The Pers' Story
Pers on video
by Valerie Ramos-Ford
The great Jerry Lawson.
We invite all Persuasions fans to submit their
recollections of encountering The Persuasions, whether
joining them on stage to sing, or just sitting in the
back row, listening. Send all
Thirty-Eight Years and No Band---
But the Persuasions Never Needed One
By JOHN ROGERS
Associated Press Writer, April, 2000
The key to the Persuasions' sound, if not their success,
is summed up succinctly by lead singer Jerry Lawson.
"Thirty-eight years and we still ain't got no band,
man!" he says,his good humor shining through on a
coast-to-coast phone call. "That's the story right
In those 38 years,
the New York City group has become revered as "The Kings
of a Cappella" by a small but devoted fan base. The
Persuasions have recorded doo wop, blues, gospel and pop
songs, all with no sound other than their own voices
blended in glorious harmony.
are ready to release their 21st album, "Frankly A
Cappella, The Persuasions Sing Zappa."
vocal sextet's take on 16 of avant-garde rocker Frank
Zappa's works, everything from "Lumpy Gravy" to "My
Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama" to a couple of tracks
too scatological to name here.
"We had to
really go over all the songs closely," Lawson says, to
find ones that would fit the Persuasions' voices and at
the same time not prove too surprising to the group's
afterward," he adds delightedly, "I played this for my
mother and my mother loved it."
the only one.
it's stunning," says Zappa's widow, Gail.
husband, who died of cancer in 1993, have approved?
"I think he
would have thought it was adorable of them," she says,
believe they wanted to remember Frank in this way."
Zappa, the brilliant instrumentalist, who signed the
struggling vocal harmony group to his independent label
Straight in 1969 and brought out their first album, "A
Cappella," the next year.
followed by 19 more releases, while the Persuasions
attracted fans around the world through constant
touring. They performed with everyone from Liza Minnelli
to Country Joe McDonald, Joni Mitchell to the Seattle
executives never knew how to market a
black a cappella group that could perform a Paul Simon
song as well as one by the Moonglows.
Commercial radio, unable to decide which
format they fit, virtually ignored the Persuasions.
"To do this
38 years without having a band and never having a hit
record, something is guiding us," says Jimmy Hayes, the
singer whose bass voice anchors the Persuasions' sound.
put on this Earth just to occupy space and breathe air,"
he continues. "I think our purpose on this Earth is just
to do what we're doing."
handful of guys blending their voices on any song that
catches their fancy. That's all the Persuasions have
ever done, through good times and bad.
first began getting together at the end of the day in
Brooklyn back in 1962, Hayes recalls, they didn't even
have a name.
"It was just
five guys who used to stand on the corner or go down to
the subway station every night and just do this," he
says. "This lady heard us one time and told us, 'You
guys sound pretty good. What's the name of the group?'
We said, 'We ain't got no name. We're just five guys
singing on the street.'"
remembers, "Jimmy Hayes came to us and said, 'I got a
name for us, and I got it from the Bible.' He said
Christ tried to persuade his disciples to follow him,
and what better name for us than the Persuasions, when
we're trying to get people to listen to this music
without a band."
was Persuaders," Hayes says, chuckling. "But it was the
'60s and all the groups had names ending in IONS _
Temptations, Swee Inspirations. ... So we became the
step was to persuade someone to hire them.
"Oh it was
rough, man, it was really rough," recalls Lawson. "It
was rock 'n' roll and all the club
owners, they wanted the boom and the bang."
they sang outside one New York club well enough that
people stopped going inside. Suddenly, they had a job
five---Lawson, Hayes, Joe Russell, Jayotis Washington
and Toubo Rhoad---stayed together until Rhode's death in
1988. The survivors wouldn't
replace him for eight years, until B.J. Jones of the
Drifters joined them. Last year they added Raymond
Sanders, who had been with the Paragons.
their difficulty breaking through to a mainstream
audience, the Persuasions kept their fans. It was one
fan named David Dashev, a music writer, who pitched a
tape of them to Zappa in 1969.
later, another fan, Rip Rense, came forward to promote
"On the Good Ship Lollipop," a children's album released
last year, and the Zappa project to Music For Little
People and its companion label, Earthbeat Records.
never gotten their due," says Rense, a Los Angeles-based
writer. "They're the greatest, most enduring American a
cappella group. In another country like Japan they'd be
declared a living treasure."
members, in their 50s now, say they aren't ready for
legend status. They just want to keep working.
wine," says Hayes. "You know what I mean? We get better
ARE YOU PERSUADED?
by Rip Rense
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
CARROLL covered the recording of
"Might As Well: The Persuasions Sing Grateful Dead," in
four memorable columns:
IT HAPPENED AT JOE'S STAR LOUNGE. . .
-- Article written specially for the site by
My rusty old
Dodge van swayed from side to side
at sixty miles an hour along westbound Jeffrey’s
Freeway. Cold sharp winds slapped at her sides,
threatening to either shove us into a guardrail or send
us skidding out of control across the wide slick patches
of ice which lay on the road.
Dense clouds of thick frosty
snowflakes swirled down from the sky and filled the
horizon, dropping visibility to near zero.
The date was January 24,
1985, and although it was
a perilous night to be out for a drive I had no thought
of turning back home to Detroit. I was heading for a
college town and someplace called Joe’s Star Lounge,
where the Persuasions were scheduled to perform before a
I knew it would be a remarkable
concert; I didn’t know, though, that the Persuasions
would introduce me to "the Family of Man" and include me
in a Norman Rockwell painting.
This would be my first live
concert, but I had been collecting Persuasion music
since discovering them in the late l970’s. My love for
pure a cappella is something I was born with – a gift
from our Creator, if you will – and my admiration for
the Persuasions came straight from the soul.
I loved their rich soaring
harmonies. I thrilled to Jimmy Hayes’ incredible,
relentless bass. Most of all I admired their signature
tune, "Still Ain’t Got No Band," which I first heard on
their 1984 "No Frills" album.
"We’ve been making music all
these years, and we still ain’t got no band!" the lyrics
proclaimed. I instinctively understood this. "That’s
because they don’t need to hide behind loud drums or
fancy synthesizers or anything like that," I would tell
"They can stand on their own!"
Back in ’85 I couldn’t
possibly have foreseen how much my life would change
over future years. Mom would die. Dad would die. Me
eldest son would die. I would go through a divorce,
finally put a cork in the jug, and three years later
retire from my career, and then move completely away
from the big city.
And I didn’t foresee that the
Persuasions would also overcome disappointment and
heartache, then carry their torch into the new
millennium singing about life and spirituality with even
more vim and harmony than before, not to mention the
added wisdom and maturity their life experiences would
That night in ’85 all I could
think of was "it sure is cold tonight … and windy … keep
your eyes on the road … don’t miss your turn …"
Although word of the
Persuasions' appearance had been passed along mostly
by word of mouth, Joe’s Star Lounge was absolutely
packed that evening! Before the show I sat drinking beer
and watching a small doorman with a long blond pony tail
turn away one prospective customer after another.
"Why can’t they come in?" I
"Ya can’t come in without a
ticket," he replied. "Look around. The place is already
full and more people keep coming. Where we gonna put
Then I went back to my table
with another beer, wiped frost off a window so I could
look outside, and discovered that the people who had
been turned away were still outside, standing in little
groups. An icy wind ripped at their coats. It blew
swirls of frigid snow around their ankles and under
jacket collars, but there they stood, shivering in the
"What are they waiting for?"
Inside the lounge, the group
had performed standards such as "Ain’t That Good
News," along with newer material, and lead singer Jerry
Lawson had entertained us between sets with friendly
patter and funny stories. And then I discovered
what we had all been waiting for.
Right around 10:30 I glanced
down at my watch and thought to myself, "It’s getting
late. Show’s almost over!" Then on impulse I turned back
toward the window to again wipe frost off the glass and
peer into the night, and I realized that those little
knots of people were still standing outside, shivering
in the bitter cold air, still waiting.
