CHAPTER ONE – FAMILY REUNION:
THE MEANING OF FAMILY
You know the family is the solution to the world’s problems today…
—“Family Reunion,” K. Gamble, L. Huff / The O’Jays, Family Reunion
February 7, 2006
Travel Productions — Rehearsal
Inside a small, brick warehouse-like building snuggled in the heart of the “’hood,” 93rd and Way, sits Trevel (Levert spelled backward) Productions, Eddie and Gerald’s production and rehearsal studios. The main room is dominated by a stage, and the musicians are setting up for today’s rehearsal.
The guitarist plucks a few chords while a background vocalist warms up. Eddie and Gerald wrap up the logistics with their cousin and business manager, Andy Gibson, for an upcoming Father & Son concert date. The Levert organization is a family affair.
The band starts to play the first few bars of “Family Reunion.” Gerald belts out a note. “Man, that’s one of those riffs we used to do up in church down south!” Eddie gives Gerald a pound. Although Eddie grew up in Canton, Ohio, and moved to Cleveland at sixteen, he proudly claims his Bessemer, Alabama, roots. “Can you believe we recorded that song over thirty years ago and it’s still relevant?” Eddie says. “When I was singing the chorus to ‘Family Reunion’ in the studio, I was envisioning how powerful it was going to be for people.
“It calls us to honor and remember loved ones who’ve gone on, and celebrate the matriarchs and patriarchs who’ve made it one more year. When I sing that song, I give it so much soul and emotion because I was thinking about my own family’s struggle, going back to slavery, Man!
“I think it’s a song that makes everybody look back at their family history. Plus, you know even at our own family reunions, it’s the jam that gets the old people and the little babies on the dance floor!” Gerald lets out a round of laughter. Eddie joins in, then Gerald adds: “On the real, black people need to get back to the basics that song talks about.” They give each other another round of father–son pounds.
Eddie begins to reminisce about his years growing up. “I was raised being taught that there had to be two people in the household at all times, a mother and a father, and they both had their position in the family. The mother took care of the day–to–day things, and the father went to work and made the money.
“The father was like the overseer, the truant officer, or officer of the day, who came along and knocked you upside the head with a nightstick to straighten you out if you got out of line.” He lets out a hearty laugh. “Back then your dad was always that threat that your mother could use. She would say, ‘I’m gonna tell your dad on you and he’s gonna beat your butt!’”
You can instantly see how much Gerald loves to hear his dad talk about the “good old times.” He shoots his dad a look and nods. “Some of these kids out here today wouldn’t be gettin’ in trouble or disrespecting older people if families were like they were back in the day. Hell, you can’t step to these young cats or try to reprimand them if you see them doin’ something wrong, ’cause they’ll try to shoot you!” Gerald interjects.
“It’s like folks have forgotten that family is your backbone. A family’s supposed to come together and help you get through hard times.” Gerald’s words echo his father’s sentiments. Although Eddie and Gerald represent two different generations, Eddie has passed more than music on to his son. He has passed on strong family values. They both recognize that today’s black families are in desperate need of healing.
My family is my life, and with my sons I just wanted them to know that even if they weren’t singing, I wasn’t going to love or support them any less, no matter what they decided to do. I feel like this: If you’re the garbageman, be the best you can be. Be number one at it. If you’re gonna clean floors, really clean up the floors. Be the best at cleaning up the floors, because before you know it they’ll be calling you from all over the world to come clean up floors and pay you top dollar!
I look at my life now, I’m sixty–five, and the people who support me are my children and my wife, Raquel! The love I have for my family is the reason I get up in the morning, strive to be a better person, and, more important, work harder to be a better father.
My family keeps me from falling. They keep me rising up. It makes me emotional, and sometimes I cry, but my family motivates me to keep doing what I love to do until the day I die! I chose myself to be the leader of my family and Gerald has chosen himself to be the leader in his generation, and I’m proud that he wants more than what I wanted. I remember him saying to me, “Dad, I’ve got a different path than the one you took.” I accept that. It’s all about evolution.
In our family, me and my dad are the two people everyone looks up to and depends on, but like I always say, men are imperfect, and when you make a mistake it’s “Shame on you!” Everyone’s looking at you and expecting you to be right all the time. Everyone’s asking you what they should do and how they should go about doing it.
For example, somebody may need you to talk to their son, somebody else may need some advice, but I don’t always have the answers to everything and, as the successful one, I frequently have to deal with money issues. Those are the times you want your family to understand more, be more concerned with a person’s heart and how their health is as opposed to automatically saying “I need this” or “I need that.”
It can be a heavy burden to carry, but I’m okay with my role in the family. I think that by watching my dad’s life, I learned how to be ready for the day I took that baton. My dad has a saying: “Those who can will step forward, and those who can’t will always be in the background.”
