The Rock & Roll Hall of Famer reflects on 50 years with the O’Jays, fatherhood and losing his sons; he also talks about his debut solo album, “I Still Have It.”
Singer-songwriter Eddie LevertOriginally aired on July 5, 2012
Tavis: Oh, man. (Laughs) Always pleased to have Eddie Levert on this program. The legendary front man for the O’Jays continues to tour with the band, but he’s also out this month with his first-ever solo project. The new disc is called “I Still Have It.” As I mentioned at the top, the disc features a song dedicated to his sons, Gerald and Sean, called “Last Man Standing.” Eddie Levert, always a blessing to see you here with your 70-year-young self. (Laughter)
Eddie Levert: Yeah, and just the thought of it (unintelligible). (Laughter) It really drives me, I think, just the thought of it, Tavis. Just think about this now. I started off in this when I was 16 years old, and now I am 70 years old, running around on stage, shaking my booty, with a silver shirt on. (Laughter) Can you, can you get to that?
Tavis: And folks still love it.
Levert: I don’t understand what they want to see. (Laughter)
Tavis: They want to see you, and you still got it.
Levert: Oh, well, I’m working it out, still working that.
Tavis: How have you protected your instrument all these years? I ask that because there are folk who’ve been doing this a lot fewer years than you, and over the years you can hear the change in their voice, and they can’t hit the -
Levert: The money note. The money note, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, some part of that register starts to fall out.
Levert: Look, I can’t tell you – I have to be real with you and let you know that I am nowhere the Eddie Levert that I was at 18. There is a little receding, not only my hairline.
Tavis: But your vocal cords too, huh?
Levert: But my vocal cords. (Laughter) But you must treat the instrument like it’s a precious instrument that it is. You must get rest, and you must treat it like it is God’s gift to you, and you must cherish it and also try to nurse it and make it something that is very special.
Remember, people make you who you are. I tell people all the time, by the time it comes out of my mouth and goes through the microphone, God has done a great transition. He’s made it sound better than I could ever make it sound.
Tavis: Does it feel like – I suspect it does, all the places you’ve been – but does it feel like 50 years of the O’Jays?
Levert: Oh, yeah, yeah, Tavis. My knees tell me it’s 50 years. (Laughter)
Tavis: You used to get down and (unintelligible) get back up.
Levert: Somebody come get me. (Laughter) But 50, a good 50. It’s a good 50. It’s not something that I regret. It’s like I don’t know where it’s going to go from here. It’s like I didn’t think to 70. I didn’t think past 70. So now I don’t – it’s not like I really knew what was going to happen back then, but I really don’t know what’s going to happen now.
It’s like every day is a new adventure. Every day is something new that I get a chance to go out here and see if I can still pull this off and make them believe it.
Tavis: If the time should ever come when you need to get off the stage, will you know, or are we going to have to send the sandman out to get you?
Levert: You’re probably going to have to send the sandman. (Laughter)
Tavis: See (unintelligible) the hook.
Levert: You and Tom both.
Tavis: Send the sandman out for you.
Levert: That’s right.
Tavis: The Stones are still going all these years later.
Levert: That’s right, that’s right. This is what I do. This is what I do as a living, and so I don’t know when I’ll ever want to feel like I’ll quit. I just want to be worthy. I just want to be able to make people understand that okay, Eddie is still good at what he does, so we can now go and buy that ticket, and I can feel like they bought it and they got their money’s worth.
Tavis: What do you make of the fact that at least to my ear, as I listen to satellite radio or travel around the country, I am always – I shouldn’t say amazed, but probably “tickled” is probably the right word – tickled by the number of oldies stations that exist all around the country.
It’s almost as if the stuff today doesn’t – I don’t want to demonize anybody, but it’s as if the stuff today doesn’t always measure up, doesn’t always measure up, and so we play the old stuff because the old stuff still sounds good. But in the doing of that, I can hear the O’Jays five, 10 times a day on the radio.
Levert: Yes, absolutely. I think it’s mainly because those songs and the words and the lyrics that they have in them are still relevant today. You can still apply them in your everyday -
Tavis: “Money, Money, Money.”
Levert: Yes, all of them – “Back Stabbers,” “The Love Train,” “I Love Music,” all of that stuff. “Message in the Music,” all of those -
Tavis: People who have a family reunion.
Levert: “Survival,” an all of that stuff. All of that stuff is ever-prevalent for everybody who is living in this world today. So they can apply it to their everyday – I got kids who come up to me now that are what, 13, 14, 15 years old, “This is what we used to clean the house to, your music. This is what my mom had us doing our chores, to your music. I need to take a picture with you so I can send it to my mom, and so she’ll know that I met you. You don’t know what this means to me.”
To me, that is the ultimate compliment that you can get, that they have used your music to help them to get through life.