And at that moment I witnessed
a little miracle. Lounge management somehow began piping
the music outside, where the "street people" could hear
it. As the Persuasions sang, their sweet harmonies
radiated outdoors and into the roadway, whereupon the
little knots of people began moving in slow unison off
the street and toward the lounge.
I had the distinct
impression that they were moving out of the bitter
cold, toward the comforting warmth of the Persuasions'
peace and harmony, much as rural families might gather
around a farmhouse fireplace to warm their bones and
escape deep winter’s chill.
"We’re all came here tonight
for the same reason," I realized. "We are all part of
the Family of Man, and we came here tonight to let the
Persuasions warm our spirits. We’re all gathered before
a glowing cosmic hearth, warming our souls with the
hottest a cappella this side of Heaven."
I would later learn the term a
cappella means "in the chapel, a reference to the pure
vocal music of the Middle Ages," which may account for
the deeply spiritual character of my experience that
night. Maybe that’s also why I felt as though I was
sitting inside of a living breathing Norman Rockwell
painting, straight off the cover of an old Saturday
Evening Post, sharing hearth and kinship with other
I drove home that night and
couldn’t sleep. Something in my life had begun to
I have retold this story
ever since, repeatedly, to any friend who will
listen and try to understand.
That night in ’85, I did not
foresee that the Persuasions would continue to perform
into l999, still intact after 36 years on the road, 22
albums, not a hit record to show for all of it, and
especially, the death of beloved baritone Herbert "Toubo"
Rhoad, who had been described as the group’s "glue."
I wouldn’t have predicted that
this year they would release a pair of vigorous,
magnificent albums –
You’re All I want for Christmas, and Good Ship
Lollipop – and that, just as 35 years ago, the only
sound we would hear is the human voice: founding members
Jerry Lawson at lead baritone; Sweet Joe Russell at
tenor and falsetto; Jayotis Washington at tenor; Jimmy
Hayes at bass; and new member B.J. Jones, a former
Performing strictly a cappella
through nearly four decades, these gentlemen "still
ain’t got no band!"
And ain’t it grand?
Singing with power and
conviction, their outright refusal to "go
commercial" and hide their voices behind loud noisy
instruments gives us hope, because their success
demonstrates that good things can endure hardship and
Today their brilliant lyrics
and harmonies cheer hearts and raise spirits across the
globe. It is their music which we hear inside our heads
upon arising each morning, eating breakfast, walking the
dog, or communing with our Higher Power.
Their message to the Family of
Man is clear. "Know who you are. Be what you are. Have
faith in yourself. Walk through life at the Creator’s
side, singing your own song, the one He gave you."
Because A cappella is "the
people’s music" and meant to be shared, I talk about
this often with Family members. "How do you spell ‘a
cappella’ and what’s it mean?" they ask.
I tell them, "You spell it
And it means "honesty, liberty,
the freedom to walk through life without absolutely no
crutch of any kind."
Finally, I always add, "Hey,
I ain’t got no band either. I’ve kept the jug corked
for eleven years so far. But can I tell you about a
night in back l985 when I witnessed a little miracle?
See, I was driving my old brown Dodge van down the
Jeffreys freeway, and it was snowing to beat the band,
CAN WE HEP? WASHINGTON JAZZES IT UP FOR
By Roxanne Roberts
FROM THE WASHINGTON POST, May 10, 1999
Friday morning Jerry Dovberg
was a portly, middle-aged podiatrist. Friday night he
was a doo-wop heartthrob crooning "In the Still of the
Night" like a man who'd spent his whole life singing on
a Philly street corner. He was smooth, he was sweaty,
and he was having the time of his life.
"He looked like a star," said
his wife, Sandi. "He was great!"
Dovberg was just one of the
1,000 jazz aficionados at Friday's "Jazzmatazz," a
black-tie gala benefiting Children's National Medical
Center. For one evening, the Ronald Reagan Building was
transformed into four music clubs with performances by
Ramsey Lewis, Shirley Horn, Jonathan Butler, Loston
Harris, Pieces of a Dream, the Persuasions, Spur of the
Moment and Julia Nixon. Partygoers floated from room to
room sipping blue martinis, listening to great jazz, and
staying up way past their normal bedtime.
So Dovberg, a guy in a tuxedo
and red bow tie, found himself singing onstage with the
Persuasions--the ones in the purple suits and
sunglasses. "I've been a fan of a cappella music since
these guys started 37 years ago," he said breathlessly.
At 2 a.m. he was sitting ringside to hear Pieces of a
Dream and still smiling.
And he wasn't the only one:
This event attracted young and old, black and white,
serious jazz fans and more casual ones, raising more
than $400,000 for Children's Hospital. Which means that
in the increasingly competitive world of Washington
fund-raising, this experiment in charitable fun hit the
For the last 10 years, the
hospital held a traditional dinner dance for its annual
fund-raiser. This time, organizers were looking for
something that would attract a wider segment of the
Washington community. Something more . . . well, jazzy.
So they decided on a musically themed event and modeled
this gala after Boston's "Stepping Out," a jazz showcase
that has attracted thousands of music fans for more than
"We feel it can be more
inclusive," said dinner committee chair Liz Dubin. "You
can come if you're 30 or 70. We would just like to
broaden our base."
The evening began with all the
trappings of your standard charity soiree--more than 300
donors at the $1,000-a-seat dinner before the
performances. There were air kisses and cocktails,
speeches and filet mignon, photo ops and poached pears.
Officially, this was "The First Ladies Gala," although
no first ladies showed up. So chairwomen Andrea Mitchell
and Phylicia Rashad provided the style and substance:
Mitchell with her remarks, Rashad with a short,
sophisticated singing act after dinner. Mayor Anthony
Williams was on hand, along with jazz fan/Federal
Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan, who was ordered
to look happy by hospital chair Whayne Quin: "Keep
smiling and always keep your thumb up because we need
those gifts of appreciated stock."
But the night quickly
transformed into a much more lively affair when the rest
of the guests, who paid $175 for each ticket, began to
arrive after 9 p.m. The dinner was filled with hospital
donors; later they were joined by jazz fans who'd come
to see their icons, and the young professionals who'd
come to see and be seen. The mix of the three crowds
made an interesting tableau.
"You've got your dinosaurs, the
50-plus like me," said publisher Bill Regardie. "You've
got the kids, the mid-twenties, stepping out. And then
you've got the hungry ones. The hungry ones are out to
make their mark. They're networking like crazy. It's
like they wish everyone had a name tag." Regardie had
that slightly amused, world-weary look that only a rich
dinosaur can carry off. "But it's the most integrated
event I've been to outside of a political rally."
Most of the dinosaurs cleared
out early, and the young raptors were quickly
outnumbered by a kinder, gentler beast called the
Jazzasaurus--the true music fans. At first the cavernous
space seemed too big for the crowd, and it was tough to
find the convention rooms that had been turned into
stages for the night. The confusion was compounded by
jazz time, which is a vague but relaxed concept of when
performances start and finish.
But the music! Sometime after
11 p.m., the martinis and the groove kicked in. So when
the Persuasions dived into the audience, coaxing fans to
sing along to "Under the Boardwalk" and "In the Still of
the Night," they found only mild protests of modesty.
"Isn't it wonderful?" asked
Carmen Lattimore. "My husband and I really needed this.
We had a tough week."
Lattimore and her husband,
Walter, are pastors at Victory Church International in
Fort Washington. For this night, Walter put on the tux
and Carmen her gold sequins to hear the music they
courted to almost 20 years ago. "It's very romantic,"
she said. "It's like the good old days."
TOP OF PAGE
TOP ARGUMENT FOR A CAPPELLA MUSIC
Rense, from the San Jose Mercury News
have been through all the hell you might expect
after 36 years on the road, 20 albums in their wake, and
not a hit record to show for it. But they wouldn't have
it any other way.
"Hey, we knew in the beginning
we'd have to persuade people to listen to five guys with
no band," said lead singer Jerry Lawson. "Christ had to
persuade people to listen to him, and so did The
Persuasions. That's why we took the name. For a long
time, we were really the only guys out there singing a
unaccompanied (literally translated "in the chapel," a
reference to pure vocal music in the middle ages)---has
not historically been the stuff of radio airplay, let
alone hits. From the 60s through the 80s, you were lucky
to find it on the odd late night FM R&B show. That
changed in the early 90s, when a branch of rap and
hip-hop mutated into multi-part unaccompanied
harmonizing. And now. . .
