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The Persuasions in their prime. From left: Jayotis Washington, Jimmy Hayes, Jerry Lawson, Toubo Rhoad, Joe Russell.

by Rip Rense (copyright Rip Rense, The Rip Post 2019)

          Jerry Lawson, the smooth baritone lead singer and arranger of the fabled a cappella group, The Persuasions, died July 10 at a Phoenix, Arizona hospice following a long illness. He was 75. His wife, Julie Lawson, was at his side.
          Lawson formed The Persuasions with Jimmy Hayes, Joseph Russell, Herbert Rhoad, Jayotis Washington in 1962 on the stoops and basketball courts of Brooklyn, New York, and toured with the group for 40 years, releasing twenty-five albums in the process. In 1966, they famously worked with Robert F. Kennedy on his “Project Restoration” program for Bedford-Stuyvesant, the first community redevelopment project of its kind.
          Dubbed by critics a “baritone Sam Cooke,” Lawson’s warm, magnetic singing combined childhood gospel influence from his youth in rural Apopka, Florida, with popular music of all types. Under his guidance, Persuasions albums became famously eclectic, covering everything from Cooke to Motown to Bob Dylan and Frank Zappa. David Dashev, their first manager, remembered their unlikely start as recording artists:
          "A tape of an amateur a cappella concert was blaring from a loudspeaker outside a record store in Jersey City. I stopped, listened and knew what I had to do."
          Dashev had heard that Frank Zappa was starting his own label, Straight, and phoned him at home in Laurel Canyon, playing the crude a cappella tape over the receiver. Zappa would later say that even over the phone, "I knew they were something special," and flew The Persuasions to L.A. to record their first album, "A Cappella."
          From there, Dashev took the group to Capitol Records, and they were soon championed by Barry “Dr. Demento” Hansen and an array of music greats including Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell (with whom they recorded and toured.)
          “Who can ever forget the first time they heard Jerry Lawson’s voice singing with The Persuasions?” said Miles Merritt, documentary filmmaker who directed “Just A Mortal Man: The Jerry Lawson Story,” to be released this fall. “His rich, reassuring, raspy baritone was tantamount to an epiphany – an awakening to the possibilities of the human voice to stir us – to lift us - and to make us want to sing along in harmony.”
          Where African-American a cappella groups had historically been gospel-based (with certain exceptions like the partly gospel Delta Rhythm Boys and Golden Gate Quartet), Lawson and The Persuasions were the first to make secular pop music their bread-and-butter.
"With the Persuasions, Jerry took a cappella from doo wop into a new era," said Deke Sharon, founder of the Contemporary A Cappella Society (CASA.)  "He kept a cappella alive during the '70s, setting up today’s resurgence, and inspired generations of singers with his voice and his soul. His legacy cannnot be overstated."
          Lawson chose The Persuasions' repertory, and arranged---"Persuasionized," he called it---songs to fit the group whose famous motto was "Still Ain't Got No Band."
          "I don’t believe in categories," he once said. "We love all kinds of music: Brook Benton, gospel, blues, Frank Zappa---hell, we even do ‘I Woke Up In Love This Morning,’ a song I heard on The Partridge Family TV show! (Opening track of "The Persuasions Live at McCabe's.") It’s all music. Give it to us, and we’ll do it Persuasions-style. There are just certain songs that are Persuasions songs."

          Despite Lawson’s acclaimed singing skills and charisma, and The Persuasions’ unique, gutsy street harmonies, the group retained a cult following throughout its career. Not until a cappella (unaccompanied) singing hit the mainstream with younger groups such as Boyz II Men---who cited The Persuasions as a main influence---were Lawson and The Pers, as they were known to fans, more widely recognized.
          Under Lawson's guidance, the group went on to record a variety of specialty records: all-gospel, a multi-award winning children's album, their only live album (at famed McCabe's in Santa Monica), and critically acclaimed tributes to Frank Zappa, the Grateful Dead, and The Beatles.
          After leaving The Persuasions in 2002 for personal reasons, Lawson relocated to Phoenix. He continued with various solo performances, local gigs, and in 2005 joined Rod Stewart on stage for the Katrina Benefit Concert for the victims of the hurricane. Stewart, told of Lawson's passing, said this:
          After working together at the Hurricane Katrina Benefit Concert, I admired the undeniable depth in Jerry's big voice.  A true soul singer…” 
           Lawson  and his wife next co-produced what he considered his a cappella masterwork “Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town,” in which he paired up with a long-standing San Francisco singers who had based themselves on The Persuasions. Lawson and TOTT made a memorable series of appearances on NBC’s “The Sing-Off” in 2011, where he was hailed as the grand old man of the genre.
          It was singer-songwriter Eric Brace, a lifelong Persuasions/Lawson fan, who approached Lawson with what became his first and only solo album, “Just a Mortal Man,” released on Red Beet Records in 2015. Critically acclaimed, the project featured a number of Brace originals, country western singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale, The McCrary Sisters---and included one song, “Woman in White,” co-written by Lawson and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. Said Brace:
          "Jerry was one of the great voices of 20th century American music. Because he made music with The Persuasions, his name was never well known to the general public. His solo career was short, but I feel so fortunate to have been able to be part of it. His voice was a great gift, and so was his huge heart."
          Lawson and his first manager, Dashev, reunited for the first time in 40 years for the singer's 75th birthday this past January, amid hugs, tears, and Lawson's whispered, "David, we did it!"
          "Jerry Lawson was the greatest soul man I ever heard," said Dashev, reached at home in Florida. "It was as if David Ruffin, Sam Cooke, Jerry Butler and Solomon Burke donated genes to create some supernatural synthesis. His voice was the auditory history of R&B. It was at once defiant, solicitous, smooth when it had to be, and rough when raw was required. He could sell a song because he had lived that song. The pain and imperfection of his reality was on display when he took the stage."

          But there was more to Lawson than music. After moving to Phoenix, he took a full-time job caring for disabled adults at Arizona Mentor, where he was employed for nine years until his death. He lovingly referred to the 20-30 adults in his care as “the kids.”
          "It doesn't take long to come up with things to say about Jerry," said Trenita Porter, Day Program Director at Arizona Mentor. "He was affectionately called Papa by some, friend, mentor, and he was definitely our inspirational leader. He loved the people he worked with, truly dedicated himself to them---often bringing in treats, cookies, cupcakes, coloring books. He got to know them, and he knew what they liked. He would often say, 'Did you show a child the way today?' He put that to work."
           A few years ago, Lawson talked about his job with the website, Blues GR:
          "One of the boys is 38 going on 12,” he said. “One of the kids is 22 going on six, and the other kid is 20 going on 10." They were not aware of his music career, and one hard-won connection with a deaf “kid” filled him with pride.
          "That means that he never heard me sing,” said Lawson. “He loves me because I'm just Jerry.”
          Lawson is survived by his daughters, Wanda, of Apopka, Florida, and Yvette, of Brooklyn, New York. At his request, there will be no funeral services. More information to come regarding charitable donations to be made in his memory.

"Looking For An Echo"
Preview of forthcoming documentary, "Just a Mortal Man: The Jerry Lawson Story"
Great concert clip of The Persuasions, circa 1970:
"Ripple," from "Persuasions of the Dead."
"My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama," from "Frankly A Cappella: The Persuasions Sing Zappa."
Lawson's final televised appearance on NBC's "Sing-Off" in 2014:
"Slip-Sliding Away"

FULL PERSUASIONS BIO. (Copyright 2019 Rip Rense.)


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