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!”
The singers worked day jobs ranging from a butcher to a shoe salesman to an elevator operator. After work, they joined the local crew for games of outdoor basketball, and after the games, they sang. Amidst one such performance a woman called from her window, “if you don’t know what you’re singing, you’re singing a cappella.”
The men had never heard the term before, but elected to hang on to the concept. What they needed next was a name. One of the members looked to The Bible. “He came across a word,” Jerry said, “Christ had to persuade people to follow his teachings. So if we’re gonna have to persuade people to listen to us without a band, what better name than The Persuasions.”
Before long , The Persuasions were singing throughout Brooklyn and beyond. They performed at a talent show in New Jersey, and unbeknownst to them, someone was recording. This recording would later become the first half of their first album. An associate asked the guys to sing to a friend of his over the phone. They sang a song entitled “I Just Can’t Work No Longer,” and the man on the other side of the phone loved it. It was only moments later that they learned the man on the other end of the line was Frank Zappa, who promptly sent them five plane tickets to fly out to California and finish recording the other half of that first album for his label Straight Records, simply and perfectly titled A Cappella.
The group made the difficult decision to leave behind their families and their jobs. They ventured on to Colorado for six weeks. Then they were off to Los Angeles to open for Muddy Waters and wow a sold out crowd. They stayed on the road from there, traveling the college circuit.
“We played every college in The United States,” Jerry said.
“And you have to remember,” Julie chipped in, “there were no other a cappella groups at the time.”
From there, it was off to the races. “We were selling out everywhere we went, every college campus. We came back to New York and went on tour with Liza Minnelli, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles.” Jerry said. “Everything we sang had a gospel [undertone] to it. We sang church songs, but we also sang the National Anthem and “My Girl” with a gospel twist.”
Julie explained a portion of The Persuasions’ early success. “They sang the music of the day … lots of people assumed since they were a black group without instruments that they must be a doo-wop group, but doo-wop was over and considered oldies by the time The Persuasions were on the scene . They could take any genre, including traditional gospel and “Persuasionize” it. They could do some of the hippest music of the time.” Julie went on to describe the group’s sound as “contemporary a cappella soul … no less contemporary than Rockapella, The House Jacks or any group of today … Back then black groups were R&B, gospel or soul. There was no a cappella, so certainly no “a cappella soul,” but you can’t doo-wop The Lord’s Prayer. And the artists Jerry covered were not doo wop artists. We’re talking about Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Zappa, Paul Simon, The Temptaitons, James Taylor, The Oakridge Boys, Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, Carole King, The Grateful Dead, even The Partridge Family!”
The group arrived at one faithful night when the crowd roared even louder than usual. Donny Hathaway and Dionne Warwick said that regardless of the fact that The Persuasions were the opening act, the crowd wanted to hear them sing an encore. The guys didn’t know what to sing, and so Jerry launched into a rendition of The Lord’s Prayer. Exceeding every expectation the group might have had, the performance was met with a standing ovation. It’s at that point, more than before it, that Jerry recognized they were “preserving a special art; a dying art.”
The Persuasions were offered deals with major record labels. “We don’t know what the major labels’ intentions were,” Julie said. “but they didn’t know how to market a cappella, or they didn’t think there was a market. They said they couldn’t get it on the radio because there were no drums, which means no one would want to dance to it … Word of mouth was the only way they got around.”
Nonetheless, the group continued to innovate and enjoy success through touring and recording albums that included tributes to acts like Zappa, The Grateful Dead and The Beatles.
After decades as a group, Lawson decided to walk away from The Persuasions. “I had some internal problems with the group,” Jerry said, “and I wanted to go solo, and I had things I wanted to do for myself.” He envisioned performing with a symphony and as a solo act with a more traditional band behind him. One way or another, “I said I was done with a cappella.
“But God said you’re not done with a cappella until I say you’re done.”
Indeed, something akin to divine intervention or destiny kicked in when Lawson met four men who performed under the name Talk of the Town. “We met these four gentlemen who had studied Jerry’s arrangements for 35 years,” Julie recalled. “[They said] we always knew we had great harmony, but we don’t have a great lead singer. We all take turns.” The group said they needed a lead like Jerry Lawson. Julie was skeptical of all the flattery and over the days that followed, researched Talk of the Town over the Internet. The search was fruitless at first, before she came upon a sole interview with the group from 25 years prior in which they explicitly stated, “We’re missing a [lead] singer like Jerry Lawson.”
