The Persuasions in their prime. From left: Jayotis Washington,
Jimmy Hayes, Jerry Lawson, Toubo Rhoad, Joe Russell.
JERRY LAWSON DIES AT 75
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
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
"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
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.”
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.
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
"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."
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
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…”
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
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
"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
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:
FULL PERSUASIONS BIO. (Copyright 2019 Rip Rense.)
DAVID DASHEV REMEMBERS JERRY LAWSON
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