Tavis: Why, then, after all these years, finally, this solo project. And I love the title – I said I’m going to clown Eddie when I see him, (laughter) but when I saw “I Still Have It,” you ain’t got no modesty. (Laughter) You may still have everything else, but you ain’t got no modesty. But I’m just busting your chops, because I know what you mean by that.
Tavis: When I got a chance to hear the album, and I’ll let you explain it, but why the solo project and why this title at this point in your career?
Levert: I’ve been working on it way before the passing of my sons. We had talked about doing a solo project, and me and Gerald was working on it, and through doing the father and son things we were working on it, okay?
It just finally got to the place, I started working on it while they were alive. Then after they passed away it just threw me for a loop and then I had to take time to probably get back to there.
Then after getting over that part of it, then I had to figure out how I was going to write this. What was I going to say? How was I going to say it? That’s how I came up with that song, “The Last Man Standing,” because that’s really a song about me and how my kids had to come to grips with who I was and the things that I did in my life.
Kids have a tendency, they want to take their parents and say, “Okay, you can’t do this, and you can’t do this.” But they never asked me who was they going to marry, or what woman they wanted to be with, so why should I let you ask me what woman I’m going to be with? (Laughter)
Levert: You ain’t got nothing to say about that. You better get on. (Laughter) So I went through a lot of changes with my kids after I got divorced and went through all of those kind of things. They wanted to tell me, “Dad, you can’t do that. How can you do – you’re a father.”
True. It was very selfish of me, and any time you go into divorce it’s really a selfish thing that people get into because all they’re thinking about is my happiness. It has nothing to do with whether the kids are going to be happy, whether the whole family is going to be a unit anymore.
But now I’m just thinking about me, and so forget everybody else. So once you get past that point of the selfishness of it and then you say, “Well, okay, now I’m going to write these songs,” and I started writing the songs.
“The Last Man Standing” is about me and the transition I had to make to where I could get to like myself, do you understand, because of the – I’d already judged myself, so I had to get to the place where I liked myself.
“Get Over It,” that’s about my children. They say they love me. Well, I can’t tell, because you say you love me, but yet still you want to treat Dad like this dad is lowlife because you’ve never been the dad that I thought you should be.
Well, that’s in a book. Whoever told you that guy existed, he’s a book. I had to kill that guy off to become this guy that you could really respect and love. Do you understand?
Tavis: It’s very autobiographical, in other words.
Levert: Yes, yes, absolutely.
Tavis: Yeah. Was there ever a phase – you talked a moment ago about trying to process your way past losing not one but two sons in a very short period of time. I don’t know why you would have done this, but did you ever in any way blame yourself?
Tavis: You did?
Levert: Because that’s the first thing you do, because you always feel like if I could have been there I could have said something, I could have done something to make it turn out a little different. Maybe I could have been a better role model, that it wouldn’t have come to this.
You always blame yourself, and then after you get past that part and say to yourself, well, there was nothing you could have done. This had nothing to do with you. This is totally something that was between – this was one of those life processes, and that had to go down that way.
So then after you get past that, then you want to preach to everybody. Everybody – the dog, the cat, the neighbor’s kid.
Tavis: “Here come Eddie.”
Levert: “Here come Eddie with that preaching again. Run.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Run, run. Yeah.
Levert: So you go through all of these stages, man. Then the last stage is where you get to the place where you look at yourself and say, “Okay, what is it I don’t like about me? Let me try to change those things and be a better person and a better parent from this day on.”
That’s why I say you literally have to kill off that other guy and become a total nother person. It’s like a new birth.
Tavis: How has losing Gerald and Sean helped you to become a better father, better grandfather?
Levert: More attentive. More time to be there, spending more time, being more conversation, more staying in tune to know what’s going on with them in their lives at this point.
Tavis: All the stuff you couldn’t do when you were (unintelligible) the O’Jays, yeah.
Levert: Yeah, because you’ve got to remember, I was an O’Jay. I was on the road at least half of the year. There was no – look. I was taking to someone about, and they were saying, “Well, how come men don’t have that thing where they stay with the family and be a part of the family, and how can men just go off and leave their children and not be a part of it?”
What we’ve got to realize is that remember, back in the slavery time, men, they would invade the man’s home, come in there and take his daughter, take his wife. He’d have to go somewhere else and maybe start off another whole family because they sold them to another slave owner. Do you understand?
So we consequently, there’s no way that we could have that thing that we can stay with something. I’ll stay with this woman or that woman. That’s why we’ve been able to move out of situations and then feel nothing about it, because we’ve already been put in that position. We’ve been doing that since slavery.
They’ve been taking our families, our daughters, our kids and putting them over here, and we had to move on and get a whole nother family. So consequently, that had to take effect on people down through history, so consequently men feel that way and consequently we have a tendency to say we can walk away from it.