A cappella is big business.
Consider: Boyz II Men, who had a hit with an a
cappella version of "In the Still of the Night," are a
household name. Take 6 won a Grammy for an entire a
cappella album. Loopy, highly inventive groups like
Rockapella, The Bobs and The Nylons have a healthy
recording and touring existence. The a cappella society,
Primarily A Cappella (headquartered in Santa Rosa,
Calif.) has a website listing hundreds of vocal groups
across the nation, many with their own albums for sale,
and hosts an annual A Cappella Summit concert.
Yet somehow, The
Persuasions---the godfathers of the movement--- guys who
were singing a cappella on the streetcorners of
Brooklyn, N.Y., long before Boyz II Men were even Babiez
II Men, have been lost in the bargain. There are no
slick MTV videos and spiffy marketing for this
fiftysomething quintet. As always, they still eke by on
a devoted fan base, and word-of-mouth. They're probably
the longest running best-kept-secret in the music
business. Call it a howling injustice, in five-part
harmony. There are no sour notes from Lawson, though:
"We carried the torch by
ourselves for a long time," he said, resting in Los
Angeles between gigs. "Now there are over four or five
hundred a cappella groups, and it makes us feel good. I
told Rockapella, when they first came to one of our
shows, there was of room for everybody! Anything that
happens as far as a cappella is concerned puts a feather
in our caps."
They have been nothing if
not durable. They stuck it out after the heady times
in the 70s ended, when they recorded for major labels
includ-ing Capitol, MCA, and Elektra. They stuck it out
when Lawson decided to quit in the early 80s, then came
back, and when second tenor Joe Russell did the same
thing. They stuck it out when they could barely pay the
rent on their gig-to-gig existence, and when radio
barely played their music. Most amazingly, they stuck it
out after their beloved baritone, Toubo Rhoad, died in
Sacramento in 1986 following a stroke. The husky-voiced
Rhoad was "the glue," as the group puts it, that held
everyone together---harmonically, and in terms of
brotherhood. His ashes were scattered in the San
Francisco Bay, a place he loved, and The Persuasions
toured for a long time with his empty mike. (Former
Drifter B.J. Jones joined in 1997.)
Most recently, the group
endured a protracted struggle to leave its label,
Rounder, after six albums. The label granted a buy-out
release to The Persuasions, who were unhappy with
promotion and distribution of their product---notably
their 1997 Christmas album,
You're All I Want For Christmas, which they say was
not widely distributed on release, despite endorsements
by the L.A. Times and New York Times.
The Persuasions' peers,
fortunately for them, have long recognized the
group's virtuosic vocal abilities. Lawson, whose
rough-edged tenor compares with Brook Benton and Otis
Redding, Jimmy Hayes (bass), Joe Russell (tenor,
falsetto), Jayotis Washington (tenor), and the late
Toubo Rhoad (their baritone, who died from a stroke in
1987) have sung and/or recorded with the likes of Liza
Minelli, Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Lou
Reed, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Gladys Knight, Country
Joe McDonald, Patti La Belle, the Neville Brothers, B.B.
King. The group's 1977 Elektra album, Chirpin,' was
rated one of the top 100 works of the '70s by
Rolling Stone. Tom Waits once said: "These guys are
deep sea divers. I'm just a fisherman in a boat."
It was Frank Zappa, of all
people, who first signed them to a record contract
(Straight, for Warner Brothers) in 1968---merely upon
hearing them sing over the phone, when a friend called
from a New York nightclub, declaring "Frank, you've got
hear this." "Frank was cool," laughed Lawson. "He
brought us out to Hollywood, where we saw all the holly,
and the wood."
In 1970, The Persuasions
moved to Capitol, quickly cut two of their most
classic albums, We Came to Play and
Streetcorner Symphony, and ran smack up against a
marketing boondoggle. In the rock-dominated music and
radio industry of the 70s and 80s, no one knew how to
sell a cappella. Was it a novelty? Folk? R & B? Eclectic
song choices didn't help matters; the group recorded
everything from Motown to Kurt Weill, Bob Dylan, Zappa
and, in one instance, the (gulp) Partridge Family. "Yes,
we do 'I Woke Up In Love This Morning,'" said Lawson, a
TV fanatic who does most of the group's arranging. "I
heard it on an old Partridge Family re-run, and I
thought, 'that's a Persuasions song.' There's something
about certain songs that I just call Persuasions songs
the first time I hear them. It's a lot to do with our
bass man. If he can do the licks like they are on the
record, then the lead singer is free to come up with
what he wants. And the other Persuasions become the
It wasn't just marketing people
who were befuddled by five African-American guys
harmonizing Dylan. Tower Records and other major chains
took 20 years to stop filing their records and CDs in
"oldies" and "vocals" and finally give them their own
category in "rock and pop." It's the only appropriate
label, devotees will tell you, because the group. .
.rocks. Hayes' basslines have more in common with
Motown's great studio bass player James Jamerson than
gospel. As Lawson says, "We have a song, 'Still Ain't
Got No Band,' but it really isn't quite true. See, we
are the band."
The late 80s were a time of
staggering, but in the 90s, things are turning
around. The group has recorded six new albums this
decade---including, for Rounder's Bullseye Blues label,
the excellent 1996 Sincerely and two firsts: the
forthcoming all-gospel album, Inspired
(Bullseye Blues), and a children's album, Good Ship
Lollipop, due in May on the Grammy-winning Music
For Little People Label.
"We've been going to schools
and singing for kids for thirty years," said Lawson,
"and we've always wanted to do a kids' album. This is
the first time anyone other than The Persuasions have
sung with us. We got some great kid singers joining us,
and wouldn't you know? It might be the best album we've
There have been a few more high
notes of late, starting with their unusually candid 1996
documentary, "Spread the Word," which airs occasionally
on PBS (but has yet to be released commercially due to
high licensing fees for the featured songs.) Produced
and directed as a labor of love by writer/ actor and
longtime fan Fred Parnes, the film played festivals
across the country and garnered raves, including this
from Andy Klein of the L.A. Reader: "Feeling
depressed? I can think of no greater remedy than to
watch 'Spread the Word,' a funny, moving, and
invigorating look at. . .one of America's national
treasures.'" Said Parnes: "They should be in the Rock 'n
Roll Hall of Fame, they should be playing the White
House, they should be doing Austin City Limits, Vegas.
It's just amazing to me that they are not more
The are, at least, on their
home turf. Last summer, The City of Brooklyn honored
the group with a spot on its own "Walk of Fame" and a
"Persuasions Day." Now there are new goals: a tour of
Europe and Asia, and an album tribute to Zappa.
"We want to say 'thank you' to
Frank for signing us," said Lawson. "You can't imagine
how great Zappa's music sounds a cappella, especially
the early songs. We sing his tune, 'The Meek Shall
Inherit Nothing' in concert, and people love it."
Still ain't got no band is The
Persuasions' longtime slogan. Still ain't got enough
recognition might be more apt at this stage. But Lawson
says the group will still. . .stick it out.
"With help from our fans, we're
going to hang in there. I told the guys, we are going to
go out like the Mills Brothers. They sang till the end,
and one of them is still singing. Our voices are
stronger than ever. And our hearts, too."
TOP OF PAGE
Himes, from the Washington Post
WHEN LEAD singer
Jerry Lawson and the rest of the Persuasions
appeared on "Do It A Cappella," the PBS special directed
by Spike Lee last year, Lawson saw it as the ultimate
vindication of his whole career. As he looked around the
soundstage, Lawson saw examples of the worldwide
resurgence in unaccompanied singing: South Africa's
Ladysmith Black Mambazo, England's Mint Juleps, New
Jersey's Rockapella and the Grammy-winning Take 6.
