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Persuasions Singer "Shines"

Jerry Lawson steps out from a capella ensemble

April 20, 2004 12:00 AM ET
Jerry Lawson is best known as providing the buttery lead vocal for the flagship doo-wop-cum-gospel-cum-soul-cum-beep-bop a cappella group the Persuasions. But after forty-one years, twenty-one albums, tours with Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, and chronic under-appreciation -- so much so that Lawson now supports himself by driving a bus full of elderly folks suffering from Down Syndrome -- the frontman is finally quitting the quintet for a solo career, with a proper band.

"There are so many beautiful songs that I just couldn't do a cappella," Lawson, sixty, says. "I was listening to Little Richard and Curtis Mayfield a few years back, and I turned to my wife, and said, 'You ain't going to believe this honey, but I can do this. I got to get me a band.'"

Lawson can't just talk about music -- he's got to sing. At mere mention of tunes he likes -- Bob Dylan's "The Man in Me" or any Mayfield track -- he starts to croon. And he's now started focusing that energy into two solo big-band albums: a collection of jazz standards backed by the Moscow Philharmonic followed by a set of classic rhythm-and-blues numbers complete with a horn section. Although he's pre-recorded the old Jerry Butler tune "He Don't Love You (Like I Love You)" -- a version boasting Lawson's trademark sweetness and slippery soul -- he's still waiting for the right label to make the right offer. But that hasn't dampened his enthusiasm or his elation.

"I'm feeling just so good about so many things, man," Lawson says. "And I'm still able to give the world some more, so I'm gonna give it a try. I started singing that stuff, and we started listening to it, and tears started coming to my eyes."

The Persuasions' story is an epic one, a tearjerker even. Back in the early 1960s, lacking a proper band but bursting with song, Lawson moved from Florida to New York City and eventually found a few friends to harmonize with on the streets of Brooklyn. And, man, could they sing, reviving the sound straight out of their respective Southern churches. In a matter of years, the impoverished five went from goofing around after pick-up basketball games to serenading droves of locals in the neighborhood to opening for Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach at Lincoln Center (the band's first gig).

"Man, we left the stage to a standing ovation -- nobody had never heard of five guys singing a cappella," Lawson remembers. "They didn't know what they were in for. And neither did we. They asked for an encore, and I had to ask a guy, 'What is an encore?'"

The band then quickly became regulars at New York's Bitter End, performing, as Lawson tells it, regularly in front of Jefferson Airplane, Peter Paul and Mary, and the Kingston Trio. Before long, everyone from Bette Midler, Ray Charles and the Blind Boys of Alabama not only knew of the Persuasions but brought the band out on the road.

"We got a call to go on tour through the South opening for Liza Minnelli," Lawson says. "She had eighty-seven pieces and dancing girls. And here we are, five little black boys. We got on the plane, and all of us, being from the South, went to the back of the plane. And she was like, 'What are you doing? It ain't like that.'"

Persuasions records play like artifacts, showcasing an overlooked form. The albums dazzle with their barbershop harmonies, warm rhythms and ethereal spirit; and boast their signature slogan: "This recording contains no instruments other than the human voice." Mostly covers, the band turns standards, blues music, pop tunes, and even Frank Zappa and Grateful Dead songs into vocal, rootsy splendor.

Even so, although critics have always praised the band and a niche group of fans still obsess over their music, the Persuasions have never seen proper royalties. Like many young, naive artists from the period, the Persuasions suffered from shoddy management and agents. Still, Lawson bears no grudges.

"I don't have time to be bitter," he says. "I'm just so happy that at my age I still have a good voice. I'm really elated for the life that I had with the Persuasions and the time that God gave me to be with them."

Of course, singing without instruments didn't exactly help much either. To many, a cappella music is spineless fluff to be reserved for college campuses, where it occupies a musical no-man's land alongside campy show tunes -- hardly the glorified gospel of the Persuasions.

"A cappella will never grow past a small market," Lawson says. "It comes back to money. They can't sell instruments. So the kids are being brought up to play guitars and trumpets. The industry won't promote a cappella if they can't sell instruments."

But, again, Lawson revels when he can. And recently the Colorado branch of the A Cappella Society of America named their top award for best soloist, "The Jerry Lawson Award." And the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens just added the Persuasions to their Celebrity Path, alongside Neil Diamond, Woodie Guthrie, Barbara Streisand and other immortals.

"I gave it all I had [with the Persuasions], but there was only so much I could do," Lawson says. "I want to the world to really hear me. My first album is going to be called My Time to Shine."

For more information, go to jerrylawson.biz.

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