As a follow up to our previous interview with Jerry and Julie Lawson, and our review of the Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town CD, Jerry and Julie were kind enough to partake in a follow up interview with The A Cappella Blog.
Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town, the eponymous CD from the former Persuasions front man and the foursome that brought him back into the a cappella fold, sounds fundamentally different from just about any other major a cappella CD you’re likely to hear nowadays.
“It was recorded analog (an art in itself), thanks to Paul Stubblestine,” Julie Lawson, Jerry’s wife and co-producer explained. She indicated that contrary to recording digitally, it “produced a richer sound … We wanted to keep it as organic as possible [and] it’s a richer sound when played on a real stereo, as opposed to digitally compressed and heard through earbuds or computer speakers.”
Julie went on to say that “with a cappella traditionally being performed live, we weren’t trying to make it perfect. We record each track three times, and take the best of the three … Some people will get really technical chord progressions and pick it all apart. We don’t read music, we weren’t working with charts. The guys were singing from the heart. For us it’s never about perfection, it’s about the feeling, does it feel good? Will the listener feel good when they hear it?”
Indeed, the organic sound of the album was divisive among Persuasions fans, some of whom noticed a real divergence in the sound of this album from earlier Persuasions recordings. Julie explained, “one thing people don’t know: on most Persuasions albums there was a lot of smoke and mirrors in the studio. Jerry had to overdub himself to add tenor and baritone notes in addition to his leads in order to produce the sound that he couldn’t get from The Persuasions.
Julie went on to explain that he didn’t want to diminish the talent of the other members of The Persuasions, “but they just couldn’t deliver the harmony Jerry knew was possible. With Talk of the Town, the talent was so phenomenal that he didn’t need to fill in.”
“Talk of the Town had its own style of singing,” Jerry added. “It was a different sound.”
Indeed, Jerry was so pleased with the sound he achieved with Talk of the Town that it was difficult to decide which songs the ensemble would record together.
“Everyone told us you can’t do 20 songs on a CD,” Julie said. “We had 35 or so songs we wanted to do. We tried to prioritize songs that we just couldn’t do without.”
Jerry noted that some of the songs that didn’t make the cut included “Midnight Train to Georgia,” “Georgia,” “Sweet Inspiration,” “Paper Doll,” and selections by Elvis Presley and Nat King Cole. He went on to point out that if they were fortunate enough to record a follow up project these songs would be included next time around.
Julie said, “With a bass man like Ray Ragler Jerry could do anything!”
“It was a miracle that Ray came into our life,” Julie said. “The bass is the engine. It takes extraordinary talent to do it right and not the old school Doo Wop style of bass but to blend in a way that sounds practically like an acoustic bass—he has to work well with Jerry, he has to have soul and great breath control. It’s not easy to find a great bass man and Jerry wouldn’t have done this CD if not for Ray’s exceptional talent. It’s now apparent that divine intervention placed Ray and Jerry together just for this project. The timing was magical. It was inevitable that Jerry was meant to record at least one a cappella CD his way and with the harmony he had been striving for through 22 albums. It took us a couple of years to figure out how to finance and produce it on our own. Within a few weeks of completing the recording and packaging it Ray passed away—well, it was just so hard to understand and at the same time so miraculous that we were brought together for this project. Jerry was going to make sure that Ray was the star of the show. He couldn’t wait to go on tour and introduce the world to Rayfield Ragler Jr.”
Ragfield’s unique touch has a huge presence on much of the CD. One particularly memorable showing came on an inspired cover of Shania Twain’s “Honey I’m Home.” “We thought about The Coasters,” Jerry said, “and the comedic stuff they do in five parts. We had that same kind of camaraderie with the comedic stuff and the harmonies … we came up with having the bass man singing the ‘PMS’ line to highlight it.”
Another of the album’s most distinctive tracks is “God’s Gift to the World,” for which Jerry added a number of the lyrics. “The first two verses are the ones written by the writers,” Jerry said. “Then I took off and didn’t want to leave anybody off because the song meant so much. At the end, I said I think I got everybody in there, and I talked to Julie. She said, ‘what about our gay friends?’”