“Jerry had no interest in working with them at all,” Julie said. “And I said, you must be blind. God, the universe is handing this to you.” She went on to recount how the slim the odds were of finding Talk of the Town—that “even if he auditioned nationwide, what are the odds he could find a group that could blend with him… Now you get to do an album your own way, with guys who love practicing. Unlike The Persuasions, here are guys who want to put everything into it.”
And so, Lawson did come to agree to work with Talk of the Town, focused on recording an album that both he and his wife time and again called “the masterpiece of his a cappella career.” The album was self-produced so they had the independence of guiding the project and not having to compromise under the auspices of a record label. The album covers artists ranging from Sam Cooke to Billy Joel to The Dixie Chicks. “We went from soul to pop to Gospel to country to standards with no studio tricks,” Jerry said. “[It was] all live.”
Included in that Talk of the Town group was Rayfield Ragler, a “workaholic” who “sounded like an upright bass.” In another development that felt like nothing short of the influence of God, shortly after the group finished recording with Lawson, Ragler came down with a cold. “It turned out to be leukemia,” Julie said. “He had only three months to live.”
The album proved not to be the last hurrah for Jerry Lawson and the Talk of the Town. “What are the odds that Jerry got to live long enough to see the art of a cappella taken to another level, taken to primetime TV—and that he got to participate?”
Participate, Lawson did, in season two of The Sing-Off on which his soulful sensibilities stuck out among new school sounds, and his group landed itself all the way in that season’s finals. As much as Lawson was pleased to meet the rest of the groups and impressed with their talents, Julie recalled that it was “discouraging to go on set … and find the kids didn’t know The Persuasions. These kids who were winning—Nota and Committed—didn’t know The Persuasions. Street Corner Symphony Googled and found [a Persuasions] album title and took it [for their group name].”
And so, more than just another competing group, Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town served a unique function on the show as informal conveyers of a cappella history. Lawson had a wonderful time, and recalled one especially memorable experience, off camera, in which he and members of Committed and Street Corner Symphony went out for soul food. In the van, Lawson started singing “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep.” The song session continued into the restaurant itself where the conglomeration of talent sang the song for the patrons on hand. “We turned the place inside out,” Jerry recalled, and went on to note that from that point forward, “the cornbread was on the house.”
A year would pass between the season two finale of The Sing-Off and Lawson’s next performance on national TV for the show’s live holiday special that followed on the season three finale. “Somebody at NBC said we’re going to bring Jerry back, but this time, with members of each of the groups from The Sing-Off. They had Deke [Sharon] put together an arrangement for “Sweet Soul Music.” … They picked a song I’ve been singing my whole life; a favorite of mine.” You can check out a video of the performance below.
As Jerry and Julie explained, Cooke wrote the original song and Otis Redding took it, made some minor changes, and gave it to Arthur Conley who had a hit with it. Cooke sued Redding afterward and won.
A little known fact, so obscure that most of the performers who shared the stage with Lawson never knew it: unlike so many performances over a span of four decades, in this particular instance, “I was a nervous wreck.”
Lawson wasn’t afraid of singing, to be sure, but rather about making good on a bold, personal decision—to alter the lyrics of the song, removing Lou Rawls’ name and subbing in personal idol and major influence Sam Cooke for the line “Sam Cooke taught me how to do it all.”
“He was scared to death,” Julie said, “that he was going to forget his own lyric because the original was so engrained in him.”
The hard work paid off, and as nervous as he may have been, the viewers of the live show witnessed no fear, but rather a master artist plying his trade. Lawson felt as confident as he looked once that lyric had passed, letting loose and enjoying the experience of performing a classic song amidst so many new talents.
After his triumphant performance, Lawson has little intention of slowing down. He would still like to record with instrumentation behind him, but likened his career in a cappella to the experience of Superman—“after Clark Kent ran in the telephone booth and took off his tie” it was hard to be anything but that hero.
Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town sang with Rod Stewart at a Hurricane Katrina benefit; Lawson sang with Paul Simon on Saturday Night Live. At one point, Bruce Springsteen opened for him and The Persuasions. Though Lawson may not be as famous as his accomplishments warrant, there is no question his influence and his art is alive and well. Jerry talked about a desire to go on to tour colleges and deliver lectures, and his ambition to continue recording music in new contexts. One thing is for sure—Jerry Lawson’s persona, legacy, and voice are a part of the fabric of a cappella, and, indeed, American music as a whole. He is a living legend in the truest sense of those words.