JIMMY HAYES, BASS SINGER OF THE PERSUASIONS, DIES AT 74
Jimmy “Bro” Hayes, longtime bass singer of the legendary a cappella group, The Persuasions, died May 18 in New York during surgery for an undisclosed ailment. He had recently suffered from pneumonia, after a decades-long struggle with emphysema. He was 74.
Hayes was a founding member of the original group in 1962, along with lead singer/arranger Jerry Lawson and tenor Joseph “Sweet Joe” Russell. Tenor Jayotis Washington and baritone Toubo Rhoad were the other original members. Rhoad died from a stroke while on the road with the group in 1988, Russell in 2012 after a long battle with kidney disease. Washington continues with a group of singers using the Persuasions name, and Lawson is pursuing a solo career.
Hayes was quiet, dignified, gentlemanly. His natural tenor voice took a dive in his teens, and the mellifluent, elegant “basso profundo,” as he was introduced in concert, was born. The voice was instantly recognizable for its fluidity, dead rhythmic and tonal accuracy, and elegance. It not only comprised the “bottom” of The Persuasions’ singular sound, but the entire rhythm section.
“Jimmy,” as Lawson often observed, “is our secret weapon.”
Born November 12, 1943, Hopewell, Virginia,
Hayes spent most of his life in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of
Brooklyn, New York---where he first encountered the other would-be
Persuasions. "Bro" (pronounced "Brah") was his street nickname. As the story
goes, Hayes was working as an elevator operator, Lawson as a store
detective, Russell a butcher, Washington a plumber, and Rhoad a shoe
“And I was singing. He said I had a beautiful voice. He said ‘You sound just like Jerry Butler.’ Turned out we were neighbors. He and Joe were singing with a group called The Parisians and he wanted them to hear me. They heard me but didn’t need a lead singer, so Joe and Jimmy quit that group and we started our own group.”
At first they had a guitarist, as was the tradition with gospel a cappella groups, but when the player didn’t show up at their first major gig, they decided to go without instruments---the beginning of their motto, “Still Ain’t Got No Band.” They played parties, sang for anyone who would book them, and in 1966 were hired to work for Robert F. Kennedy’s privately funded Project Restoration, a program to repair Bed-Stuy, ruined by rioting in the wake of the 1964 police shooting of a 15-year-old African-American boy.
The Pers, as they became known to fans, effectively became the house band for the Project’s fundraisers, including a gala at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where they first wore their trademark tuxedos (and where Bill Lee, father of director Spike, who would one day make a documentary about The Persuasions and a cappella, “Do It A Cappella,” backed them on bass.)
Why the name? Hayes, the story goes, was
thumbing through a Bible when the word, “persuader,” jumped out at him.
The group’s sound was powerful, definitely the stuff of streets and stoops, showcasing and sometimes merging the blues, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll influences brought by its various members. Yet this was not merely raw, basic stuff. The Persuasions’ arrangements, done entirely by Lawson (with suggestions from producers) were novel, clever, clean, disciplined---and they famously adapted a stunningly eclectic array of music: Kurt Weill, The Temptations, Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, The Partridge Family (!), Frank Zappa, Elvis, Curtis Mayfield, later even the Grateful Dead.
"Maybe we can't sing everything,” Hayes would say in concert, “but we'll sure give it a good try."
Aside from Hayes’s silky voice, there was Russell’s mighty first tenor and Lawson’s leads---so skillful and inspired that he came to be known as the “baritone Sam Cooke.” Little-known fact: the falsetto voice on many of their recordings was Hayes. (Tony Joe White’s “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” from “Chirpin’” finds Hayes pulling double duty as bassist and “soprano.”) Hayes could have provided no better, more secure grounding for Lawson's freewheeling improvisations. Listeners would sometimes marvel at how they tapped their feet and danced to The Persuasions, when there was no rhythm section---except Hayes.
The group’s rise to success is well known. A fellow named David Dashev got off a train, heard them singing in a subway station, and decided to manage them without ever having managed anything before. In short order, he had them sing over the phone from a garage in New Jersey to a home recording studio in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, where one Frank Zappa was listening. Zappa had a new label, Bizarre, and promptly signed the group. Their debut album, “A Cappella,” led to a signing by Capitol and their 1971 masterpiece breakthrough album, “We Came to Play.”
The original Persuasions went on to record somewhere around 25 albums for various labels in the next 25 years, with “Chirpin’” in 1977 widely regarded as their greatest. Rolling Stone rated it one of the best hundred albums of that decade, and critic Greil Marcus called them, aptly, "a perfect marriage of passion and intelligence.” Hayes’s singing on “Chirpin’” is masterful, and his voice has more presence on that album than any other Persuasions record.
Yet a cappella---unaccompanied
singing---remained puzzling to the general public, a sufficient roadblock to
keep the group ever in search of so-called mainstream acceptance. They were
effectively if not literally alone in the genre, secular a cappella, all
through the ‘60’s, ‘70’s, and much of the ‘80’s, unknowingly paving the way
for the huge acceptance of unaccompanied singing that would happen with
groups such as Boyz II Men and Take Six (both of whom cited The Persuasions
as inspirations) in the '90's. The Pers were forever stupidly and routinely
filed under “doo-wop” and “oldies” in record stores.
Still, their reputation with peer artists was secure, attested by guest recording and live appearances over the years with Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Country Joe McDonald, Liza Minelli, Bette Midler.
In the ‘90’s, the group turned to niche markets. A children’s CD, “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” was acclaimed and given awards by family and parents groups. Their stunning 2000 tribute to the man who first signed them, “Frankly A Cappella: The Persuasions Sing Zappa,” landed them back in the mainstream with television appearances and in major write-ups in mainstream media such as People magazine. A Grateful Dead tribute, “Persuasions of the Dead,” followed, drawing admiring reviews for its ambition and scope.
The toll of life on the road was apparent, though, what with Hayes’s voice sometimes croaky from what was diagnosed as emphysema (which ran in his family) and ragged overall performances when tours were especially grueling. Lawson finally left in 2002, and has since recorded with the San Francisco a cappella group, Talk of the Town, and his own debut solo album, “Just a Mortal Man” (2015.)
Hayes soldiered on with personnel including his old colleagues, Russell and Washington, and various other singers, under the Persuasions name. One such configuration just recorded an album with the Canadian group, Barenaked Ladies. Hayes was in the middle of promoting the album when he died.
“He was a wonderful, thoughtful person,” said Lawson. “He and I always made decisions about Persuasions business and life. It was his decision that I should be not only the lead singer but the leader of the group. His importance to the Persuasions was keeping the rhythm and to start the songs in a comfortable key for me.
“As far as bass singers are concerned, he’s right at the top, among the best. I never had a brother and when we started singing together and our friendship grew he was the closest I ever came to having a brother. He was the brother I never had.”
Services are pending.
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