatest Soul singer of his generation," as Cornel West suggests on the second track, he is by far the most consistent. He is also, arguably, the most cautious. It has been clear for some time that Levert has hit his creative plateau, relying on the "grits and gravy" formula that works for his core audience. That said, he is to be commended for remaining so commercially viable with a decidedly "throw-back" style, a style that has only recently made a comeback through artists like Anthony Hamilton, Calvin Richardson, Ricky Fante and Urban Mystique. Indeed, after being in the game for nearly two decades, including his days as lead vocalist for the group Levert, Gerald Levert may have legitimate competition for the first time in his career. Do I Speak for World?, a disc that explicitly courts the controversies of the day, is an obvious attempt to distance himself from both the competition and the mundane themes that have come to dominate contemporary R&B. Radio personality Tom Joyner is fond of talking about "partying with a purpose"; Do I Speak for the World? is Levert's attempt to "R&B" ('rhythm and bullshit' to some) "with a purpose."

Do I Speak for the World? also marks Levert's return to the Atlantic label, after the collapse of Elektra, which had been his home for 13 years. Atlantic wasn't thrilled with Levert's desire to make a recording like Marvin Gaye's What's Going On?; as a result, the recording doesn't quite represent the fullness of his vision. Atlantic's desires won out, explaining, for instance, the rather tepid choice of "One Million Times" as the lead single.

To his credit, Levert sees "politics" not simply in terms of the kinds of issues that marked the debates during the past election season. As he told Bet.com, "As you come of age, you realize the things that are important. You realize about your health... These things make you think about the whole concept of the world. It becomes deeper than how much money you've got, how many cars, women, whatever. That's what this album is about." Levert's comments reflect a worldview in which interpersonal relationships and the drama of the "everyday" are an extension of the political, as was the case when soul and R&B were more socially meaningful. Thus a song like the formulaic ballad "So What (If You Got a Baby)" becomes an interesting discussion of blended families and black men embracing the concept of "other-fathering", whereby it don't matter if the child is yours. Black women, of course, have been "other-mothering" for more than a century.

The more explicit political tracks on Do I Speak for the World? are found in the opening suite. The introductory track is indebted to Gaye - the resonances of "What's Going On?" and "Soon I'll Be Loving You" are obvious -- but as it segues into the title track, it is also clear that Levert is not driven by nostalgia. When he starts jumping up and down in the pulpit (figuratively, though likely literally, given his performance style), he taps into that ghetto theodicy that my man Michael Eric Dyson so lucidly describes in his book on Tupac Shakur. Akin to Kanye's notion that "Jesus Walks" even for the "hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers [and] the scrippers", Levert's "Soul Man" moralist is an equal opportunity provider: "Do I speak for the grandmas and grandpas / Do I speak for the fatherless babies / Do I speak for the priests / Do I speak for the profit takers / Do I speak for those fighting for me in Iraq / Do I speak for the President / Do I speak, do I speak..."

If the "Race Man" and the "Soul Man" were charged with speaking for the subaltern masses -- via the vernacular styles of those very subalterns -- there was obviously going to be a fair amount of self-martyrdom. Do I Speak for the World? is not beyond such fetishes: in "Crucify Me" Levert sings "Just crucify me / Go ahead and just beat me down / I'm still delivering a new sound". Sandwiched between the title track and "Crucify Me" is an appearance by media personality Tavis Smiley and public intellectual Cornel West. The appearance by the duo gives Levert's political move some credibility -- surely Smiley and West are two of the most bankable bourgeois activists on the scene today (the jury is still out on whether they are truly in the tradition of celebrity Gramscians).

While Do I Speak for the World? owes a great deal to the "Soul Man" tradition, it is equally influenced by cultural nationalist commercialism that marked the music of Philadelphia International Records (PIR) during Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff's heyday in the mid-1970s. Levert has often suggested that the main thing to have separated him from his father (Eddie Levert) and The O'Jays was that the elder Levert was into a "political thing." The early criticism of Gerald was that he was "Eddie lite", but now that he has spent a career establishing some distance from his father's legacy, it is both safe and legitimate for him to lay claim to it. Both "Click a Glass" (a post-soul update on the O'Jay's "Family Reunion") and "What Happened to the Lovin" are right out of the Gamble and Huff playbook; the latter might ring as the most affecting track on Do I Speak for the World?

No Gerald Levert recording would be complete without a classic "grits and gravy" throw-down ballad. Though "Duty Calls" tries too hard, the true gem is "Lay You Down". The song is more than a passing tribute to the late Rick James, whose own underrated vocal stylings clearly influenced Gerald Levert throughout his career.

On some level, Do I Speak for the World? is a brave effort on Gerald Levert's part. But given the generally dismal state of contemporary corporate R&B (and soul), any recording artist that chooses to break with the "rhythm and bullshit" formula (and I do realize that folks need to pay the bills) can be seen as an iconoclast. In reality, Gerald Levert is never going to be anything other than one of the most solid and consistent R&B vocalists of his generation. Thankfully, that still counts for something.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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