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October 17, 1987|DENNIS HUNT | Times Staff Writer

Singer Gerald Levert, still half asleep, mumbled an apology for his appearance, noting that he looked like something the cat dragged in.

Though it was afternoon, the lead singer of the R&B singing trio LeVert was lying on the couch of his dark Hollywood hotel room, wrapped in a blanket, lamenting that he hadn't gone to bed at a reasonable hour and was longing for sleep.

He was also cursing fame. "You want my job?" he asked, half kidding and half serious. "Somebody please take it. Save me from all these hassles. Being known is a pain. I'd rather be unknown."

Levert, 21, is feeling the effects of instant popularity. Though the group's first album, last year's "Bloodline," sold an admirable 300,000 and caused a stir among black fans, it bring stardom. But "Casanova," the Top 10 single from the second album, "The Big Throwdown," has put LeVert in great demand.

Gerald organized the group in Cleveland in 1981, while still in high school. The other members are his brother Sean, 19, and Marc Gordon, 23. Gerald and Sean are the sons of Eddie Levert, lead singer of the O'Jays.

"My father warned me that it would be like this if we started to get big," Levert said. "People pulling at you in all directions."

The phone rang. As he talked, Levert was civil, though steaming.

"Another call from somebody wanting something," he announced, after slamming down the phone. A few seconds later, it rang again. He let out a yell of frustration and pulled the blanket over his head.

Levert, broad and stocky, looks like his father. What's more, he sings like his father--passionately, with a gospel-like fervor, building tension with dramatic repetition of words and phrases.

"When I was little and I was learning to sing, I was striving for that sound my father has," he explained. "But I've put my own personal touch to the sound."

But not enough to fool people. A few years ago, when the three young singers were looking for a record contract, label executives were turning them down, explaining that they sounded too much like the O'Jays.

Even Atlantic Records, which eventually signed LeVert, turned the group down once. "They didn't like what they heard at first," Gerald said. "But we did an album on a small label and we were doing shows to promote it. That's when some Atlantic people saw us and changed their minds and signed us."

Though "Casanova" is a mid-tempo dance tune, LeVert, like the O'Jays, specializes in romantic and sexy ballads--written mostly by Gerald and Gordon.

But Atlantic executives didn't like the up-tempo songs they wrote for this album, and paired LeVert with writer-producer Reggie Calloway, who wrote and produced the irresistible "Casanova"--one of the year's best singles. Calloway's other contribution to the album, "Temptation," is in the same smoldering R&B groove.

Without Calloway, LeVert might still be limited to a black audience, instead of selling more than 500,000 copies of "The Big Throwdown" to a broader pop audience.

LeVert is doing better than the O'Jays, who haven't had a hit single since "Use Ta Be My Girl" in 1978. Can the youngsters help their father's group out of its slump?

"He's listening more to what we say," Gerald said. "They need a fresher sound and they need better writing and producing. They're still working with Gamble and Huff. I wrote the title cut for their latest album. We (LeVert) may be producing and writing their next album. With the right songs and the right production, the O'Jays can happen again."

LeVert may be helping the O'Jays, but the popular assumption about LeVert is that without considerable assistance from the brothers' famous father, the group would still be unknown.

"He helped, but nothing was handed to us on a silver platter," Gerald pointed out. "We paid our dues in the small clubs. We got all the rejections from record companies. We didn't just walk into a studio and start recording. We worked hard to get where we are."

When his son is composing, Eddie Levert does act as a consultant: "I show him songs after they're finished and ask his opinion," said Gerald. "But sometimes we don't agree because we're from different generations. He'll say this doesn't sound right but I'll say this is what the kids are dancing to now. I've thrown out songs he said didn't sound right. But if I feel strongly about a song, I'll go with it whether he likes it or not."

The elder Levert did produce two songs on the first LeVert album and co-wrote one on the current album. But his biggest contribution to the group may have been providing inspiration for young Gerald.

"I went on the first tour with the O'Jays when I was 12," he said. "I loved it. Then I went on the road with them every year after school was out. I couldn't wait for school to be out. I liked being on the road and being part of that whole thing--I wanted to sing, I wanted to have hits and be known and do my own tour."

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