Great Persuader

After 40 years of street-corner symphonies, Jerry Lawson learns to sing with a band

Jerry Lawson doesn't get rattled easily.

Lawson, the lead singer of the Persuasions — arguably the finest a cappella vocal group of all time — has experienced just about everything the music biz has to offer over the last four decades: He's made 21 albums, toured with Aretha Franklin and B.B. King, sung with Joni Mitchell, recorded for Frank Zappa's label, and rocked Carnegie Hall. And although his quintet's a cappella approach has kept them from getting consistent radio airplay over the years, Lawson has been rightly lauded as one of the great soul shouters — in the same league with giants like David Ruffin, Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding.

So why did Lawson feel so nervous two weeks ago when he took the stage at A League of Our Own, for a crowd that he himself describes as "about eight people"? How could that match the stress level of trying to win over Mothers of Invention fans at Carnegie Hall? Because at A League of Our Own, for the first time in his career, Lawson was going to sing, not with his street-corner partners in harmony, but with an actual band.

Jerry Lawson: The Persuasions' legendary leader is plotting his first-ever solo album.
Jerry Lawson: The Persuasions' legendary leader is plotting his first-ever solo album.

"I said to myself, 'Why am I so nervous? I'm sweating,'" Lawson says with a laugh. "But bam, we hit and I opened my mouth and it felt like I'd been singing with these cats all the time.

"I knew these guys were professionals, and I was scared to death. But they were looking at me the same way. They said, 'Jerry, you don't need rehearsal.' And I said, 'Everybody needs rehearsal!'"

Lawson's gig at A League of Our Own, like much of his good fortune, is something he chalks up to divine intervention. Like his fellow Persuasions, Lawson's a native of the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. But unlike his groupmates, who continue to live in the same neighborhood where they grew up, he's wandered restlessly from Boston to L.A. to the small northern California town of Guerneville. Last summer, he and his wife Julie (who's also his manager) decided to buy a condo in north central Phoenix and settle here.

Before moving here, Lawson's wife had seen Phoenix jazz singer Dennis Rowland perform in L.A. and been impressed by him. When she met Rowland, he expressed an interest in meeting Lawson.

"I was on the road, and when I got back, Dennis called," Lawson says. "He said, 'I'm in a play called Sophisticated Ladies and I was wondering if you'd fill in for me at my club for three nights.' I said, 'That'd be cool. Sure, no problem.' Then I hung up the phone and said, 'Okay? Who am I kidding? I've never sung with a band!'"

There was opportunity for rehearsal, aside from running through a few tunes with Rowland's piano player that morning. Knowing that the band's forte is jazz, Lawson tried to recall some standards he'd learned from his mom as a child.

To illustrate his point, Lawson spontaneously launches into a spirited version of "The Sunny Side of the Street." It's something he frequently does in mid-conversation. His love for singing is apparent, and he's somehow maintained the same enthusiasm that he demonstrated as a 5-year-old vocal prodigy in the choir of his Florida Baptist church (which still saves his spot for the rare Sundays he makes it back to town).

Lawson's put on quite a bit of weight over the years, but he still looks remarkably youthful and vigorous for his 58 years. Part of his vitality surely comes from the ascendant popularity of the Persuasions, who've hooked an entirely new audience in the last three years with tribute albums to Zappa, the Grateful Dead and, most recently, the Beatles.

While these records could be dismissed as conceptual novelties — and they're far from the gospel-inflected soul of such early '70s Persuasions masterworks as Street Corner Symphony and Spread the Word — the integrity of the group's harmony sound never falters. And in the hands — or larynges — of the Persuasions, you're able to hear the melodic luster of the Dead's "Ripple" or the R&B roots of the Beatles' "From Me to You" with fresh ears.

While he says he'll never abandon the Persuasions, Lawson's talked with ex-Grateful Dead keyboardist Vince Welnick about making a solo album. Lawson wants the album to be a tribute to singers who've inspired him — from Ruffin and Redding to Brook Benton and Nat "King" Cole. At Welnick's urging, he's also composed a couple of original tunes, including a Bed-Stuy homage called "Life in the Ghetto Ain't That Bad."

Now, with Rowland's help, he's found a musical nucleus to help him make that leap.

"Maybe God led us to the Valley," he says. "Maybe I'm going to record my solo album here. I got to meet some nice musicians. And maybe I could get some work here, at the casinos. That would be great. Then I could move all the Persuasions into Phoenix."

Jerry Lawson is scheduled to perform on Saturday, May 25, at A League of Our Own, 40 East Camelback, Suite 102. Showtime is 8 p.m. to midnight.

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