Tavis: Well, it’s one thing, though, to be forced into that, as they were during slavery. It’s another thing to make a choice, though, not to be there.
Levert: But -
Tavis: Part of what these sisters are dealing with today are Negroes making choices to not be men, to not be fathers.
Levert: And I -
Tavis: To not be responsible. I know you’re not condoning that. That’s why I’m just raising that.
Levert: But I’m saying that that has a lot to do with the parent, the mothering and nurturing and not making kids responsible for what they’re doing. You’ve got to keep pointing the finger at them and say, “You got to stand up and be a man. You can’t just keep running off,” you know what I’m saying? This starts with mothers and fathers.
You have to keep on saying to them, “You’ve got to stand up and be a man and take responsibility now, because now you have a child. Now you have a woman. Now you have to take care of these people and make sure that they’re able to survive in this world.
Tavis: Yeah. How are the grandkids doing?
Levert: They’re all going to school. The biggest problem I’m having now is with the baby mamas. (Laughter) They want to blame me. (Laughter)
Tavis: Well, you’re the last man standing.
Levert: That’s right.
Tavis: They’ve got to blame somebody. Why not you
Levert: But I had nothing to do with it.
Tavis: Sean and Gerald ain’t here. Someone got to (unintelligible).
Levert: (Unintelligible) See, you started trouble there.
Tavis: You said it. I’m just saying. (Laughter) You wrote the song, “Last Man Standing.” I’m just trying to fill in the gaps here. What was the experience like being in the studio essentially by yourself? I say by yourself; obviously, you’ve got engineers and others. But when I grabbed the project this really is a solo project.
Tavis: No collaborations.
Levert: Right, none.
Tavis: You could have done that easily. People love to collaborate with Eddie Levert.
Levert: The reason why I wanted to do that, I wanted the young kids to stand up and take notice that this 70-year-old man is doing some real music, and when you get a chance to listen to it, know that this is a 70-year-old man trying to show y’all that this is what real music is. This is what music is from the soul, what people can relate to.
That’s what it is. It’s raw; it was cut with live musicians. It was done in a studio, we all sat there and we made an album.
Tavis: Did you feel lonely?
Tavis: As the only guy at the microphone?
Levert: No. In fact, I kind of liked it. (Laughter)
Tavis: I know the other two O’Jays are watching right now like, “What’s with that, Eddie?”
Levert: No, no, no, no, no. (Laughter) I would never – I’d never, ever, ever, ever not be an O’Jay. I’m going to always be an O’Jay. But it’s really easy to go in the studio and you have to only worry about one project.
And I know you know all about that. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That’s why it’s not called “The Tavis and Eddie Show.” (Laughter) I got this, Eddie, I got this.
Levert: That’s right.
Tavis: I understand that. But creatively, though, how did it – I was going to say challenge. Maybe you weren’t challenged, because you wrote some of the stuff on here, or stuff written for you. But when you’ve been singing with people so many years – 50 years you’ve been out there with at least two other guys.
Levert: It’s a different process, Tavis, strictly from the standpoint is that you have to keep trying to be interesting. Because to just be Eddie Levert throughout the whole song, it’s not going to be interesting.
So you have to figure out ways to be a little bit more creative, a little bit more exciting, and because, see, when you’re dealing with somebody who has a great voice, like Walt Williams, and you have to now do the whole song, it becomes a whole nother task. You have to figure out ways to be interesting.
Tavis: Yeah. I love Walt.
Levert: Yeah, he’s great.
Tavis: I’ve always said that Walt has one of the – Walt is one of the most underrated, undervalued, underappreciated artists in the history of Black music.
Levert: Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely.
Tavis: His voice, though, is just -
Levert: Absolutely incredible. Incredible voice.
Tavis: He never (unintelligible). I love that brother.
Levert: He’s just lazy. (Laughter)
Tavis: He’s just lazy (unintelligible).
Levert: He going to get me. (Laughter) He going to really make me pay for that.
Tavis: He does his thing. So how will – we talked about it earlier, but how will the O’Jays celebrate? Because 50 years is just around the corner here now. How will you celebrate?
Levert: We’re trying to do a new album. We’re trying to do some new music, and we also want to do some kind of television special, something that if we can maybe get it where we can just sit around and maybe have some tables and just sing from piano and do the songs just like that, with just a piano and us singing. I think that would be a great, great evening, an evening with the O’Jays singing just those songs with the piano and us doing the harmonies and all that stuff.
Tavis: Now watch, tomorrow somebody from PBS is going to call you and say, “Well do it as a pledge.” (Laughter)
Levert: Let’s do it.
Tavis: Sounds like a plan (unintelligible) PBS.
Levert: Let’s do it.
Tavis: “The O’Jays Celebrate 50 on PBS.” Sounds like it works for me.
Levert: That’d be good.