As far as having my own family, I think I’m much more prepared now to settle down and give more of myself to a family and be able to really raise some children and be a good husband. I love my children very much, but I think ten years ago I was more selfish. I wanted to be able to leave when I wanted to, which is not fair to your spouse or the person you love. I don’t think it was time for me to settle down before now.
My dad’s life was different. He didn’t have anything when he got married. He was in his early twenties and hadn’t experienced success, or half the things that life had to offer. Then he and my mom started having kids right away and had to support a family. All of a sudden in 1973, success comes along with The O’Jays’ first legitimate big hit song, “Back Stabbers,” and the fame just kept coming. People are in your ear every five minutes, you’re lonely and you don’t know what to do.
My mother was very naïve about the ways of the world. She never understood the kind of temptation a celebrity is confronted with. In regular everyday life you might be tempted to do something, but that kind of temptation doesn’t scratch the surface compared to what’s going on when you’re in entertainment. I’m talking about how every night women are out in the audience throwing their panties onstage, willing to screw you in the bathroom. It’s just there for the taking.
When Gerald was growing up, the situation in our household was that a lot of things went according to what my first wife, Martha, who is Gerald, Sean, and Kandi’s mother, wanted to do. The father is the leader, the director. He’s supposed to be the guy who makes the decisions, but sometimes he can’t, and the woman has to. As a man, you have to be able to accept that.
I had to because I wasn’t there. I was on the road all the time and I left a lot of decisions totally up to her. Martha would call me to get my opinion about what I thought should happen, but the home was her domain. When I was there, I was able to give my input.
I didn’t like being away from home so much, but I didn’t have a choice. When I was away from my kids, I missed out on doing a lot with them. However, the one thing I did do was teach Gerald and Sean how to swim and play music. Kandi was just a baby. I really wanted to be able to take them camping, or go fishing, or to the park and do those kinds of things. Maybe I’m being selfish with them, but I feel I missed being that kind of a father.
I had to use a particular brand of psychology to raise my kids from the road over the phone. One time Gerald’s mom called me and she told me, “Those children haven’t been minding me, and they won’t do what I’ve been telling them to do. They won’t clean up their rooms, and they broke into your wine cabinet and have been drinking your wine.”
So I tell her to go wake the kids up and get them on the phone. She gives them the phone one by one. Now, I’ve never been one to candy–coat things. So when they get on the phone, I shoot straight from the hip. I say, “Hey guys, what’s going on? How you doin’? Your mom tells me that ya’ll have been disobeying her, doing what you wanna do. You’ve been drinking my wine!”
I went on to say, “You shouldn’t mess with my wine, because it’s not yours, but what I really wanna tell you is this: Your mom, that’s my woman. I married her and I’m not going to allow anybody to disrespect her or do anything against her that I don’t like. Now, if you wanna get somebody and treat ’em like they ain’t shit, you go right ahead. But don’t treat my woman, your mother, like that, ’cause I’m gonna get mad and whup your ass!”
There was dead silence, so I said, “I’m going to teach you a lesson about drinking my wine, too. I want each one of ya’ll to go down in the basement and each of you get a bottle of wine. I want you to drink it all, and your mom’s gonna watch.” Needless to say, they didn’t mess with my wine anymore!
Bottomline, the father has to be there in order to keep the family together. If he’s present, that solidifies the unit. I do agree with my dad that you have to be a strong male figure and not dominate or be overbearing. You have to be supportive of your woman. A father also needs to be supportive when it comes to how he deals with his kids. With my kids I have to listen to what they’re saying and not think everything is corny or stupid, just because they’re kids.
I’m always thinking about making the next dollar. How are we going to get to the next place in life? I used to get so caught up in that that if it didn’t pertain to making money, I wasn’t trying to hear what they were saying. But I had to check myself because money is not what it’s all about. It’s about being there for your children, your family, and giving respect and trying to understand what they’re going through.
The way of the world now is very different than when I grew up. You have to be much more open with your kids. My parents were much harder on me, but nowadays kids know so much. There’s so much available to them. As a father, as a parent, you have to really try to get into their world.
When you’re not married, like me, your focus is definitely more on making money, or taking care of things. But that’s not always the kids’ focus. They want to talk to you. They want to know what you think about what they’re doing. They want to know what you’d do if you were in a challenging situation.
My kids are getting older now. My son Lemicah and my daughter Carlysia are about to graduate from high school. So I have to look at things differently now than I would’ve two or three years ago. Two or three years ago I would be like, “I don’t wanna hear that! If ya’ll ain’t talkin’ about makin’ no money!” Now, it’s bigger than that. It’s about helping them get on the right track, and stay on it, so that they can find success and happiness in life.
Click a glass for the times we had
Cherish good memories and throw away the bad…
When all is lost family is there
So let’s give a toast to those who really really care
—“Click A Glass,” G. Levert, E. Nicholas / Gerald Levert, Do I Speak for the World
From the Hardcover edition.