Boyz II Men get a hit record with an a cappella version of "In the Still of the Night." Take 6 wins a Grammy for an a cappella album. And the Persuasions -- who broke ground for Take 6 and Boyz II Men -- still go largely unrecognized by the music industry and mainstream audiences.
"We don't see it that way," said lead singer Jerry Lawson, resting between gigs in Los Angeles recently. "When we started out, there was really just us. Hey, now there are over 400 a cappella groups out there, and it just makes me feel good. Anything that happens as far as a cappella is concerned just puts a feather in our caps."
Gracious, even noble, words from a guy with more than 8,000 shows under his belt in the last 35 years. Long before Boyz II Men were even Babiez II Men, the Persuasions were carrying the a cappella torch alone. They soldiered through the '60s and '70s despite record companies that didn't promote them and radio stations that wouldn't mix unaccompanied voice records with Elton John and disco. By the late '80s, they had become an "are those guys still around?" curiosity.
Today -- thanks in part to sexy MTV videos -- a cappella is au courant. There really are, as Lawson said, more than 400 a cappella groups listed in the Primarily A Cappella web site (http: // www.singers.com).
The Persuasions are the Muhammad Ali of the movement: original, innovative, enduring. (They are introduced in concert as "The Heavyweight Champions of A Cappella!") The big vocal groups that have flourished in their wake -- the Bobs, the Nylons, Rockapella, Color Me Badd, Take 6, Boyz II Men, the Mint Juleps -- all acknowledge learning their harmony chops, at least in part, by listening to Persuasions records.
Somehow, the commercial success that has come to some of these a cappella neophytes still eludes the Persuasions. Call it a howling injustice, in five-part harmony.
"They're a national treasure," said Fred Parnes, director of the 1996 documentary film "Spread the Word: The Persuasions Sing A Cappella," which airs periodically on PBS. "Here you have the guys who really started this whole modern a cappella movement, still in great voice, and they're not winning Grammys or going on Leno and Letterman. It's a crime."
To really appreciate the irony of the Persuasions' position, one must know a little Persuasions history.
Lawson started out in the early '60s harmonizing on the stoops of Bedford-Stuyvesant with four friends -- Jimmy Hayes, whose floor-scraping bass is more played than sung; Joe Russell, doubly gifted with a heavyweight tenor and acrobatic falsetto; Jayotis Washington, whose light, agile tenor could almost be described as coloratura; and Toubo Rhoad, a gravelly baritone who was the glue holding the voices together.
Eclectic song list
They were never an oldies group, but an eclectic, highly virtuosic ensemble that innovatively adapted songwriters from Kurt Weill to Bob Dylan. Frank Zappa, of all people, signed them to their first album deal in 1968 -- merely on the strength of having listened to them perform from a New York studio over the phone.
Today there are 21 Persuasions albums and a resume that includes recording and/or performing with the likes of Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, Lou Reed, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Gladys Knight, Country Joe McDonald, Liza Minnelli, Patti LaBelle, the Neville Brothers and B.B. King.
Timing, as they say, is everything, and timing has seldom been on the Persuasions' side. During their '70s heyday of such acclaimed albums as "Streetcorner Symphony" and "Comin' At Ya!", the music industry and radio hadn't figured out how to accommodate five guys with no band. Were the Persuasions a novelty? Folk? R&B;?
Meanwhile, critics and peers raved. Rolling Stone magazine rated their album "Chirpin' " one of the top 100 works of the '70s. Rock writer Greil Marcus called their style a "perfect marriage of passion and intelligence." Mix Magazine wrote, "The Persuasions are five parts of one voice, one spirit." Their friend and fan Tom Waits said: "These guys are deep sea divers. I'm just a fisherman in a boat."
It wasn't enough. In the '80s, the Persuasions -- named, as Lawson explains, because "like Christ had to persuade people to follow him, we've had to persuade people to listen to a cappella" -- grew discouraged. Lawson actually quit the group for a while, as did second tenor Joe Russell.
A down time
The lowest point came in 1988, when their baritone and dear friend, Rhoad, died from a stroke in mid-tour. They continued as a quartet with one empty mike, still introducing Toubo at each gig.
"Well, at one point, the whole thing got to be a down," confessed Lawson, whose warm, radiant voice compares with Brook Benton and Otis Redding. "But after the groups like Take 6 and the Nylons and Rockapella, we were born again. I was just telling a friend of mine, most groups' careers at this time would be going downhill, but we've got more and more fans all over the world. The older we get, the more fans we get! I never could have imagined this."
The Pers, as they call themselves, are selling out routinely. Old fans are rediscovering them, new a cappella fans are making their acquaintance. In Europe, they are downright huge (when they headlined a music festival in Sweden last summer, it was page one news).
The new momentum has brought something unexpected: a new Persuasion, baritone Bernard "B.J." Jones, formerly with the Drifters. Joining in 1996 as a temporary fill-in for ailing bassman Hayes, Jones was invited to stay on in Rhoad's old slot.
Career-wise, things are looking more promising than they have since Zappa signed them. Aside from Parnes' documentary, there were two warmly reviewed new Persuasions albums in 1997: "Sincerely" and "You're All I Want For Christmas," their first Christmas album (both on Rounder's Bullseye Blues label).
This spring, Rounder will release the first-ever all-gospel Persuasions album, and two new major projects loom: a semi-auto- biographical musical, now in planning stages, and an all-Zappa CD.
A cappella Zappa
"I've always been a Frank Zappa guy," laughed Lawson. "You can't imagine how great his music sounds a cappella, especially some of his early material." The sight of the usually tuxedoed group -- well known for its Christian, gospel roots -- performing Zappa's mordant anthem "The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing" leaves audiences in stitches.
The Zappa album, which they will finish later this year, brings up another barrier that the Persuasions have run into with the marketing arm of the music industry: their eclectic repertory. They sing everything from gospel to blues, jazz, ballads and rock. Lawson even came up with a convincing arrangement of "I Woke Up in Love This Morning," by the (gulp) Partridge Family.
Why? "Well, there's something about certain songs that I just call Persuasions songs the first time I hear them," he said. "It's a lot to do with the bass player. If the bass man can do the licks like they play them on the record, then the lead singer is free to come up with what he wants. And the other Persuasions become the violins. You just add the strings, and there it is!"
"Still ain't got no band" is the Persuasions' longtime slogan. Still ain't got enough recognition remains too apt at this stage.
Jerry Lawson shrugged. "Hey, we just love singing a cappella," he said. "People told me a long time ago, 'You can really make it if you have a band.' I said, yeah, but then we'd be just like everybody else. What makes us unique is that we can do it without a band. You can listen to all the a cappella groups that you want -- and I'm not bragging on the Persuasions -- but we just do a cappella different. We are the band."
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Rams Head Tavern, 33 West St., Annapolis
Highlights from the first three Persuasions albums listed here were just released in a "greatest hits" package, "Man Oh Man" (Capitol). Here's a selected Persuasions discography:
"We Came To Play" (Capitol), 1970
"Street Corner Symphony" (Capitol), 1971
"Spread the Word" (Capitol), 1971
"Still Ain't Got No Band" (MCA), 1973
"Chirpin' " (Elektra/Asylum), 1977
"Comin' At Ya" (Flying Fish), 1979
"Good News" (Rounder), 1982
"No Frills" (Rounder), 1984
"Live in the Whispering Gallery" (Hammer 'N Nails), 1988
"Right Around the Corner" (Rounder), 1994
"Sincerely" (Rounder), 1996
"You're All I Want For Christmas" (Rounder), 1997
Pub Date: 2/09/98