The Good Foot

A survey of recent blues, soul, R&B and roots releases

Still Chirpin'
In 1973, the a cappella group the Persuasions released an album titled We Still Ain't Got No Band. They ought to use that name for all their albums, and just add exclamation marks as they improve with age. One nice thing about soul, blues and R&B is there's room for mature players; here are four middle-aged men still building ephemeral monuments with zesty harmony. The quartet's recent, 14th collection, Sincerely (Bullseye Blues/Rounder), captures them at the height of their powers.

And they still ain't got no hits. In an age of continually renewed rock, when listeners are accustomed to a drummer behind even unplugged performances, or at least a strummed guitar, what chance do these guys have to be more than a novelty?

That's been the Persuasions' boon and cross since they formed as a quintet in Brooklyn in 1962. Note that, apart from singing, their timing sucks. Doo-wop harmonies were about to die on the charts that year, as lead singer Jerry Lawson was running an elevator in a department store. Jimmy Hayes, their indomitable bass vocalist, was the elevator operator at a store across the street; each would abandon his post to ride and sing with the other. In search of an interesting echo, they progressed to subway stations and finally to stages. At first the Persuasions were a cappella because they couldn't afford a band. By the time they could, they decided to stick with the gimmick.

While they've hedged through the years by doing backing vocals for other artists who hire bands, including Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, and Phoebe Snow, the Persuasions still carry the a cappella standard. At times they've seemed the sole, tenuous link from the glory days of the late '50s to the semirenaissance in which groups such as Take 6, the Nylons, and Rockapella have flowered. Even today, however, few ensembles can match their soulfulness and precision; maybe--maybe--the Housemartins, on their one, limited-edition EP of gospel tunes in '86. But the Housemartins fell apart not long afterward, while the Persuasions are completing their 34th year sounding stronger than ever.

The group was reportedly unhappy with its last Rounder album, 1994's Right Around the Corner, because Hayes' voice was lost in the mix. The members produced this one themselves, and Hayes comes through like an amplified heartbeat. Not since the Harmonizing Four's Jimmy Jones sang has a quartet been anchored by such astonishingly deep musical utterance. And it's put to good use on Sincerely, in choices that are typically eccentric and inspired.

The Persuasions open with the gospel tune "Building a Home," a perfect vehicle for the grit that's crept into Lawson's voice over the years. On "Members Only," an R&B hit for Bobby Bland, their harmonies find a melancholy that surpasses the original, a potent reminder that a naked voice can be infinitely sad. "Life Is a Ballgame," a goofy gospel number cut as "The Ball Game" by Sister Wynona Carr in 1952, is still crass (faced with lyrics such as "Jesus is standing at the home plate/Waiting for you to come in," I submit that there are some rocks even tremendous talent can't get over), but that's just a blip. They take the title track, a monster hit for the Moonglows in '54, and drive it like a teenager with a Porsche; stops on a dime, too.

I don't know where the folkish "500 Miles" came from--the scant liner notes are no help--but I know we used to sing it when I was at summer camp in the Adirondacks 30 years ago. According to Lawson, audiences in Greece were moved to sing along when the Persuasions performed it there recently. "500 Miles" may be the mother of all folk songs, but not until I heard it on Sincerely did I realize it could be soulful. And Lawson adds a poignant spoken passage:

"I even wrote my father and told him I was on the hog. He told me to take a bite out of him and ride him back home . . ."

I like that, even though I don't have a clue what he's talking about. Does it matter? Like a cappella at the end of the century, like this sumptuous album and its authors, the hottest harmony quartet working, it's so cool it's got to mean something.

Never Too Much of a Good Thing
One day in 1951, a light bulb flashed over the head of Ernie Young, the white proprietor of Ernie's Record Mart in Nashville, Tennessee. After watching his customers buy black gospel and R&B records, Young figured that if he made the records, there'd be that much more money for him--sort of like a drugstore making pills. It wasn't an entirely novel idea. Young's competitor, Randy's Record Store owner Randy Wood, started the Dot label the same year and went on to huge success with Pat Boone's white-as-rice covers of R&B hits.

So Young started the Nashboro label, and followed it with Excello the next year. Nashboro eventually cut some tough, soul-influenced gospel acts in the '60s, but it was Excello that made the big splash. Young bought innovative swamp blues from Louisiana studios, including Slim Harpo's understated masterpieces, and had deejays hawk them on late-night radio. In 1966, he sold the company to employee Shannon Williams, who was keen to experiment with soul music.

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