Era of soulful love songs fading away

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated columnist

One day, maybe 20 years ago, I ran into Eddie Levert. Eddie, a charter member of the legendary O’Jays, is one of the greats, a singer of thunderous power. Back then, his son Gerald was just starting out as a professional singer but already, people were remarking how much he sounded like his father.

“You better look out,” I told Ed. “He’s gaining on you.”

“Aw, don’t tell that boy that,” growled Eddie. “It’ll go to his head.”

For all his feigned indignation, he couldn’t hide his pride. You saw it in him whenever they performed together, the son mimicking dance steps he grew up watching from backstage, or egging the father on with vocal dives and climbs and barrel rolls straight from the old man’s own playbook.

So my first thought was of Eddie last week when the news came that Gerald had died of an apparent heart attack at the absurd age of 40. I can’t imagine what it must be like to bury your son. Frankly, I don’t want to know.

Gerald Levert’s death wasn’t big news in every neighborhood; he was a black R&B singer with little if any profile on white pop radio. But if you are black and of a certain age, it was the kind of bulletin that made you pull over the car.

We live in an era where music is largely impersonal, a cut-and-paste, machine-tooled artifice. Moreover, we live in an era where black music in particular is often a police blotter or a sex act or a product placement, but, less frequently, a love song. Still, some of us remember when black music was about soul and soul was about truth — particularly the truth of How It Is between women and men.

We used to call them begging songs, “baby, baby please songs,” for how they promised moon and stars to a woman if she would just give you the time of day or pleaded with breaking voice and teary eyes for another chance after you fooled around and hurt her. Truth to tell, they weren’t just songs, they were relationship how-to manuals. And Gerald sang them like his father’s son: “Baby,” “Hold On To Me,” “Mr. Too Damn Good,” “Made To Love Ya.”

In him, you heard echoes of soul that came before, echoes of Eugene Record of the Chi-Lites asking, “Have You Seen Her?” and Lou Rawls vowing “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” and Wilson Pickett promising good loving “In The Midnight Hour.”

You heard the ghost of Luther Vandross singing “Here and Now,” Ray Charles swearing “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and Barry White, smooth and chocolate like a human Dove Bar saying, “I’ve Got So Much To Give.”

These days, black music produces fewer songs that cherish women. Oh, there are plenty of sex songs, plenty “I love your butt” songs. But “baby, please” is becoming a lost art.

I’m reminded of a talk I had with my middle son a few years ago. The Temptations had come on the radio singing “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” David Ruffin swearing to sleep on the woman’s doorstep if she would just give him another chance. My son shook his head. Didn’t matter how bad he was hurting or how much wrong he had done, he said, he could never sing a song like that. As far as he was concerned, he would always be too proud to beg.

I told him that sometimes begging is the best part. I told him that sometimes making up justifies breaking up. I told him that love requires vulnerability. He could not be convinced and after awhile, I stopped trying.

Me, I think things were better in black communities when there was more “baby, please” on the radio, when we held one another and sheltered one another from the vicissitudes of life. But those days are going: Every singer I referenced above has died within the last three years. And now, Gerald Levert has died, too.

I saw him in concert last year. At one point he came out into the audience and women went crazy, flying at him, wrapping themselves around him with a need deeper than sex. Baby, hold on to me, he sang. And boy, they did.

My son doesn’t know what he’s missing.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at:
lpitts@herald.com