"It was such a wonderful
feeling for the Persuasions," Lawson recalls, "because
it proved we had accomplished something; it showed we
weren't one of these groups that just put out a few
records and disappear. When we started out 28 years ago,
a cappella barely existed, but we kept it alive and now
a cappella is happening all over the world. It's like
working on a car for 28 years, and when you're finally
finished, people see it and go, 'Wow!' "
The Persuasions, who perform
at the Birchmere Saturday, shared a dressing room
during the TV special with Take 6, the Alabama a
cappella gospel sextet whose shows now sell out.
"Their success makes me feel
wonderful," Lawson proclaims in the same husky, booming
voice he uses on stage. "There's always room for others.
I'm 47 years old and the guys in Take 6 are kids;
they're going to carry it on. When they told us in the
dressing room how they listened to the Persuasions all
college or when they praised us
on TV on 'Good Morning America,' it makes me feel like
there was a purpose to the Persuasions. I feel like
we've opened the door for someone else."
The Mint Juleps, an
all-female sextet from England, were especially
excited to meet the Persuasions at last. It seems that
the women had never heard of a cappella singing until a
few guys they knew tried to impress the women with some
"They asked the boys, 'What's
that?'," Lawson relates. "The guys said they learned it
at a workshop led by the Persuasions in London about 15
years ago, and that got the Mint Juleps interested in a
cappella singing. Like they say, 'Everything that goes
around comes around.' "
Lawson was particularly
impressed with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the stars of
Paul Simon's "Graceland" album and tour.
"I had to sit down and
really listen hard to Mambazo," Lawson says,
"because that's our roots. When we started singing a
cappella on the street corners, we had no idea it
reached all the way back to Africa. We were singing it
for self-enjoyment, but for them it's a way of life --
it's their national anthem and their prayers. They
showed us a whole other side of a cappella."
The "Do It A Cappella" TV
special and the subsequent soundtrack album on Elektra
(featuring three Persuasions tracks) have provided a new
lift to the group's career. The special was broadcast
all over the world, and the Persuasions' agent has been
getting calls from the most unlikely places. The least
likely of all was Vietnam. It seems that a lot of U.S.
soldiers had tapes of the Persuasions' 1972 "Street
Corner Symphony" album and many Vietnamese still listen
to it. Lawson hopes that Vietnam will be included on the
group's upcoming Far East tour.
In conjunction with the TV
special soundtrack, Elektra Records also rereleased the
Persuasions' 1977 album, "Chirpin'," which Lawson calls
his favorite second only to "Street Corner Symphony."
"It's been nine years since
we've had any album at all under our own names, but
we just started work on a new one last week," Lawson
says. "Ichiban Records should have it out by the time we
come back to D.C. to play Anton's in May."
When the Persuasions were at
Anton's last July, they asked D.C.'s Finest, an a
cappella quintet of three active-duty D.C. police
officers and two retirees, to open each show. It's been
common practice for the Persuasions to befriend the
local a cappella group that opens the show in nearly
every city they play regularly. Often the friendship
extends to dinners in private homes -- a personal touch
that makes touring much more bearable. Last summer in
Washington, Lawson lost a dental plate, but the officers
in D.C.'s Finest wouldn't rest until they had safely
delivered him to a dentist.
It's stories like that provide
Lawson with satisfaction after a long and sometimes
"Oh, there were
lean times," he admits, "but we never had to take day
jobs and we never thought about quitting. There was a
time when the family tree of a cappella singing was only
a single stem, and that was the Persuasions. But look at
that tree now: It has lots of branches and all the
flowers are blooming."
Persuasions sing a cappella Zappa
by Julio Martinez (Daily Variety),Apr.12, 2000
(Variety) - Frank Zappa's wacky, surrealistic lyrics
actually take on a new level of meaning and hilarity
coming from the mouths of this tradition-bound,
tuxedo-clad a capella sextet.
Persuasions, led by Jerry Lawson, do not possess the
smooth, velvet-voiced harmonic inventiveness of such
contemporary a cappella groups as Take 6, Boyz II Men or
Rockapella, but they do infuse every number with an
energetic commitment that is infectious.
1969, master of rock 'n' roll absurdism Zappa signed an
unknown a cappella R&B-gospel quintet from Brooklyn to
his record label, launching the recording career of the
Persuasions. As a tribute to their mustachioed mentor
(who died of cancer in 1993), the ensemble has just
released a CD of his music titled ``Frankly a
with a zesty, scat rendition of Zappa's quirky
instrumental ``Lumpy Gravy'' (featuring a recurring riff
on the word ``duodenum''), the ensemble winds its way
through a representative sampling of Zappa fare culled
from Mothers of Invention recordings from 1963 to 1969.
handled the solos through most of the one-hour concert,
including the philosophical ``Any Way the Wind Blows,''
the hard-driving, politically incorrect ``Hotplate
Heaven at the Green Motel'' and the deceptively tender,
doo-wop inspired ``Love of My Life.''
highlight of the evening has to be the decidedly
irreverent ``The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing,'' led with
revival meeting fervor by a choir-robed Lawson. It is
amazingly affective to hear this quintet of
church-trained vocalists warn the audience that the
prophets of old are ``a waste of time and it's your ass
that's on the line.''
evidence of their own vocal roots, the Persuasions added
several R&B hits, including ''Sincerely,'' ``Good Night
Sweetheart,'' ``Speedo'' and a unique, rumba-soul
rendition of the Latin classic ''Besame Mucho.''
inhouse. Band: Jerry Lawson, Jimmy Hayes, Joe Russell,
B.J. Jones, Jayotis Washington, Raymond Sanders.
The Real Feel-Good Film of the Year
By Andy Klein
depressed? Life got ya down? Is that your problem,
If it is, I
can think of no greater remedy than towatch Fred
documentary, Spread the Word: The Persuasions Sing A
Cappella---a funny, moving, and invigorating look at
a vocal group that is one of America's national
There is a
strong chance you've never heard of these guys. After
thirty-some years and more than a dozen albums, The
Persuasions have never had even a minor hit. (They just
barely cracked the soul charts a coupel of times in the
mid-seventies.) Despite the nineties mini-revival of
harmony records by groups like Boyz II Men, Shai,
and Color Me Badd. . .despite the fact that most
groups acknowledge their debt to, and respect for, The
Persuasions. . .despite the high regard they command
within the music industry. . .real commercial success
has eluded them.
Part of the
problem may be the group's commitment to a capella.
They've relentlessly refused to record with instruments,
not that you'd necessarily notice. Back in the early
70s, when their album, We Came To Play was
released, I used to play their version of The
"(Loneliness Made Me Realize) It's You That I Need" for
friends. I'd then ask if they noticed anything, well,
odd about the record; so full was the sound that almost
nobody ever picked up on the fact that there was no
can think of one greater remedy for despondency than
Spread The Word: If The Persuasions happen to be
playing around town, go see them instead. No film could
possibly capture the sheer joy and energy of the group
live. The very notion that it could approaches
sacrilege, like trying to photograph the face of God. A
shadow image is the best you can hope for.
Parnes provides as substantial a shadow as one could
hope for. He does a remarkable job of conveying just
what is so special about these guys, musically and
personally. In particular, he captures the sense of
ensemble that spills over from their singing into their
talking. In conversation, they constantly interrupt
with perfect timing---the kind of timing that can't
be faked, that only comes from years of being close. The
banter is rhythmic, slipping into classic
call-and-response gospel style. It gives you the kind of
sheer pleasure of performance that is usually reserved
for music or movement: It's the conversational
equivalent of Jeff and Beau Bridges's
rapport in The Fabulous Baker Boys or Jackie
Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao in a
dozen films, brawling with the precision of brothers.
includes excerpts from about twenty-five songs. We hear
only a few all the way through, which is a pity. The
selection ranges from
The Temptations to country to Men at Work
to blues to "My Yiddishe Mama" to the Wyatt Earp TV
theme. But, not matter what the material, The
Persuasions inevitably turn it into secularized gospel.
