The Persuasions

The Persuasions

    The Persuasions have been a happy mystery in popular music for the past 50 years.  While groups such as the Pentatonix and Take 6 and have made slick, tight a cappella or nearly-a cappella sounds slightly more mainstream, the Persuasions have defied every popular convention on their way to near cult status.  Eschewing trends, they've sung raw, soulful a cappella with clear gospel roots, never compromising - really never even changing their basic sound - over the course of their careers.  What they have done is apply their trademark sound to country, blues, pop, children's music, rock, gospel and, of course, classic soul in their many albums.  More amazing is that this group, which has had zero hits and has only barely charted an album in the Top 100 once (1972's Street Corner Symphony), has continued to record regularly over the past 40 years for more than a dozen labels.

    The Persuasions were formed in Brooklyn as a group of five 20-something guys who sang on the street corner after work.  Jerry 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 again.  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.  The group 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. The next few years brought a solid album on MCA and two lesser discs on A&M in which producers tried modern soul musical arrangements in an attempt to transform the group from an a cappella group to a more conventional soul group.   In 1977, they recorded perhaps their seminal album, Chirpin', on, of all labels, the California rock haven, Elektra/Asylum, with the help of Frank Zappa.  While diverse in material, these albums stuck more closely to their soul/gospel roots than their later albums would, and hit especially high points on their knockout interpretations of Motown (particularly Temptations) material.  

    The Persuasions continued to record solid albums along the same lines for the next two decades, generally on smaller labels.  More recently, they've mixed it up a bit, recording a children's album, On the Good Ship Lollipop, in 1999, followed by successive tribute albums to Frank Zappa, the Grateful Dead and the Beatles.  Over these years they've amassed a collection of fans more diverse than just about any soul group you'll find.  They're a real treasure.

    The Persuasions moved to Chesky Records and in 2003 released the excellent A Cappella Dreams.  It turned out to be the swan song for lead singer Jerry Lawson, who retired from the group at the end of that year and ultimately formed his own vocal group, Talk of the Town, and the other members continued to perform and record regularly, most recently issuing an album with The Barenaked Ladies in 2017. Lawson and Hayes also recorded a duet cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run." Group member Joe Russell died in 2012 after a long illness and, sadly Jimmy Hayes died in May 2017.

    by Chris Rizik