When today’s a cappella stars talk about how they started with the genre it’s not uncommon to hear tales of growing up in a cappella choirs, and being inspired by the sounds of an act like Rockapella or The Nylons or Boyz II Men, or perhaps even a local college group. Over the course of the next decade we’ll start to hear stories of new voices initiated via The Sing-Off, or an On the Rocks video on YouTube, or a Straight No Chaser appearance in their hometowns.
But what about the voices from long ago? The ones that came about before a cappella had a network TV show, and before the Internet, and two decades before Rockapella sang Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
Would you believe that such an act toured across the country alongside names like Liza Minnelli, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder or that they recorded with Frank Zappa? That a sold out crowd gave this a cappella group a standing ovation after they sang The Lord’s prayer?
This is the story of Jerry Lawson and his first a cappella group, The Persuasions. Jerry and his wife Julie were kind enough to speak with me in February 2012.
Lawson was born and raised in Apopka, Florida, in the shadow of what would become the Disney World resort. He moved to New York City and was dazzled with the opportunity to visit the Apollo Theater and pay $2 to hear artists like Sam Cooke perform live--acts he had hitherto only experienced via his uncle’s jukebox. And so, it was little wonder that Lawson sought to share his own voice with the Big Apple, and he soon found himself playing bars alongside other pilgrims to New York, who had followed the bright lights from Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia. The fledgling band featured five vocalists and one guitar player. There was one problem in regards to that guitar player, as Jerry recalled, “every time we had a gig in a bar, he got drunk.”
At first, the group apologized for their guitar player’s behavior and inability to perform, but once patrons had heard the guys sing, unaccompanied, the cry was consistent: “You don’t need no band!”