You being to suspect that they could find the emotional,
spiritual roots of anything---"Billy, Don't Be a Hero,"
or "Playgrounds of My Mind" or "Something Stupid."
really is, to use a debased expression, the feel-good
film of the year. It's nearly impossible to watch it
without (a) wanting to go hear the group live; (b)
wanting to sing along: and (c) wanting to be their
Persuasions may be just four guys and a ghost---they
carry with them the spirit and memory of departed member
Toubo Rhoad---but, all together, they also form a
kind of unintentional suicide-prevention hotline. On
stage and on screen, they generate the kind of pleasure
that reminds you why life is worth living.
REVIEWS OF 'FRANKLY
A CAPPELLA: THE PERSUASIONS SING ZAPPA:"
Billboard (April 1,
SPOTLIGHT: THE PERSUASIONS, "Frankly A Cappella: The
Persuasions Sing Zappa"
In a work of absurdist inspiration worthy of its
subject, gospel a cappella heroes the Persuasions offer
up a surprisingly soulful collection of…that's right,
Frank Zappa covers. The vocal quintet -- expanded to a
sextet for this outing -- pays homage to Zappa, who
inked them to their first album deal in 1969. The 12
featured songs are a savvy survey of Zappa's legendary
catalog of avant-garde rock and jazz, spanning the years
1963-1989. As a bonus, the album features contributions
from former Zappa collaborators like trombonist Bruce
Fowler on "Cheap Thrills" and guitarist Mike Keneally on
"My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama." But the
Persuasions, who previously covered Zappa's "Lucille Has
Messed My Mind Up" on 1994's "Right Around The Corner,"
have no problem translating his complex musical
arrangements with just six-part harmonies. As evidenced
on tracks like "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing" and
"Lumpy Gravy" (A Zappa instrumental composition),
"Frankly A Cappella" is a novel re-working of a true
original. Great Googly-Moogly, indeed.
The Washington Post
(Mar 26, 2000)
Let's start with an obvious question: How did a
gospel-leaning African American a cappella act from
Brooklyn end up recording a batch of songs by
California's surrealist rock weirdo Frank Zappa? Through
a friend of a friend, as it happens, Zappa auditioned
the band over the phone back in 1969 and liked what he
heard. The following year, the Persuasions--who later
scored some minor R&B hits and steadfastly refused
backing instruments--recorded an album on Zappa's
Straight Records, titled simply "A Cappella."
The Persuasions and their mustachioed mentor met only a
few times, once opening for Zappa's Mothers of Invention
at Virginia Beach in 1971. (The show marked the first
time an African American act played that stretch of
sand, by the way.) Zappa died of cancer in 1993, and now
the Persuasions are paying tribute with cover versions
of some of his best-known songs.
"Frankly A Cappella" turns out to be a pretty inspired
idea. Putting Zappa's odd, wickedly acerbic lyrics in
the mouths of six church-choir gents adds layers of
humor to the music that simply weren't there when sung
by a self-avowed satirist. On "Lumpy Gravy," the
Persuasions must weave "duodenum" into a doo-wop number.
Most subversive, by a mile, is the Persuasions'
rendering of the anti-liturgical "The Meek Shall Inherit
Nothing," which features this incomparable couplet:
"Some take the Bible for what it's worth, when it says
that the meek shall inherit the earth/ But I heard that
some sheik has bought New Jersey last week, and you
suckers ain't getting a thing."
© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company
Chronicle's Joel Selvin writes:
As a composer, Frank Zappa never attracted a lot of
interpreters. His own versions were so exacting, he
didn't leave a lot of wiggle room for other people. A
great deal of the essence of Zappa lay in careful
juxtapositions of highly detailed music and pointed
lyrical sentiments. But The Persuasions have struck a
near-perfect balance. The long-standing a cappella group
doesn't really change its trademark style, but rather
brings Zappa into its world---and not just his comical
doo-wop, but even orchestral pieces such as "Lumpy
Gravy." These singers understand both the content and
the spirit of Zappa's songs, which is why this album is
as good as it is. To have these black voices joining
together in gospel harmonies over Zappa racial
commentaries in "Electric Aunt Jemima" or "You Are What
You Is" brings entirely new meaning to the compositions.
And Zappa's slightly bent takes on both romantic and
carnal love---such as 'Harder Than Your Husband'---gets
a much more goofy grin on the faces of The Persuasions.
Zappa's iconoclasm went all the way to the bone and The
Persuasions are savvy enough to keep their own charming
eccentricities intact while tackling Zappa's."
Steve Dougherty writes: (APRIL 17, 2000)
And now for some bizarre bedfellows. On this tribute to
the late avant-garde composer and social satirist Frank
Zappa, leader of the Mothers of Invention and wearer of
surreal facial hair, the Persuasions perform 13 Zappa
titles, among 'Lumpy Gravy,' 'Electric Aunt Jemima,' and
'My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,' from Mothers albums
such as 'Freak Out,' 'Uncle Meat,' and 'Weasels Ripped
My Flesh.' Unusual fare for a group of six middle-aged
gentlemen famous for their earnest a cappella
vocalizing. Yet The Persuasions---who launched their
recording career in 1969, when Zappa signed them to his
Straight label after listening to a tape a friend played
for him over the telephone---deftly manage the complex
arrangements and intricate rhythm structurs that Zappa
wrote to challenge a generation of virtuoso
instrumentalists. And the group does not shy away from
the bitter sarcasm of tunes such as the Mark
Twain-inspired 'The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing.' We're
REGISTER's Steve Plesa writes: (April 7, 2000)
This is a record about which, if you were unfamiliar
with the original artist, you would say, if you heard it
at a party, 'What the heck is this?'And if you were
familiar with the original artist and knew the tunes,
you would say, 'WHAT THE HECK IS THIS?' very loudly and
demand to see the CD case to prove your ears weren't
lying. The Persuasions are among the best a cappella
bands ever recorded, and their easy handling of the
often complex and challenging Frank Zappa material here
is refreshing and reverential, unique and highly
amusing. Executive producer Rip Rense, who has written
extensively for many publications about both The
Persuasions and Zappa, has put together one of those
rare combinations where the result is well worth the
risk. Voices! Voices rising and falling, careening
around corners and harmonizing exquisitely, combining
falsetto, tenor and bass in seamless precision, covering
diverse FZ tunes such as the brooding 'Any Way The Wind
Blows' and the sinister 'My Guitar Wants to Kill Your
Mama.' And when this gospel-based group sings 'The Meek
Shall Inherit Nothing,' you conjure a picture of them
singing it along the sidelines as the masses queue up
trying to make it through the Pearly Gates. Zappa the
instrumental composer is also represented here, in the
album-opening 'Lumpy Gravy,' a stunning piece of work
where the voices capture the notes made originally by
instruments, resulting in a rather mad moment of very
professional and well-executed silliness. This is much
like the FZ live version of 'Stairway to Heaven' in
which the horn section took Jimmy Page's guitar solo,
note for note. WHAT THE HECK IS THIS? It's an equal
blend of sincerity and nuttiness you should buy and play
at your next party.
by Drew Wheeler
In 1969, with rock'n'roll at its psychedelic zenith,
Frank Zappa ignored prevailing trends and signed a
cappella R&B group the Persuasions to his Straight
Records label. The Brooklyn, NY-based Persuasions had
been performing for the better part of that decade, but
it was under Zappa's aegis that they recorded their
debut album, 1970's A Cappella.
Zappa, a lifelong doo-wop connoisseur who co-wrote the
1962 single "Memories of El Monte" for the Penguins,
recognized the Persuasions as the real deal. And even
though Zappa's name conjures up a welter of musical
connotations -- transcendent guitar soloist, "serious"
composer, jazz-rock innovator, scatological songwriter
-- his music was often grounded in the type of close R&B
harmonies that are still the Persuasions' forte. With
Frankly A Cappella, the Persuasions make explicit
Zappa's R&B-vocal connection, and pay tribute to a
Renaissance man with a streetcorner soul.
The Persuasions (Jerry Lawson, Jimmy Hayes, "Sweet Joe"
Russell, Jayotis Washington, Bernard "BJ" Jones, and
Raymond Sanders) could easily have stocked this album
with the most a cappella-friendly songs in Zappa's
voluminous catalog, but they fearlessly delve into some
of his earlier, more comically surrealistic songs.
