by Rip Rense
(Originally published in The Rense Retort, 2000.)
Warning! Conflict of interest ahead! Those who do not want to see a columnist shamelessly promote a product from which he might stand to make a tiny profit (but probably won't)* are advised to stop reading here. But be further warned: You'd be missing something pretty good.
Sick of all the disharmony in our grating nation? Think Repugnicans and Democraps will never again make beautiful music together? Then let me tell you about The Persuasions. Good cure for public discord---er, discourse.
Oh, sure, you've heard of them. Didn't they sing "My Girl"? Uh, wait a second -- no, that was The Temptations, of course. Uh, but you've got all their albums in a box somewhere, right? Curtis Mayfield's first group, right? Uh, no? That was the Impressions? Well, they were one of those Motown groups, right?
Wrong notes, all.
The Persuasions are the longest-running, most misunderstood, miscategorized, underappreciated, best-kept vocal secret in American popular music. Somehow, after almost 40 years, people still aren't quite sure who they are.
Well, that's not quite true. They've always had their following -- the ones who get it. Else they would not have survived. And I'm one of them. I first got Persuaded back in 1970,with their first big-label album, "We Came to Play," on Capitol. I'm a Persuasionhead. There are days when that's the only music I can listen to.
I submit to you the following extreme assertion: It is not possible to like music, and not enjoy The Persuasions. Take it as a challenge, if you like. Listen to them sing "Man Oh Man" on "We Came to Play" and see if the hackles on your neck don't go up. Listen to "Looking for an Echo" on the "Chirpin'" album and see if you aren't moved. Listen to Persuasion Joe Russell sing "To Be Loved," all by himself on the same record, and see if it doesn't make you sit still and listen.
Unlike a lot of critics, I can't convey in writing what is conveyed by music. I am reduced to babbling superlatives and making wild, almost religious claims, about its power. I have always listened to everything from opera to The Beatles to Brahms to Roger Miller to Japanese koto music, and I will report to you here that no one does exactly what The Persuasions do. At their best, they are magicians. You'd have to be, to get people dancing and tapping their feet without a band.
That's right, they just sing. No, no, wait ---keep reading. Put aside all the prejudice about a cappella. The Persuasions are a cappella, yes---but then again, they aren't. This is the most accompanied-sounding unaccompanied singing in history. Put these voices together, and you don't miss the instruments. The Persuasions are the instruments. The Persuasions are the band. Or perhaps, The Persuasions imply the band.
Jimmy Hayes doesn't sing bass, he plays it. He's Paul McCartney, or the late great Motown bass session player James Jamerson, in a throat. He's a whole rhythm section, really. You don't hear any drums, but you feel them.
And were it not for the fact that lead singer Jerry Lawson has stuck loyally with his fellow Persuasions, lost in an oddball music industry niche called vocal music, he would probably be as much of a household word as Sam Cooke or Otis Redding. This guy is one of the most expressive, versatile singers of the last 50 years.* *
Put Lawson and Hayes together, and you've got, as Lawson likes to say, half the orchestra. Add the clarion harmony vocals of the great Russell, the underpinnings of baritones Jayotis Washington (or their sometimes-member, B.J. Jones) and the whispery tenor (and alto and, yes, soprano) of Raymond Sanders, and you've got the violins, cellos, and winds.
I told you. I'm babbling superlatives.
Listen: I don't even like a cappella music, particularly. I appreciate some of the great groups: Golden Gate Quartet, Fairfield Four, Swan Silvertones -- but as for all the modern ensembles, like The Bobs and The Nylons and Rockapella, I wouldn't buy their albums. I'm just not interested enough. I once confessed this to The Persuasions. I dared to tell them that I didn't really like a cappella -- I just liked them. Lawson laughed.
"Me, too!" he said.
Lawson, Hayes, Washington and Russell fell together singing on the stoops of Bedford-Stuyvesant in New York City around 1962 -- along with their original baritone, Toubo Rhoad. It wasn't as though they set out to become a hit group. It's just that they couldn't not sing. It's sort of like what George Harrison said of Ringo Starr in the Beatles: "Ringo was always in the group. He just didn't join until 1962." The Persuasions could no more resist singing with each other than, well, birds can.
What happened to them over the next 40 years can best be summed up as fame and lack of fortune. There is no logical reason for the group to have survived. Financially, things have never been any worse than skin-of-the-teeth---and not often much better. Consider that after 22 or 23 albums, not a single record company ever paid The Persuasions a penny in royalties -- and that includes their early '70s albums that sold over 250,000 copies! These guys have been bilked, cheated, baited and switched. They have been hanging by their chads for years.
