The Persuasions have lasted for over forty years as a recording group. But they experienced their golden era in the early Seventies, fostered by Frank Zappa. Zappa’s Straight label released the first Persuasions recording in 1970. As the story goes, Zappa was introduced to them by David Dashev, the band’s manager, over the phone. Despite the tinny audio of telephonics, Zappa was hooked. Long a lover of early doo-wop, he flew the group out to Los Angeles, set up a concert and recorded it. The rest is history, sort of. The Persuasions never became the household name that the Temptations did, that Smoky Robinson and the Miracles did, that Zappa himself is, despite years of touring and recording a song that was included in Steven Spielberg’s movie, “E.T.”
Bass man Jimmy Hayes first brought the band together for a rehearsal in his tiny New York apartment in 1962. The five men who originally made up the band: Jerry Lawson, Herbert Rhoads, ‘Sweet Joe’ Russell, Jimmy Hayes, and Jayotis Washington, got their start singing on street corners and in churches in New York and New Jersey. The five went through doo-wop classics while creating arrangements tailored for each member’s strengths. They covered gospel songs by the Dixie Hummingbirds,The Mighty Clouds of Joy, and soul songs by Sam Cooke and the Impressions. As their voices blended better, the arrangements grew more intricate. Jerry Lawson sang lead and directed the songs down new paths, careful not to mutilate their original feel. Most of all, they sang, and sang, and sang. Harmony. Melody. Rhythmic polyphony. Still, the singers needed a style to set them apart; something that would make them memorable. As it does today, pop music swung to the tribal beat of rock and roll and was propelled by six string guitars that bucked and hummed all over the place. An a cappella quintet wasn’t going to set the world on fire.
Zappa disagreed. To him, the soul doo-wop gospel hybrid of the Persuasions was genius. And he believed that genius was enough to set the radio waves on fire. He quickly set about releasing their debut, 1970’s ACapella. By the time of its release, the Persuasions had been together long enough to have crystallized their vocalese into a fine art. They had synthesized it, bottled it up, and drank it down. Not surprising then, their music comes on like a nice cocktail—first the biting burn of new found excitement, and then the lingering warm glow of appreciation.
After the fateful phone call between Dashev and Zappa, the Persuasions piled onto a plane and flew westward ho to Los Angeles, recording Mecca of the modern world. While none can doubt the religious influence on their music, the Persuasions had long embraced pop music and freely incorporated the songs of the Temptations and even Elvis with the gospel of their youth. On Acappella, the Persuasions relied heavily on live showstoppers: Leiber and Stoller’s Drip Drop, Hammerstein and Kern’s Old Man River, and the Drifters’ hit, Up on the Roof.
Reprise/Warner distributed Zappa’s labels. The straight-laced Warner marketing crew either had no idea how to push the Persuasions or no real desire to do so. Probably it was a combination of the two. ACapella fizzled. But all things Persuasion were not lost. Capitol records had taken notice of the band. They liked what they heard. Capitol would release the Persuasions’ next three outings.
First up: We Came To Play. For their sophomore effort the five singers built arrangements in the studio while they went, creating brilliant renditions of Goffin/King’s Another Night with the Boys, and The Beatles’ Let it Be. No hits happened. People heard what radio programmers played for them. And radio programmers in 1971 were celebrating the age of the guitar. Though the Persuasions sang songs densely thicketed with funk and soul and did so with only voices, hand claps, and finger snaps, their efforts were ignored. Anatomical rock or not, they were filed away like a forgotten history lesson.
1972’s Spread the Word followed their normal trajectory, breathing different air into pop covers and giving crisp arrangements to the spiritual songs of their past. Spread the Word is most notable for the two versions of Bob Dylan’s Three Angels, from New Morning that open and close the recording. Really, it is one recording shaped into two by editing. The first go round follows Dylan’s original, and keeps the talk singing nod to Hank Williams’ “Luke the Drifter” albums. In the Persuasions’ mouths Three Angels ambles from baritone to bass to tenor until the backing melodies surge forward becoming a cherubic choir. At the album’s end, the song strips away the recitation giving it a civic, ethereal touch not present in the original. In the 70s, when the Persuasions did record with instruments (an ill-advised attempt to cross over), the combustion of Three Angels waned. Instruments felled Lawson’s imagination and yolked spry arrangements to leaden amplification.
Next up: Street Corner Symphony, the fourth and final recording of their golden era. This is the record that makes you stand up and take notice. This is the masterpiece. When the singers lift off into People Get Ready, the initial euphonic impact rips the hymn from the hands of the Impressions, and Aretha Franklin, both of whose takes on the song were the previous high-water marks. Those recordings pale against the Persuasions’ definitive version. No one else will ever sing it better. From there, the group’s concordance swaggers to the highest fidelics. Voices brim with confidence. And confidence breeds experimentation. While experimentation doesn’t always succeed (see Brian Wilson’s four decade struggle with the Beach Boys’ Smile) on Street Corner, success is immediate and lasting. The mother jams and swings free of pretension. It plays. You move.
Symphony came but a few months after Spread the Word. Their creative fires were stoked. It shows. Street Corner is, hands down, the best god damn a cappella record ever made. Dashev produced. He knew what he was doing. He was able to handle any creative and personal disagreements. As such, the studio never overwhelms the band, and Dashev smartly avoids the gimmickry and studio advancements of the time. Coming in under 30 minutes, the thing seethes, simmers, and testifies in ways no other instrument-less recording has before or since. Many of doo-wop’s recordings were hampered with noxious presentation and spend-thrift producers hell bent on delivering quantity. Singers sang with ersatz diffidence. The music felt artificial, and because of that, dull. And so much of it uses instrumentation to fill in the parts the singers can’t match. Not so the Persuasions. Any restraint, any timorous ideas are left behind. Because of that, Symphony bounces on innovative arrangments and stays true to the natural timber of voices supporting its songs. No piano tinklings, no double bass lines patch bald spots because there are no bald spots.
Humans naturally respond to voices. Science proves it, Psychology too. It’s called speech perception, or acoustic cueing. Near Symphony’s end, where the needle slips into the scratch groove, the Persuasions voices establish the kind of bond with the listener that electric pianos, drum sets, and guitars rarely can. Mostly it’s just kick ass jams arranged with brilliance, but the speech perception and acoustic cues actually make you feel better. The Persuasions deliver medicinal curatives with each song. How many bands can say that?
Though the Persuasions perform today, it’s not the original five. Lead singer Jerry Lawson performs solo. Dashev no longer manages or produces the group, instead he lives and works in Florida, helping addicts and alcoholics with dual diagnoses. Sweet Joe Russell passed away in March of this year. Herbert Rhoad died in ’88. The records released in Symphony’s wake uphold the original band’s talent, but retain little of Street Corner’s vision. After a single listen to their symphony, you know why. Had Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme early in his career could he have lasted much longer? Had The Beatles offered up the inscrutability of Sgt. Pepper’s, Dylan the lassitude of Blonde on Blonde right off the bat, would they have been able to linger on? It’s improbable. That’s why we return to records again and again. A live performance is one thing, but a great record continues its evolution each time you hear it. There’s always something new to explore.
The Persuasions continued recording, and remained adventurous. They’ve covered Zappa, and amazingly, turned infernally noodling Grateful Dead jams into dynamic R&B songs. A record each is devoted to the likes of the Beatles, U2, and Dylan. Whether or not you are a Zappa devotee, that he gave the Persuasions the chance they deserved is reason enough to deify the now dead Armenian-American guitar slinger—that, and Captain Beefheart. If only the Persuasions had covered the good Captain.