The idea of Scottsdale resident Jerry Lawson, onetime leader of The Persuasions, one of the most prominent a cappella group of '60s and '70s, competing on NBC's a cappella competition The Sing Off seems crazy.
But that's exactly what happened last season, when the popular Nick Lachey-hosted show featured Lawson and his new group, Talk of the Town. Judges like Ben Folds, Shawn Stockman, and Nicole Scherzinger, weighed in, and Talk of the Town, though embraced by the crowd, lost to Committed.
Lawson certainly doesn't feel bitter. "I am so happy to be involved with the show. It's amazing to see these young kids doing a cappella music." Lawson has lived in Scottsdale for ten years, and is looking forwarding to performing at The Compound Grill in the spring (he didn't have an exact date locked down just yet).
Lawson is scheduled to perform on Monday, December 5, as part of The Sing Off holiday special. We spoke about competing, his connection to Frank Zappa, and pop music traditions.
Up on the Sun: How are you, Jerry?
Jerry Lawson: I'm just fine. If I call you sir, that's just because I'm an old country boy [laughs].
That's certainly okay with me, but I'm not used to being called sir.
We're doing rehearsals, rehearsing the [The Sing Off] grand finale, Christmas special.
You competed last season, correct?
Yes, I competed with my San Francisco group Talk of the Town.
But this year you're just performing.
I'm a guest star. I moved on up a bit! [laughs]
Did you enjoy competing last season?
Yeah, well see, I thought about it, and the way I look at it is: when God opens doors, because he don't explain why he's doing it. It was a no brainer. I said, "Listen, God is opening this door to me. If it's competing, it doesn't matter, because as long as I spread the word of this special art, a cappella, that's the purpose." It's not about me. It's about this dying art, preserving this art. That's what its about.
You've been preserving the art of a cappella since the mid-60s.
Yes, almost 50 years. I was telling the kids [Sing Off performers] yesterday, when I look at The Sing Off, it just brings tears to my eyes. I remember 50 years ago traveling these long dark roads, going to these little towns where nobody ever heard of The Persuasions, let alone a cappella.
I remember getting into those little towns and people saying, "Where's the band?" And we didn't have no band. Now when I look and see how it evolved to where it is now, singing in the sing off, with these kids with beautiful arrangements, it just brings tears to my eyes. I'm telling you the truth, man, from my heart. I am so happy to be involved. God is good. Think about it, I'm living long enough to see something so special. The art of this music. I got to see it come to mainstream, to see it on a national televised show. Ain't that beautiful?
Early on, your associations were with sort of unlikely sources, Frank Zappa, Grateful Dead -- artists that really embrace of the a cappella style.
He did, you know. Frank Zappa gave me my first recording contract. That's how this whole thing came about. Frank gave me the first contract. Can you imagine what he would say if he was alive now? He would be amazed.
You guys have recorded tributes to The Beatles, The Dead, U2, all very much pop or rock artists.
Ain't that beautiful? It's all a cappella. A tribute to The Grateful Dead, a tribute to The Beatles, a tribute to Frank Zappa. A tribute to The Blind Boys of Alabama. Sam Cooke. All a cappella.
Is pop music easy to adapt to a capella style?
Listen to these kids. They've taken it another step. Contemporary, pop, jazz, a cappella in so many different styles. Everybody does it different. There's no winners or losers. Well, when they add the money, it's a little different [laughs] But all of them are contributing to preserving the special art of a cappella.
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Jerry Lawson is scheduled to perform on The Sing Off tonight at 7 p.m., on KPNX, Channel 12.