R.I.P. Jerry Lawson of The Persuasions, The King of A Cappella Soul

(July 12, 2019) Forget Pentatonix and Straight No Chaser. Forget The Nylons. And as special as they are, walk right by Take Six. When examining the explosion of popular a cappella acts, all roads lead back to The Persuasions, a true anachronism of a group that stood tall for a half century and more than two dozen albums, paving the way for all that would come later. And when talking about The Persuasions it all begins with Jerry Lawson, a singular voice and, for my money, one of the five greatest soul singers ever. Sadly, Jerry has died at age 75 in Phoenix after a long illness.

(July 12, 2019) Forget Pentatonix and Straight No Chaser. Forget The Nylons. And as special as they are, walk right by Take Six. When examining the explosion of popular a cappella acts, all roads lead back to The Persuasions, a true anachronism of a group that stood tall for a half century and more than two dozen albums, paving the way for all that would come later. And when talking about The Persuasions it all begins with Jerry Lawson, a singular voice and, for my money, one of the five greatest soul singers ever. Sadly, Jerry has died at age 75 in Phoenix after a long illness.

I discovered The Persuasions as a young kid, when I saw their five year old Capitol Records debut album, We Came To Play, in a record store. The cover was mesmerizing to me, combining my two loves (soul music and basketball) in a single shot. So I bought it blindly and put it on my stereo at home. What came out of the speakers was like nothing I had ever heard. It was the 70s, and the musical leaders of the day in Philadelphia and Detroit were increasingly rounding out the edges of soul into a beautifully elegant sound. Well, the Persuasions took their music an entirely different direction: No electronics, no instruments, no gizmos. Just five voices and a brand of music that was so raw and organic, the vinyl was practically sweating.

Formed in Brooklyn as a group that sang on the street corner after work, they found an immediate chemistry in the unique combination of their voices.  Lawson was a store detective, Jimmy Hayes was an elevator operator, Joe Russell was a butcher, Jayotis Washington was a plumber and Toubo Rhodes was a shoe salesman.  At first they tried to hire a band, but when the guitar player didn't show up to their first major performance, they decided to sing it a cappella...and they never looked back.  For a few years they sang in local clubs, ultimately getting a break to open for Dionne Warwick in a New York show.  

The Persuasions found an unexpected admirer and supporter in avant garde musician Frank Zappa, and in 1969 recorded their first album, A Cappella, on his Bizarre Records.  They then signed with Capitol Records and released three outstanding albums in the early 70s.  Two of them, Street Corner Symphony and We Came To Play, are essential. With Zappa’s help, in 1977 they recorded perhaps their seminal album, Chirpin', on, of all labels, the California rock haven, Elektra/Asylum. 

During these early recording years, The Persuasions would fearlessly interpret any kind of song, whether R&B, rock, country or gospel. And while diverse in material, the style of these albums generally stuck closely to their soul/gospel roots, and hit especially high points on their knockout interpretations of Motown (particularly Temptations) songs.  

They never had a hit, but the Persuasions continued to record with increasing adventurousness for the next two decades, sometimes creating thematic albums (such as tributes to The Beatles and The Grateful Dead), sometimes just covering classic numbers that they liked. But they made each and every song their own, always under the motto “We still ain’t got no band.”

After four decades and 22 albums, in 2002 Lawson retired from the Persuasions and moved to Arizona with his wife Julie, vowing that his a cappella days were over. It was at this time that I was honored to get to know the couple. Jerry began to work with jazz combos and orchestras, showing that his voice sounded just as good with a band.  However, fate intervened, and Lawson was introduced to an a cappella group called Talk of the Town -- and he found magic again. He continued to perform with the group when the NBC performance show Sing Off came calling, giving Lawson his biggest national platform, even as he approached age 70. He stole the short-lived show, becoming its biggest star and giving the aging musical legend a last, great hurrah. Sadly, Lawson’s health began deteriorating by the mid 10s, and he reluctantly stopped performing.

Jerry Lawson never amassed fame. He certainly never amassed fortune. But he did amass a fiercely loyal following, particularly among historians and artists, who realize the unheralded impact he had on music. I listen to more soul music than nearly anyone I know, and I’ve never heard anyone like Jerry Lawson; I probably never will. Even as we mourn his passing, he largely remains a hidden gem to the masses. However, those who’ve heard him won’t forget that voice. The King of A Cappella Music takes his rest tonight, but he leaves an inspiring musical legacy – one that is worth any soul music lover seeking out. Rest in Peace, my friend.

By Chris Rizik

And check out the beautiful obituary from Rip Rense

 

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