"Electric Aunt Jemima" gains a poignancy that was buried
under the electronic modifications of its original
version, and "My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama" is a
solid, call-and-response groove, with in-the-spirit
guitar breaks from guest FZ alumnus Mike Keneally. The
album's opening track is a wordless vocal remake of an
instrumental theme from the uncategorizable Lumpy Gravy
album, and it does justice to its sweeping, heroic
The Persuasions deepen the roots of Zappa's more
straightforward R&B songs like "Love Of My Life," now
set to finger-snapping accompaniment and featuring the
guest voice of Zappa veteran Robert Martin. (The song
originally appeared in 1968 on the twisted, not to
mention curiously-timed, '50s tribute Cruising With
Ruben & the Jets.) The heartbreaking descending chords
of "Any Way The Wind Blows" sound like they were written
with the Persuasions in mind, as do the beaming
harmonies of "Tears Began To Fall," which features
Martin, Keneally, and ex-Mothers trombonist Bruce
A churchy feel suffuses "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing"
(a gospel-like melody that sardonically trains its
sights on religion as well as government), and a funky
throb punctuates the rousing reflection on poverty-line
living, "Hotplate Heaven At The Green Hotel."
Originally arranged as a country song, "Harder Than Your
Husband" benefits from the group's soft vocal timbres,
giving it a gentler cast than its first incarnation. And
"Find Her Finer," a melody that always sounded like a
throwaway, seems to have finally find its true self in
the Persuasions' streamlined, soulful groove.
The album also echoes the absurdist antics that Zappa
could never resist, with well-timed interjections,
impromptu shtick and between-song weirdness. Yet the
Persuasions remain truest to Zappa in the rich sonic
fabric woven by their commanding choral blends. With an
appeal to doo-wop fans and Zappa-heads alike, Frankly A
Cappella makes a Persuasive case indeed.
by Don Zulaica
"The way I see it Jerry, this should be a very dynamite
show." So opens one of the more interesting tribute
albums you're going to hear. For 30 years the
Persuasions have been one of the more celebrated
American a cappella groups. For about the same amount of
time, probably a little longer, Frank Zappa has been
either celebrated or vilified as a composer with...well,
But at the heart of this album, beyond Zappa's
irascibility, "Black Pages," PMRC senate hearings, and
voting registration booths, is his unbridled love of
doo-wop. In 1970 he heard a rough tape of the
Persuasions, and promptly put out their first album "A
Cappella" on his own label, Straight. Now it's time for
the favor to be returned, and if the results don't make
you smile, you probably need to see a doctor about
getting something removed.
The vocal dexterity of Zappa's bands was rarely written
about (George Duke, Ray White, Ike Willis, Bobby Martin,
et al), which may make this even more of a pleasant
surprise to the uninitiated. From the pure '50s rock
"Any Way The Way The Wind Blows" and "Love of My Life"
(featuring Martin), to latter material like 1980's "You
Are What You Is," it all translates beautifully to
six-part vocal orchestrations. And before you think they
shy away from the more controversial political or
religious material, they also tackle "Hot Plate Heaven
At The Green Hotel" and the classic "The Meek Shall
Inherit Nothing." A high point among high points is when
the Pers are joined by Frank's last touring
stunt-guitarist, Mike Keneally, for a rousing rendition
of "My Guitar Wants To Kill Your Mama."
For all the symphonies and musician-savants paying
tribute to one of America's most formidable musical
entities, this has got to be bringing a smile to that
goatee-- where ever it might be. Somebody pass the dog
The Las Vegas
by Richard Abowitz
It may seem weird on the surface for a vocal group to
offer an album of Frank Zappa covers. After all, Zappa
was a guitar wizard known for his love of high-tech
sounds. But Zappa always saw himself as a composer of
music more than as an writer of rock songs. He was also
obsessed with doo-wop music, and 30 years ago he signed
The Persuasions to a boutique label given to him briefly
by Warner Brothers. Of course, The Persuasions never
found commercial success there or anywhere else. If
remembered at all, the group is still best known for its
versions of Curtis Mayfield songs. But The Persuasions
are sadly under appreciated. The move from "People Get
Ready" to "My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama" is one
that few other groups could make. The singing group is
relaxed and at ease with Zappa's frequently tricky
material. The Persuasions fill out the usually
abstracted melody line on "Lumpy Gravy," and are
naturals with the faux gospel of "The Meek Shall Inherit
Nothing." The country parody "Harder than Your Husband"
is presented here in a hilarious soulful interpretation.
"Find Her Finer" is also transformed, going from a
stalker anthem to a bemused complaint. Whatever the
approach, however, throughout Frankly A Cappella, The
Persuasions stay true to Zappa's eclectic and perverted
by John Fleming, St. Petersburg Times (May 19, 2000)
Frankly A Cappella: The Persuasions Sing Zappa
(Earthbeat) -- The Persuasions and Frank Zappa? Sure,
both are great American originals, but they don't seem
to have much, if anything, in common. Zappa was a
Southern California rock 'n' roller influenced by
avant-garde classical composers such as Stravinsky and
Varese. The Persuasions, who met on Brooklyn basketball
courts in 1962, salvaged the lost art of a cappella
singing decades before Take 6 and Rockappella came on
But, in fact, there is a longtime connection between the
two. It was Zappa and his wife, Gail, who signed the
Persuasions to their first album deal. The quintet made
its recording debut on Zappa's Straight label in 1970.
Now the group -- expanded to six members -- pays tribute
with an improbable, delightful a cappella treatment of
The album gets off to a breathtaking start with
rapid-paced wordless vocalizing on the jazz
instrumental, "Lumpy Gravy". Zappa composed the work,
according to executive producer Rip Rense's liner notes,
with the word "duodenum" in mind, and the Persuasions
even manage to work that into their bravura performance.
Zappa, who died in 1993, tends to be underestimated
because he is best known for novelty hits like "Don't
Eat the Yellow Snow" and "Valley Girl", but the
Persuasions might change people's minds about him with
their version of "Any Way the Wind Blows", a lyrical
love song, or the gospel shouter "Find Her Finer".
Many of the 16 selections on Frankly A Cappella are
sparkling arrangements in the tradition of the doo-wop
music Zappa loved, but with the twist of weirdness that
only he could dream up. The Persuasions turn to his
classic album of faux '50s greaser rock, Cruisin' with
Ruben & the Jets, for a pair of streetcorner song
symphonies, "Cheap Thrills" and "Love of My Life". They
deliver a gorgeous rendition of "Tears Begin to Fall",
featuring the upper-register acrobatics of guest
vocalist Robert Martin.
The album is not totally a cappella. The lineup on
several songs includes guitarist Mike Keneally and
trombonist Bruce Fowler, both former Zappa bandmembers.
There are also three short interludes and a mystery
track cooked up by the Persuasions in homage to Zappa's
off-kilter humor. Grade: A-
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 19, 2000
The Santa Fe New
Terrell's Tune-Up: Pop CD Reviews
by Steve Terrell (May 12, 2000)
Early contender for
the most bizarre tribute album of the year: Frankly A
Cappella: The Persuasions Sing Zappa.
No, that is not some belated April Fools’ joke. I’m
talking about those Persuasions, that fine black a
cappella sextet that for more than 30 years has recorded
sweet and stirring instrument-less soul, gospel and
doo-wop, never ceasing to remind a listener of the power
and glory of the human voice.
And yes, I’m talking about that Zappa. Not Moon Unit,
not Dweezil, but Mother Frank, who sang of mud sharks
and Goblin Girls and penguins in bondage.
So, yes, hearing the Persuasions singing about "Electric
Aunt Jemima" and declaring "My Guitar Wants To Kill Your
Mama" seems strange.
But there’s a connection. Back in 1969 Zappa’s Straight
Records company signed the Persuasions for their first
album. Zappa œ who, remember, was an old doo-wop cat at
heart, having written "Memories of El Monte" for the
Penguins œ had heard a cassette tape of the Persuasions
and loved it.
Lead singer Jerry Lawson and the other Persuasions,
bless their hearts, remained grateful through the years.
