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.
Like the blues Young put out, Williams cut and bought material that keeps collectors haunting bins to this day--deep Southern soul, marked by gospel-rooted vocalists, countryish backing bands, brass and stately 6/8 tempos. If that sounds like the recipe for a mess, consider that it has produced some of the pithiest American music.
Many of the singles Williams put out were regional hits that all but disappeared for a quarter of a century. When the AVI Entertainment Group in Los Angeles acquired the Excello and Nashboro masters two years ago, they set out on an ambitious repackaging plan that yielded last year's intriguing collection The Heart of Southern Soul: From Nashville to Memphis and Muscle Shoals. Now they've extended the set with a companion volume that's nearly as terrific as the first: Heart of Southern Soul Vol. 2.
Most of the artists on these two discs--the Kelly Brothers, Roshell Anderson, the Exotics--were little-known in their primes and are altogether obscure today. There are no Al Greens or Otis Reddings waiting to be discovered, but the two discs provide a glimpse of many fine, second-tier artists. Deejays and secretaries by day, they saw in soul music a vehicle for their material dreams, and poured their church-schooled voices into tales of cheating and love gone bad, intuitively marrying the sacred and profane. They burned like fireflies on a track or two, then vanished back into a workaday world.
Vol. 2 features 16 artists on 24 tracks, many of whom were included on the first set. Standouts include the Wallace Brothers' minor '64 hit "Precious Words," replete with high-register vocals and marching organ; previously unissued takes of Kip Anderson's greasy, down-home ballads "Letter From My Darling" and "You'll Lose a Good Thing"; a searing, previously unissued song by Marva Whitney, who put in time as a backing vocalist with James Brown; and Lattimore Brown backed by the crack Muscle Shoals rhythm section on the incandescent ballad "I Will."
My favorite track is by Jerry Washington, a native of Denmark, South Carolina. His "Right Here Is Where You Belong" opens with a man walking down the street to a loping beat, looking for his estranged girlfriend's house. After some ersatz knocking, Washington delivers this passionately bumbled monologue:
"I got something I would like to say to you. You see, I was just released from the hospital. The reason why I was released, because the doctor told me medicine can't do me no good. He told me what I had is beyond medical science. So he released me because--they told me they haven't found a remedy for my condition. He told me what I have is more serious than cancer. He told me what I have is a very, very bad case of the blues . . ."
The song was a small success in the South in '73. But the rest of the Jerry Washington story, told by John Ridley in the liner notes, is what makes the whole set such a pleasure: "After one further minor hit and an engaging LP he seems to have gone back to his day job as a hair stylist."
Land of 1,000 Dances
Remember the boogaloo? That '60s dance craze that swept the nation and gave us those hits by Jerryo?
I didn't, either, when I saw the new Right Stuff compilation The Boo-ga-loo Years. It's a fine but puzzling 14 tracks, most by Jerry Murray and Robert Tharp, who billed themselves as Tom & Jerryo. Murray was a Chicago deejay who moved to Detroit in the early '60s, where he hooked up with Tharp and began performing as a soul singer. They cut their theme song, "Boo-ga-loo," for ABC in '65 (this collection spans '67 to '69).
Boogaloo was also a Hispanic movement in New York in '67 that had mambo roots and branched off into Latin jazz. Joe Cuba had a million-selling single with "Bang Bang," which he says was representative of the style; Ray Barretto, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri and Cal Tjader were all associated with boogaloo, as was a dual trombone sound.
By contrast, Jerryo's cuts--"Papa Chew Do the Boo-ga-loo," "Popcorn Boo-ga-loo," "Funky Boo-ga-loo"--sound like the birth of funk. They're driving ghetto party tunes, based on locked bass-and-drum arrangements with guitars played on the beat. The most obvious influence is Dyke and the Blazers, the Phoenix-based band whose "Funky Broadway" peaked on the R&B charts in '67. The boogaloo also sparked a dance fad that worked pretty well with hits from Memphis and Motown, too.
The Jerryo tracks have a loose, layered quality and a dizzying effect. Murray sings over sprinkled shouts and chatter like a referee at a rent party. "The studio was usually well stocked with two of Jerryo's staples," Jon Levy writes in the CD booklet, "scotch whiskey and attractive women."
That was apparently okay with Sammy Kaplan. His father, Morry, ran Danceland Records in the early '50s, issuing singles by a stuttering janitor from a Detroit auto plant who would later become known as John Lee Hooker. Sammy followed in Morry's footsteps and launched the Boo-Ga-Loo label in 1966, built around Jerryo. His star cracked the charts on its first outing. "Karate Boo-ga-loo," the leadoff cut on the new collection, peaked at No. 16 on the Billboard R&B charts. Released in early July '67, it sold 400,000 copies by the end of the summer.
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It was an auspicious season that year in Detroit. On Saturday, July 22, the city's police raided a downtown after-hours club where a party was in progress for several black soldiers just returned from Vietnam. As the raid progressed, a crowd gathered outside the club; by 8 a.m. Sunday, there were about 3,000 people milling around. Someone broke a window. Fires spread.
"A spirit of carefree nihilism was taking hold," said a writer for the Kerner report on what came to be known as the Detroit riots. "Late Sunday afternoon it appeared to one observer that young people were 'dancing amidst the flames.'"
Three guesses which dance they were doing.