You may think your city is glutted with local talent, but vocalist Jerry Lawson of a cappella group the Persuasions remembers when live music was on every street corner in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant section. The year was 1962, and the neighborhood's homegrown music was a far cry from today's horde of garage bands. No one brought an instrument and no one owned an amp.
"A hundred guys would be playing basketball until the sun went down," recalls the baritone, "then they'd break up into little groups and just try to harmonize all the great songs of the day, songs like 'In the Still of the Night.'"
Lawson, who still lives in New York, is recalling the time when a cappella singing first appeared in rhythm and blues. A cappella--a style of music bereft of instrumentation, carried by naked voices in synch--allowed a generation of inner-city kids to become performing artists. Teenagers who couldn't afford instruments or lessons learned to sing the bass and guitar parts of popular doo-wop, blues and Tin Pan Alley songs. Rather than keep kids off the streets, it made every intersection a stage.
"Back in those days, any five guys on the corner was considered unlawful assembly," says Lawson. "The police would run you off, but then they left us alone. People would gather around and listen to us as they got off the bus from work late at night. Old people would be looking out the window wondering when we were gonna start singing."
A growing audience eventually transformed the basketball team into a permanent quintet. Lawson sang lead, Jimmy Hayes took bass, Jayotis Washington and Joe Russell sang the tenor spots, and Herbert Toubo Rhoad filled the other baritone position.
"Somebody would ask, 'What's the name of your group?' We'd say, 'What group? We were just messing around,'" Lawson says, laughing. "An old lady told us, you ought to get a name, so you can call yourselves something. Our bass, Jimmy, said, 'You know, the Persuasions is a good name for us, because Jesus had to persuade people to follow his religion, and we're sure gonna have to persuade most people to follow our singing without the boom-boom and bang-bang playing behind us.'"
Although well over 1,000 a cappella bands cut a record or two in the early 60s, the phenomenon remained basically a New York style, at odds with the country's growing interest in music propelled by electric guitars. Ironically, after six years of local gigs, the group's music caught the interest of one of the most sophisticated electric guitarists to appear in the early years of rock.
"A guy we knew with connections in Hollywood got Frank Zappa to listen to a tape of us singing in a garage in New Jersey," Lawson says. "Two days later, Zappa sent us tickets to come out to California."
The meeting resulted in the Persuasions' first album, A cappella, recorded on Zappa's Straight label. The man who had given a recording start to such eccentric acts as Alice Cooper and Wildman Fischer introduced a cappella music to a whole new set of fans. Zappa freaks already in love with the R&B flavor of his Mothers of Invention albums heard Mr. Z's roots in the Persuasions.
It's little wonder that Zappa came to appreciate the complexities of a cappella singing. Fond of taking chances in his own music, he was undoubtedly drawn to the Persuasions' risky style. A classically trained musician, Zappa may have also come to appreciate the group's pure sound--voices without the supportive net of keyboards and guitars to maintain the proper key or drums to keep a solid beat.
"When you're singing with a band behind you, it's like being fully dressed. If you mess up with a band behind you, who knows?" says Lawson. "But when you're singing a cappella, you're standing there with nothing but a napkin on. You're naked, man."
As was the case with Zappa's own records, a cappella proved too unusual for the average music fan. Mildly popular East Coast a cappella bands like the Nutmegs and the Zircons disappeared. Street-corner concerts and one-shot recording deals did not offer reason enough for the harmonizers to stay together. Even though they gained national exposure, the Persuasions spent the better part of the next two decades flip-flopping between labels that always concluded that a cappella was a financial bust. In the 70s alone, the group was signed to Capitol, MCA, A&M and Elektra, the latter which released the Persuasions' classic album Chirpin' in 1977. At present the group has been without a label deal for eight years.
That's not to say that the Persuasions have been unappreciated by fellow musicians. The list of artists who have used the group on recordings is impressive: Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Lou Reed and Stevie Wonder.
In spite of his group's struggles, Lawson maintains that a cappella is returning as an accepted form of music.
"We were on a rhythm and blues cruise in the Caribbean, and we were talking with the late blues guitarist Albert King," Lawson says. "He was saying that the blues are dying. I told him I think it's just the opposite with a cappella. It's just being born.
"We were in Canada and the group Boyz II Men came in the dressing room to shake our hand, you know, because our kind of a cappella is where they come from. The group Take 6, too. The Nylons, now a popular Canadian a cappella group, came to see one of our shows and I invited them onstage to sing and that's where they got their start. A cappella is turning up everywhere. You even hear it in television commercials."
Unfortunately, Lawson may be overly hopeful about the future of a cappella, having named in one breath every a cappella group with a label deal. The most attention the form has received in recent years came not from a recording but from a film. In 1990, director Spike Lee made an a cappella documentary titled Do It A Cappella. Naturally, the Persuasions were given a prominent position in the film. "The Spike Lee thing was wonderful," recalls Lawson. "Everybody saw that; it was worldwide. That put an extra spark plug behind our career, really boosted us."
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A lack of interest on the part of record companies is not the only problem the Persuasions have suffered over the years. Founding member Herbert Toubo Rhoad died in 1988, leaving a gap. The group has toured as a quartet ever since. In October the group auditioned a baritone it is considering making a full-time member.
"His name is Val. I don't even know his last name," Lawson says, anxious to turn the conversation back to his role as bandleader. "It's very hard to teach a new member 30 years of material. He has to learn all the signals I give onstage. I could touch my ear and that means sing this or change that. I run the group like a football team."
If he joins and the Persuasions become a quintet again, Val (whose real name is Valmont Miller) is not going to be able to get along by just learning the Percy Mayfield and Sam Cooke soul ballads that the group started out singing. Even knowing the group's extensive list of Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan covers won't help. Today, the group's live shows present a wildly varied overview of its many influences.
"When grandma is sitting there, we'll sing 'That Old Black Magic.' Then we can turn around and do something from Zappa's world, like 'The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing.' That tune always tears the place apart," Lawson says, getting excited. "We've cut a brand-new album that's the same kind of mix. We cover everything from a really different version of 'Stardust' to Frank's 'Lucille Has Messed Up My Mind.' We're just waiting for a record company to give us some bread, so we can put the thing out."
Lawson sounds a little bitter that all of the Persuasions' protgs have recording contracts while the genuine article must rely on endless one-night stands. But when it comes to the future, his voice brightens. He says he's happy to be furthering his instrument-free cause and hopes that someday the world will see the light. In this Lawson says he knows he's fighting an uphill battle. While the Beach Boys have dabbled in a cappella and Todd Rundgren released a whole album of it in 1985, the truth is that naked voices may never find a larger audience. It's a sound too unique for most audiences and too complex for most musicians to master. Lawson says he tries not to worry about the future. The next stretch of one-nighters is as far ahead as he wants to think.
"The guys in the group just don't understand why I'm still so nervous every night before we go on," he says. "After 30 years, I'm still a bundle of nerves.