Still, by virtue of their greatness, they toured the world. They sang or recorded with, among others: Liza Minelli, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Gladys Knight, Patti LaBelle, Little Richard, Nancy Wilson, The Neville Brothers, Bob Weir, B.B. King, John Hiatt, Ray Charles, Leon Redbone. ...
If they were a novel, nobody would believe it. If they were a sitcom, people would be too astonished to laugh. But The Persuasions don't complain about things, so I suppose that shouldn't, either. To talk to the guys as they all approach 60, you'd think these are the most blessed souls to never pick up a decent paycheck. As Lawson has been saying for too many years, "God has something big planned for us." Which brings up the key point about them -- and perhaps the one thing that sets their music apart:
They love what they do. No, no, I mean they really, really love what they do. More than they can tell you.
And when the voices come together, all the hard times, all the arguments, all the "I'm quitting the group" stuff, all the horrors ... the death of Toubo from a stroke in 1986 ... fall away. As their original manager, David Dashev, told me, "There is something that happens when The Persuasions sing that is bigger than all of them."
I met The Persuasions a few years ago. I'd written about them from time to time -- seems I was almost the only journalist who did. I found them in concert, worn out, tired, beat from driving hundreds of miles a night, from gig to gig, like young men. The night I saw them, Lawson had lost his voice to laryngitis. They were, in a word, off. I was shocked. How could these impossibly bright-spirited voices---as I said, there are days where the only medicine I require is Persuasions music---be so neglected?
Answer: spotty management. No publicist. No serious effort to promote them by anyone, at least not since the '70's. They were still out there, slugging it out on the road like 20-year-olds. Doing it for the love of it, and cash-in-hand. Catch them when they were rested, they were great. But catch them when they were tired from driving 500 miles a night, crammed into a rental van, and well. ...
In 1996, I decided to try and help out a bit. I won't get into the details, except to say that I have never worked harder on a project in my life. The results have gratifying for all concerned, yielding three new albums: their first kids' record, On The Good Ship Lollipop ( a multi-award-winner); the critical rave tribute to the great Frank Zappa, Frankly A Cappella: The Persuasions Sing Zappa; and a soulful rendering of Grateful Dead tunes, Might as Well: The Persuasions Sing Grateful Dead. I had the pleasure of co-producing and annotating the latter two albums, and Might as Well became their first album to yield royalties, thanks to the very supportive people at Grateful Dead Records.
These gentlemen are now enjoying more popularity than at any time in their career since they were first discovered and deemed hip by college radio in 1969. Since they toured with Joni Mitchell, et al. They're still not where they should be -- Japan would declare them living monuments, and they should be getting feted at the Kennedy Center, or a Lifetime Achievement Grammy -- but I hope they're on the way.
Oddly -- I mean really oddly -- the majority of The Persuasions' audience has always been white. Hard to say why -- perhaps it's because they were first discovered and championed by mostly white middle-class college kids in the early '70s, who have since grown up. Or maybe it's just that nobody ever bothered to market and categorize them as black artists (how refreshing!). Check that -- nobody really much bothered to market or categorize them at all. Go to Tower Records, and even today, their CDs are often ridiculously misfiled in "Oldies."
They're not oldies, they're not doo-wop, they're not gospel, they're not jazz, they're not rock -- although they sing some of each. They Persuade everything from The Beatles to Carole King, from Curtis Mayfield to Sam Cooke, from Kurt Weill to Frank Zappa, from Stephen Foster to Bob Dylan. Lawson, who does their highly clever arranging, hears a song, and "knows" it's really a Persuasions song. They are a living, singing museum of American music.
Want to peek inside the museum? Listen to On The Good Ship Lollipop,
which in 1999 was Amazon.com's No. 1 children's album of the year, the American Library
Association "Notable Children's Recording" and won every major parents' group
award in the book, starting with the National Parenting Publications Gold award. Like
gospel? Listen to their glorious 1997 gospel album, Sunday Morning Soul (or their
inspirational 1972 album, Spread the Word.) Want a good laugh? Listen to Frankly
A Cappella: The Persuasions Sing Zappa, a tribute to the man who gave them their first
album deal in 1969. Want to hear an album that Rolling Stone called one of the top 100 of
the entire '70s? (Really.) Try Chirpin'. Think that the Grateful Dead sang nothing but crazy
druggie music? You haven't heard Might As Well: The Persuasions Sing Grateful Dead
with songs as timeless and elegant as Stephen Foster's. Want to really make
bells-on-bobtail ring? There's the You're All I Want For Christmas album. Like Bob
Dylan, Carole King, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield and The Temptations? They're all on Street
Corner Symphony. Or go back to the well to their classic first big-label album, We
Came to Play, with the immortal rendering of Cooke's "Chain Gang."
© 2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.