Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sultry-Voiced R&B Balladeer, Songwriter Gerald Levert, 40

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer

Gerald Levert, 40, a smooth-voiced rhythm-and-blues singer whose top-selling records recalled the heyday of an earlier R&B era, died Nov. 10 at his home in Newbury, Ohio, outside Cleveland. A Cleveland TV station and music Web sites reported that he had a heart attack.

Mr. Levert (pronounced luh-VERT) was born into R&B royalty as the son of Eddie Levert Sr., a founder and lead singer of the O'Jays, a group that achieved wide fame in the 1960s and '70s. The younger Levert found success by updating the stylish, melodic music of his father's generation and delivering soulful, romantic ballads that made him especially popular with female fans.

During his career as a solo artist and with the trio LeVert, he sold more than 10 million albums, five of which were certified platinum. Five of his songs reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts, and 11 made the Top 20.

One of his most popular hits, "Casanova," reached No. 4 on the general pop charts in 1987 and was featured in two films: "Fatal Beauty" and "The Pick-Up Artist." Mr. Levert appeared as an actor in the 1991 film "New Jack City."

He often performed with other artists, and his 1997 album with Keith Sweat and Johnny Gill, "Levert Sweat Gill," had contributions from Faith Evans, LL Cool J, Busta Rhymes and Lil' Kim. It sold more than 2 million copies.

In 1992, Mr. Levert had an unexpected No. 1 R&B hit with his father, "Baby Hold On to Me," and in 1995 they recorded a top-selling album, "Father & Son." With nearly identical baritone voices, they often toured together for years afterward.

The elder Levert advised his three sons against entering the music business, but Gerald devoted himself to music from an early age. (His brother, Sean, became a member of LeVert and a record producer.)

"He didn't push me to do this," Gerald Levert told The Washington Post in 2002, referring to his father. "He was just there to make sure that when I fell, he was there to help me up."

Mr. Levert had a minor hit in 1985 with the small-label single "I'm Hot," which led to his signing with Atlantic Records a year later. He would remain a popular live performer for the next 20 years.

In concerts, women screamed his name as he tossed teddy bears into the crowd and, in a signature move, playfully spanked himself. Rejecting the dark, misogynistic tone of much of today's R&B and hip-hop music, Mr. Levert favored the impassioned, lyrical style of an earlier generation.

Mr. Levert sometimes borrowed elements of hip-hop, country and classical music to season his songs about longing, betrayal and love. His lyrics often showed an unabashed, if old-fashioned, respect for women. In his 2000 hit "Mr. Too Damn Good," which reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B charts, he sang: "Baby, I'll open doors for you any time, because that's what a man's supposed to do."

The chunky Mr. Levert was known to many of his fans by his nickname, G-Bear. At the time of his death, he was making a reality TV show in which he was losing weight along with 12 of his female fans, who were training with him at his palatial home.

Mr. Levert was born in Philadelphia on July 13, 1966, and grew up in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights. His father traveled with the O'Jays throughout much of Gerald's childhood but sometimes took his son with him.

"I was exposed to a lot of great things because my dad took me on the road a lot," Gerald Levert told The Post four years ago. "As a little kid, I saw Gladys Knight and the Pips, Marvin Gaye, Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor, and it taught me a lot about performing, about timing, about just being able to capture a crowd's attention."

He began performing in high school in Ohio with his brother and a friend, Marc Gordon, as LeVert. The trio, known for a lush, romantic sound, recorded seven albums, four of which went platinum.

In his early 20s, Mr. Levert launched a separate career as a songwriter and record producer, and he was responsible for more than 15 No. 1 songs by other artists. He received a Grammy nomination for writing "Practice What You Preach," which was a No. 1 hit for Barry White. He also worked with Patti LaBelle, Anita Baker, Stephanie Mills, James Ingram, Teddy Pendergrass and the O'Jays.

Explaining why he branched out beyond singing and performing at a young age, Mr. Levert said, "The hardest thing about the business is trusting people, and that's why it's good to establish yourself as more than just an entertainer."

In addition to his parents and brothers, Mr. Levert's survivors include four children. He was never married.

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