“He poked fun at ‘the straight ones’ after that,” Julie said. “I thought it was great. So many of our friends are gay, and I’m so fed up with prejudices and I’ve never heard the gay community celebrated in song ... [we felt the song was] similar to ‘We are the World,’ which doesn’t get specific like this song did. It’s a really special song to us. We carried it around for 30 years hoping for the opportunity to record it properly””
Jerry went on to point the use of call and response in the album, noting the traditional feel of that element of the music. He recalled working in orange groves and picking potatoes in his youth. “We didn’t have a lead singer; someone across the field would sing and other people would join in and start singing. We wanted to get that part of the music business to be heard … it was good fun and it made the work go by faster.”
“I know there are African Americans who know the call and response of church-style music,” Julie said. “[Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town are] preserving that art and culture.”
One of the most distinctive tracks on the CD is, ironically, one on which Jerry does not stand out—“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” a rare all-male take on a classic song originally popularized by The Andrews Sisters. “I took myself out of it,” Jerry said “so people could hear Talk of the Town’s identity. They do a great job on it.”
While it may not be immediately evident, the album boasts a number of vocals from outside Talk of the Town, including cameos by Deke Sharon on trumpet, and harmonies supplied by Rockapella’s Sean Altman. Of course, there are two additional guests who made especially important contributions to the CD.
Jerry’s daughter Yvette takes the solo on “For the Love of You.” “It’s so cool,” Jerry said. “I was doing the song, and we went to New York to do a children’s TV show.”
“I was in the taxi with Talk of the Town and Yvette,” Julie picked up the story, “and [“For the Love of You”] came on the radio and she started signing it. I said you have to sing it for your dad when we get to the restaurant.”
Jerry was more than impressed to hear the lead vocal from his daughter. “we went back to the studio and she knocked it out … I heard some parts in there I could sing, but after I heard her sing, I said, you know, you don’t need me on that one.”
Jerry found a less willing, if no less important vocalist to join him on the album’s closing track, “Side By Side”—his wife, Julie. After singing the song themselves in the house, he asked her to join the group in the studio.
“I said no way, I am not a vocalist,” Julie recalled. “We are not going to diminish the value of this. I have no place on this album.”
Eventually, Julie acquiesced to recording the song. “It turned out to sound real good,” Jerry said. “The harmonies behind her sounded perfect. And we’re still side by side—that’s the way we are going through life.”
Our conversation turned back to the CD as a whole and what has happened in the aftermath of recording. “Without a record label behind us, and not having the social networking skills, we’re counting on everyone who hears it to gift it to someone else, and understand it’s an important part of music history,” Julie said. “The point was to keep the art of a cappella soul alive; to educate people. You may not be huge fan of everything on the CD, but you have to recognize the artistry.” Julie recounted playing the CD out of her car around town. “I see the joy of children and grandparents dancing along to in the street. I see the smiles, and see people light up. We’re not just sharing Jerry’s legacy, but sharing the joy this can bring to people.”
Julie went on to quote a critic who suggested that everyone should by two copies of the album: “one to listen to, one to put in a time capsule for your grandchildren.”
None of this is to say Jerry’s days in a cappella are over. While Jerry and Julie noted that he may not record himself again unless he can work with an extraordinary bass, they were quick to note that Jerry was available to work with groups as an arranger and producer, sharing his decades of experience arranging harmonies.
For anyone who, for whatever reason, may doubt Jerry Lawson’s passion for a cappella or his keen ear, it’s worth considering his thoughts on the roots of the form, and how those roots extend to this very day. “You can go back to the beginning of time,” Jerry said. “Cavemen didn’t have instruments. They made sound with their voices, and threw rocks on the ground to make sound. I listen to the birds in the morning—they’re making music in the trees and they don’t have no guitar. When you think about it—I lay here in the morning and listen to the birds—that’s a cappella.”
It’s this instinct toward recognizing the natural beauty of music that clearly drives Jerry’s life as an artist and a person; as such, it’s only fitting that the album itself is a manifestation of a group of humans’ most organic, most transcendent sounds.