Granted the novelty aspect of Frankly A Cappella likely
guarantees few sales. But fortunately the Persuasions
quickly get beyond the silliness and deliver impressive
Some Zappa songs that easily translate to the
Persuasions’ treatment are "Anyway the Wind Blows",
"Love of My Life", Zappa’s doo-wop send-up Cruising With
Ruben & the Jets and other Ruben-esque Zappa tunes
including "Tears Begin To Fall".
"Cheap Thrills", a Ruben tune, sounds a little out of
place on Frankly A Cappella just because older guys
celebrating "cheap thrills in back of my car" seems a
little odd. But who am I to judge another’s cheap
The songs in which the Persuasions really impress,
though, are the ones you’d least expect them to do. The
group gives a near classical edge to the instrumental
"Lumpy Gravy", for example.'
The Persuasions also cover "You Are What You Is", which
makes fun of people who try to transcend their own race
while emulating another.
But Frankly A Cappella’s mightiest moment is "The Meek
Shall Inherit Nothing," a humanist sermon against
religious hypocrisy and materialism, sung in full gospel
"Those Jesus freaks, well they’re friendly but, the shit
they believe has got their minds all shut."
Frankly A Cappella serves both Zappa and the Persuasions
well. For Zappa, it shows how his material has depths
many never had suspected.
Perhaps the record will inspire other musicians to take
a stab at reviving other Zappa material from different
angles. And hopefully the record will stir interest in
other Persuasions material, the regular soul and doo-wop
material they do so well.
The Persuasions: Frankly A Cappella
by Stewart Mason
It may sound like a bizarre gimmick, having a vocal
group of the classic doo-wop style record an entire
album of Frank Zappa Tunes, but the concept is actually
perfectly logical. Not only was Zappa an enormous fan of
'50s R&B---remember Cruisin' with Ruben and the
Jets---but he released The Persuasions' first album, A
Cappella, on his own Straight Records in 1970.
The execution is the concept's equal. Listening to this
album, it's shocking to realize how thoroughly Zappa's
musical style was rooted in '50s R&B. Of course, Zappa
wrote pastiches of that style, like "Electric Aunt
Jemima," "Any Way the Wind Blows," or "Love of My Life,"
but even songs with little obvious connection to the
genre, such as "You Are What You Is" and the classic,
"My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama," sound naturally,
unapologetically right when performed by a vocal sextet.
The opening track, where The Persuasions essay the
opening theme of Zappa's first extended instrumental
composition, 1968's Lumpy Gravy, is a staggering
exercise in vocal acrobatics, effortlessly recreating
with only six voices what had originally been recorded
by a full orchestra. If you're a fan of Zappa, doo wop,
or both, this album will be a delight.
WHERE YA BEEN SO LONG?
by Floyd Kucharski
Jemima! Where ya been so long, Aunt Jemima Baby!?"
"Frankly A Cappella," the newest musical release by the
legendary Persuasions, is arguably the finest album of
its kind in modern history. A tribute to icon Frank
Zappa, who gave the group its start in 1969, the album
features an unprecedented blend of vocal harmony and
The stack of 15 tunes spans the late Zappa’s career from
1963 to 1989 and roams the full artistic spectrum, from
the irreverent "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing" to the
spiritual "Any Way the Wind Blows"; from the doo-wop
flavored rendering of "Love of My life" to a raucous
interpretation of "Find her Finer"; from a philosophical
treatise on "You Are What You is" to a playful ditty
titled "Harder Than Your Husband."
A mystery track, number 16, adds a hushed spiritual
essence to the album and draws all the pieces together,
for a finale.
The group’s founding members have been together since
l962 and, as always, the only sound we hear is the human
voice. The vocal talent on display is astounding, nearly
intimidating. The harmonies are sweet as ice cold apple
cider on a bright October afternoon. Jimmy Hayes’
amazing, relentless bass carries the melodies start to
finish, while lead singer Jerry Lawson spins tales of
nostalgia, philosophy, and earthy humor.
The Persuasions have toured the world, leaving audiences
in a state of joy and excitement after every live
performance. Despite having released dozens of albums
over the decades, their commercial exposure has been
limited due to their decision to sing purely a cappella
rather than "go commercial" and hide their voices behind
As the signature tune from their l984 "No Frills" album
proclaims, "We been making music all these years … and
we still ain’t got no band!"
They are the music industry’s best kept secret.
Appearing on "Zappa" are founding members Lawson,
singing lead; Hayes at bass; Sweet Joe Russell at tenor;
Jayotis Washington at baritone and tenor; joining them
this time around are Bernard "BJ" Jones at baritone and
Raymond Sanders at tenor.
The album is available through the Internet at
Amazon.com and cdnow, and also through Earthbeat
We predict you’ll quickly fall under their musical
spell. By track three you’ll be irresistibly tapping
your fingers and twitching your feet, swaying and
grinning, wistfully humming along … "Electric Aunt
Jemima, fix me something good to eat, cook a bunch for
me … caress me, electric Aunt Jemima, caress me …!"
REVIEWS OF "ON THE
GOOD SHIP LOLLIPOP"
"On the Good Ship Lollipop:"
People (May 31,1999)
"'Christ had to persuade people to listen,' baritone
Jerry Lawson once said, explaining how the a cappella
group he helped form in 1962 got its name, "and so do
five guys without a band.' Fans who've heard some of the
18 albums and countless live shows the Persuasions have
performed in their 37-year career need no inducements.
As adept at percussive vocal effects as they are at
soaring quartet-style gospel harmonies, the
singers---Lawson, tenor Joe Russell, bass singer Jimmy
Hayes, tenor Jayotis Washington, and baritone B.J. Jones
(a former member of the Drifters)---make instrumentation
superfluous. Here the quintet aims to entertain a new
generation of listeners with 14 tunes, ranging from
ditties like "How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?"
and "On Top of Spaghetti" to a delightful obscurity
cowritten by Country Joe and the Fish's Joe McDonald
that will give boomer parents a kick: 'I'm so glad that
I've got skin/ 'Cause that's what keeps my insides in.'
Bottom line: Kids will need no persuading to play this."---Steve
Billboard (June 5, 1999)
Persuasions Bring Their Vocal Charms To Kids' Music, by
A SWEET TRIP:
Venerable a cappella group The Persuasions,
who've been harmonizing for some 37 years, are the
latest grown-up artists to toss their collective hat
into the children's audio ring.
The Persuasions' purely delicious Music For Little
People (MFLP) offering, "On The Good Ship Lollipop,"
contains 14 tracks both traditional ("Big Rock Candy
Mountain," "On Top of Spaghetti") and original
("Persuasions' Nursery Rhyme Medley," "A Cappella
Fellas") along with a most welcome helping of
African-American folk standards ("Swing Low,Sweet
Chariot," "Shoo Fly, Don't Bother Me").
Without a doubt, "Lollipop" is one of the
freshest-sounding, most outstanding kids' albums of the
Actually, it's a bit of a surprise that it took this
long for The Persuasions to release a children's record.
Unlike most moonlighting celebs from the pop world, this
five-man outfit from the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of
Brooklyn, N.Y., actually has a history of performing for
kids. They have been singing for young audiences and
putting on music workshops practically since day one,
according to lead singer Jerry Lawson.
"We would practice in the park in our early days," he
says, "and a lot of kids would always join in. We're
kids at heart ourselves, and have children of our own."
The workshops began in the '70s, according to Lawson,
whose fellow group members are bass Jimmy Hayes,
Jayotis Washington and "Sweet"
Joe Russell and baritone Bernard "B.J."
Jones. "We put them on at local Bed-Stuy
schools," says Lawson, noting that one summer the New
York school board had them perform for children at
housing projects across the city. Still, he says, "we
never thought anyone would ask us to do a kids' record.
But we were doing a concert in Oakland, Calif., and
(MFLP founder Leib Ostrow) came up and
said, 'Would you guys consider doing a children's
album?' When we came back to New York, our producer
called us and said, 'Did a guy from Music for Little
People contact you about a kids' record? He sounded
sincere.' The following month, we were in the studio."
