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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

The Persuasions' Jerry Lawson--An appreciation

The Persuasions perform "Looking for an Echo" on the 1990, PBS special "Spike Lee & Company--Do It A Cappella"

“I loved everything about The Persuasions--especially Jerry’s singing,” says English singer-songwriter Harvey Shield, who was in a 1960s group with future Deep Purple Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Roger Glover and Ian Gillan before forming a cappella doo-wop group The Mighty Echoes in 1986.

“Jerry was so soulful and warm, and when we formed the Mighty Echoes, The Persuasions were our inspiration--and their version of ‘Looking for an Echo’ was the first song we learned.”

Jerry Lawson, the longtime lead singer of the venerable a cappella vocal group The Persuasions, died July 10 at 75.

After forming in Brooklyn in 1962, The Persuasions came to the attention of Frank Zappa, who released their debut album Acappella in 1970. The original quintet (tenor/baritone Lawson, bass Jimmy “Bro” “Mr. Bass Man” Hayes, second tenor Joseph Jesse “Sweet Joe” Russell, baritone Herbert “Toubo” Rhoad, and first tenor “'Little” Jayotis Washington—the only surviving original) had started out singing on front stoops, basketball courts, street corners and subway stations.

The Persuasions also recorded and toured with Joni Mitchell, and with their eclectic blend of R&B, rock, blues, gospel and pop—and without instruments--influenced artists including Boyz II Men, Take 6 and Rockapella.

“Sad news. The great Jerry Lawson, original lead singer of the legendary Persuasions, has passed away at 75,” posted George Cameron Grant, writer/director of 3 Egg Creams, the popular one-act, one-actor New York play inspired by the songs of Lou Christie and starring Vince Bandille.

“One of the great blessings of my life was nervously singing a new composition to them in a Piermont, New York dressing room, having them fall in love with it, then record it the following week. The results speak for themselves. They were one of a kind. The godfathers of a cappella. The Persuasions.”

“They were the musical cuisinart of cultural conscience,” Grant added, via email. “They could seamlessly segue from ‘Under the Boardwalk’ to ‘Buffalo Soldier’ to ‘People Get Ready’ to ‘Blackbird,’ then back again to ‘Up On the Roof’--and they never needed a band, just a sidewalk, stoop, or a stage.”

Grant recalled meeting The Persuasions when he worked on August Wilson’s play Fences in 1985.

“I created the poster and artwork for the original Broadway production,” said Grant. “The general manager was a friend of mine, and he unadvisedly had used their version of ‘Jesus Be a Fence Around Me’ without seeking permission, figuring it was obscure enough to preclude having to seek such. Well, needless to say, after the very first preview, he received a very testy phone call from their management. At his behest, I traveled up to The Turning Point in Piermont, where they happened to be performing, to arrange a settlement. Not only did that happen, we became friends.”

In fact, the next time that The Persuasions appeared at The Turning Point, Grant came up with his song.

“I was waiting for the show to begin, when this entire song fell into my head, the lyrics of which I wrote on the back of a flyer. It was called ‘Pass On the Love,’ and after the show I went to their dressing room and sang it for them. They loved it, recorded it, and about a year later I received a call from Sweet Joe Russell saying that they were going to perform live on a Spike Lee joint called Do It A Cappella, which was going to be recorded live in their beloved Brooklyn, and they were going to close the show with it in memory of their recently deceased member Herbert ‘Tuobo’ Rhoad.”

Lee’s show was broadcast on PBS, and its soundtrack was recorded and released in 1990.

“To have all of the original Persuasions record my song was beyond humbling, emotionally life-changing, and a heavenly gift I will never forget,” said Grant. “They were beautiful, complicated, fierce and sometimes funny musical warriors, whose unique voice will live forever, and I am honored to have had a brief chapter in their extraordinary legacy.”

As Grant noted, The Persuasions never achieved the mainstream success their long career warranted.

“But anyone who knows anything about music is very well aware of their place in the Parthenon of vocal history,” he said. “I’ll never forget the day they recorded [1993 album] Live in the Whispering Gallery right outside the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station. I was there, and they indeed found the ‘perfect echo’--which preserved their angelic voices within it forever. Hang up Jerry’s number, there’ll never be another like him! Our loss is now the angels’ gain.”

According to The New York Times, a documentary about Lawson, The Jerry Lawson Story--Just a Mortal Man, is set for release later this year.



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