Tavis: At any point in this 50-year journey, did you ever think about honestly pulling out – you said a moment ago you’ll always be an O’Jay. Have you always felt that way, that I will always be an O’Jay? Were there times where you know what -?
Levert: Well, you run in those moments where things aren’t really as cohesive as you would like for them to be, and you say to yourself, well, maybe I need to move on.
But, and then I’m still that kind of person, Tavis, that I leave it up to the universe and to God, that entity, and I say, “Well, God will lead me to where he wants me to go,” and he not led me to the door.
Tavis: Yeah. I ask that in part because there seems to me – as much as I love Walt, Walt’s a bad brother – but there’s something in the ether about these lead signers. (Laughter) At some point, man, at some point they either get pushed or they jump.
We ain’t got enough time to just run the list of all the leads who eventually broke out on their own, from Lionel to Michael to Michael McDonald. We could do this all day. They eventually jumped, but you’ve been there all these years, though.
Levert: I’m 70 now. I don’t know how far I can jump. (Laughter) Or how high.
Tavis: But you could have jumped 25, 30 years ago.
Levert: Yes. I still think that the O’Jays is one of the greatest, greatest products of the Black community that’s ever -
Tavis: Oh, Lord. (Unintelligible) the mighty O’Jays.
Levert: Do you understand what I’m saying?
Tavis: Oh, Lord, yeah.
Levert: I think that this has been something that has been one heck of a ride, and I think that there’s not been another group that has affected the world like the O’Jays and their message and what they deliver, and I think that we still have a place, and I think that we still have one more great album in us that will change the whole world.
Tavis: See, part of what is amazing about the Mighty, Mighty O’Jays is, to my mind at least – and you referenced this earlier – you’ve written, you guys have written and performed and given the world songs that have great lyrical content, but to your point, it’s stuff that matters, even still.
Levert: Listen -
Tavis: I don’t care how – as long as there is a world -
Levert: That’s right.
Tavis: – there will be a need for a song like “Love Train.”
Levert: That’s right, and I still -
Tavis: You can’t -
Levert: I still think the O’Jays have one more new, and we’ve been talking about it. We’ve been talking about it with Kenny Gamble and (unintelligible).
Tavis: Right, oh, Lord.
Levert: We’ve been constantly talking about -
Tavis: The Philly sound.
Levert: This is something that they really want to do and we’re really in that mode right now. I think it will happen probably before the year is out, I think it will.
Tavis: I’m telling you, if y’all reunite with Gamble and Huff, I know something special is coming.
Levert: Yes, yes, I think it – he’s ready to go, man. He’s chomping at the bit.
Tavis: Man, that was a great relationship for the O’Jays -
Tavis: For Gamble and Huff.
Tavis: And for all of us who of course love the music.
Tavis: What a great collaboration.
Levert: And it goes on. Those songs are still there, man. Unbelievable. That, to me, is the most unbelievable part, that those songs are still relevant right now. Whatever they’re saying, the “Money, Money, Money,” the “Love Train,” the “Family Reunion.”
Tavis: So when y’all hit “Love Train,” it’s the most beautiful thing to be at an O’Jays show when they hit that song and everybody in the audience, Black, white, red, brown, yellow -
Levert: Ain’t that something?
Tavis: You can feel the love when y’all hit that thing.
Levert: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Tavis: Everybody in the audience, it’s just a multicultural -
Levert: And they stand up and they all just dance around the room, and they be on their walkers, and – (laughter).
Tavis: Stop, Eddie.
Levert: No, but Tavis, I’m telling you, when we do our show there’s babies -
Tavis: You got eight to 80.
Levert: There’s teenagers, there’s young people and then you have people on their walkers and with their breathing machine. Unbelievable, man. (Laughter) Then here I am -
Tavis: Yeah, 70 years old.
Levert: – 70, with a silver shirt on.
Tavis: With a silver shirt on. (Laughter) You know what? I tell you this – when it gets to the point when you on a walker and a breathing machine, the sandman’s going to come get you.
Levert: It’s time to go.
Tavis: I might be the sandman. (Laughter) But that ain’t going to happen no time soon, because Eddie Levert, he’s still got it. As a matter of fact, he has a CD out now, his first solo project ever by the same title, “I Still Have It.” Indeed he does. Next year, 50 years of the O’Jays, and I’m sure we’ll figure out some sort of way to get him, Walt and the crew back on this program.
Levert: (Unintelligible) say this, now, you’ve got to go to EddieWLevert.com is my website.
Tavis: You said it.
Levert: And you can get all of that information.
Tavis: There you go.
Levert: My wife will kill me if I didn’t say that.
Tavis: I don’t want that to happen. You definitely won’t be on stage that way. (Laughter)
Levert: That’s right.
Tavis: Please don’t kill him. Love you, Eddie.
Levert: Love you too, man.
Tavis: Good to see you, man.
Levert: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.