The material on "Lollipop" is strikingly diverse,
including songs popularized by Patti Page
("How Much is That Doggie in the Window?"),
(the title track), and Country Joe McDonald
("I'm So Glad I've Got Skin"). There's a "Train Song
Medley" "to end all train song medleys," featuring
"People Get Ready," "Little Red Caboose," "Choo-Choo
Boogaloo," and "To Stop The Train." "Before we started
recording," says Lawson, "I said, 'Everyone come up with
at least six kids' songs. We started getting calls from
people: 'What about this one?' We ended up with 100, and
before we left for California, we'd gotten it down to
13.But some songs we put on the album caught on
later---'On The Good Ship Lollipop' wasn't on the
schedule when we left New York, and neither was 'Teddy
Bears' Picnic.' But when we got there, they worked their
Ostrow, who produced the album with Lawson, served as
executive producer, and wrote the charming
Persuasions-history tune, "A Cappella Fellas," was also
responsible for bringing in some top-notch kids' chorus
that guests on some of the tunes. The Persuasions may do
a family concert tour highlighting "Lollipop," says
Lawson, noting with a grin that their motto is "Still
Ain't Got No Band."
"Leib's also asked us to do a kids' gospel album," he
adds. In the meantime, the versatile fivesome (editor's
note: they are now six---see "The Pers' Story")will
continue to demonstrate its far-reaching musical range,
recording a tribute album to early mentor Frank
Zappa, according to Lawson, as well as "an
album for the
Grateful Dead family, too."
Angeles Times (July 8, 1999):
The Persuasions Do Doo-Wop So Well, by Lynne Heffley
In a Brooklyn neighborhood 38 years ago, five young
guys---four of them still in their teens---would get
together to shoot hoops. Afterward, they'd sing. No
instruments, just a couple of baritones and tenors and a
deep, deep bass, rising in harmony on the corners of
some of New York's toughest streets. In 1962, they
became The Persuasions.
Today, The Persuasions, with their innovative vocal
style rooted in Southern gospel, R&B and pop, are
esteemed as a cappella masters---the "godfathers of a
cappella," Spike Lee called them in his video
production, "Do It A Cappella."
Singers' singers who have performed and recorded backup
vocals for major artists from Paul Simon to Stevie
Wonder, their influence on the art of four-and-five-part
harmony singing can be heard in '60s doo-wop, and in the
music of Boyz II Men and Bobby McFerrin.
Baritone Toubo Rhoad died in 1988, but lead singer and
baritone Jerry Lawson, tenor Joe "Jesse" Russell, tenor
and lead Jayotis Washington and basso profundo Jimmy
Hayes are still going strong. With recent fifth member,
former Drifter B.J. Jones, the group has just recorded a
From the opening "bumb-ba-dum-ba-dum-da-dum" and "diddy-wop,
diddy-wop," you know that the Music For Little People
release, "On The Good Ship Lollipop," is never going to
gather dust on a CD shelf. Whether it's Hayes'
extraordinary velvet bass in "Teddy Bears' Picnic,"
Lawson's husky-sweet baritone in Dan Conley's tender,
"My Daddy Do, Too," or the soulful rendition of "On Top
of Spaghetti," this mix of old and new children's songs
is infused with exuberant life and cross-generational
Spreading good cheer through a cappella is what The
Persuasions do. Upbeat Lawson, who frequently breaks
into song during an interview,says that music is much
more than a profession for the group.
"It's something God wanted us to do," Lawson said. "He
wanted us to use what he gave us naturally, and that's
our voices. And when you get together and you sing and
that harmony comes out ringing,that's just something
"It's like getting up in the morning and mixing the
grits. You can put grits on the plate and you can put
eggs on the plate, but when you mix the grits and the
eggs together with a little black pepper, ohhh. . .It
goes right down just right.
"And when you put the tenor and the bass and the
baritone in there together and they've got that
sweetness, it's just like that."
Although a children's album is a first for The
Persuasions, they often perform in schools and
children's hospitals, and their rapport shows on the
album with the songs and with their Lollipop Kids
"Id go off sometimes and shed a tear, because when the
kids came in, they were Chinese, they were black, they
were Jewish, they were Korean, they were Mexican---and
they were singing 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.' I went out
and started crying. Chills just came up and down my
spine to see these kids having such a good time.
"I played (the album) in Brooklyn at our favorite
barbershop, where they're used to listening to rappers.
When it got to 'Swing Low,' people came in from outside.
They kept playing it over and over and I was saying to
myself, this is amazing: they don't know that there's a
little white Jewish kid (Bernie Steinberg) singing---and
they wouldn't care, you see what I'm saying? Teenagers
came in and were getting down off of this 'Good Ship
Lollipop,' and they didn't even know who we were."
Lawson says passing the a cappella torch is what it's
"I think it's deep in people that they were born wanting
"The Persuasions' latest project, recorded with a new
sixth member, high tenor Raymond Sanders, is an album of
songs by the late Frank Zappa. Zappa gave them their
break in 1968, signing them to his Straight label after
hearing them sing over the phone.
"Now we're doing a tribute album to Frank," Lawsons
said. "I really believe he is going to love it."
Weekly (May 10, 1999)
All hands will want to be on deck for this listening
pleasure cruise. Many of the song titles here may be
familiar, but the lush harmonies of male a cappella
group The Persuasions could not be fresher. For young
listeners new to this style of singing, producer Leib
Ostrow has penned the song, "A Cappella Fellas," as a
snappy introduction: "Our voices are our instruments/the
flute, the harp, the gong/ in harmony together. . .a
vocal symphony." With nary a note of traditional
instrumentation, the five rich voices, ranging from
basso profundo to baritone, enliven a broad array of
favorites, including "How Much is That Doggie in the
Window?"; the perennial kid-pleaser, "On Top of
Spaghetti"; and the title tune, madefamous years ago by
Shirley Temple. The Persuasions have much experience
working with children and it shows on such numbers as
"Persuasions Nursery Rhyme Medley," which includes a
silly twist on "Humpty Dumpty": "All the king's horses
and all the king's men. . .had scrambled eggs for
breakfast!" The group sometimes shares personal
anecdotes, too, making listeners feel as though they are
listening to a private concert. Another standout: "Train
Song Medley," melds "People Get Ready," "Little Red
Caboose," "I've Been Workin' On The Railroad," "Choo-Choo
Boogaloo," and "To Stop The Train," with appropriate
chug-a-chug sound effect throughout. All Ages.
(Recorded A Cappella Review Board), by Karl Schroeder
The mighty Persuasions have been belting out solid,
heartfelt, genuine-article a cappella for well over 30
years and - incredibly - don't show signs of quitting
any time soon. When I ran into them in April, they were
super excited about the upcoming release of this CD, and
now I know why. The fun they had recording this project
is evident on nearly every track, and their love of
making music together shines through. The most striking
aspect of this whole recording for me is the
juxtaposition of a run-ragged group like The Persuasions
- who have recorded such classics as
Women and Drinkin'
- with an album aimed mainly at children. A small group
of kids even joins the masters on a number of tracks
(the most tender of which is Teddy
Bears' Picnic, but How Much Is
That Doggie is a treat too), which makes it all
the more interesting.
I'm nowhere near having kids of my own, but I hope I'll
still have this CD lying around if that day ever comes.
Probably my favorite childhood album (back in the days
of vinyl) was a solo effort by Ken Blackwood, bassman
for The Blackwood Brothers. I loved to hear him woof out
solos and would smile my whole way through, dreaming
about the day when I could make all those crazy sounds.
The Persuasions' resident sub-woofer, Jimmy Hayes, has a
few moments here that remind me of that, and I imagine
it's great fun for kids to listen (or feel, if
you play it loud enough) as he thunders out notes below
low C again and again.
Any fan of The Persuasions should have this album. Any
fan of a cappella who remembers anything at all from
their childhood should have this album. It's a
rollicking good time from the godfathers of a cappella;
a fun listen for both kids and oldsters and pretty much
everyone in between.
© 2009-15 Rip
Rense/Rensart Productions. All rights reserved.