Guess this news was off my radar last week, but I’ve just learned today that Jerome “Jerry” Lawson, the charming, but gritty voiced baritone singer and longtime frontman of The Persuasions, who recorded some two dozen albums with the vocal group over a 45 year span passed away at a hospice in Arizona on July 10th at age 75.
Jerry’s contributions to keeping the art of acapella singing alive were innumerable since that first Persuasions album arrived 50 years ago in 1969. His unlikely and long career includes being discovered by Frank Zappa singing to him over the phone, and then getting signed to the Straight/Bizarre label run by Zappa and Herb Cohen around the same time Alice Cooper and The GTO’s were also recording for the imprint. Soon The Persuasions were on the road opening for The Mothers Of Invention, and the first gig was in a segregated southern resort town… a place where none of the band members had ever dared go.
By 1971, now signed to Capitol, the Persuasions opened other shows for Zappa including The Mothers of Invention concerts at Carnegie Hall doing material found on their landmark break thru LP “We Came To Play”. Their sound was pure street vocal harmony, that combined elements of soul and gospel, but was not afraid of rock, in fact their repertoire included covers of songs by Lou Reed, Paul Simon and later even full acapella tribute albums to The Grateful Dead and The Beatles. Wrote future Persuasions’ album producer Rip Rense of the band in a 1986 profile for the LA Times, “They have Persuasioned everything from Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me” to Sam Cooke’s “Good Times” to Curtis Mayfield’s “Man Oh Man.” The recording of “Papa Oom Mow Mow” heard in “E.T.” was theirs.
Of those early informal years in the 1960’s before they were recording records, Jerry Lawson recalled after moving to Brooklyn from Florida that “We’d get a crowd around us. Boy, that harmony was lovely. People would sit around, and get popcorn and Crackerjacks, and just listen to us. Sometimes we would sing until 3 o’clock in the morning,” he told music writer Jim Harrington of Bay Area News Group in 2011. “We had a crowd, and we were singing, man — even the police were all in the crowd,” Lawson told Chris Hansen of the Mesa Az Tribune in 2007. “A lady yells out, ‘Boy, y’all sound good!’ Then she said ‘If you don’t know what you’re singing, it’s called a cappella.’ So that was the beginning right there.”The Persuasions who began performing professionally after so called “Doo-Wop” records had peaked, never wanted to be known as an oldies group and instead referred to their unique sound as “contemporary a capella”.
Whether they planned it or not, by the early 1970’s, The Persuasions, whose career began a decade earlier as just a group of friends singing outside on the basketball courts and front stoops of Brooklyn, were almost single handedly keeping the youthful improvisational spirit of street corner “Doo Wop” alive yet via major label records and tours in a music industry that mostly favored “dance” records, and thought vocal groups were not worthy of airtime or promotion. Jerry was always interested in expanding the horizons of vocal music, not being boxed in, and stayed emphatic that The Persuasions not play any “Doo-Wop” oldies shows, and insisted that booking agents turn down all offers to perform or participate in any nostalgic “Doo Wop” revues.
By the 1970’s The Persuasions were putting out some two albums a year, some were great, memorable charting titles including 1972’s “Street Corner Symphony” with its stunning “Temptations Jam” medley, and the funky drums and electric piano arrangements on “More Than Before” that arrived via A M in 1974. By 1977 they’d moved on to Elektra, and fortunes waned and soon by the 80’s they were on indie labels like Rounder, but still over the years they soldiered on, and Lawson got to record and share stages with an array of artists ranging from Joni Mitchell to Ellen McIlwaine, Stevie Wonder to Rod Stewart, Garland Jeffreys to Ray Charles, Paul Pena to David Essex, Leon Redbone, Sheryl Crow and even Liza Minnelli.
Spike Lee featured Jerry and The Persuasions in a 1990 documentary film he put together called “Do It A Capella” where they told some of their group history.
After 40 years with the group, a tired, bitter and worn out Lawson walked away from The Persuasions in the early 2000’s. Jerry moved to Arizona, and thinking he’d given up acapella singing for good, listening to the Johnny Otis radio show on KPFA, he’d soon stumbled upon a Bay Area group called Talk Of The Town that re-inspired him and they joined forces. The group recorded an album, toured and found a niche and can be seen performing with Jerry here on a nationally televised NBC TV show in 2010.
It wasn’t until 2015 Lawson released his own debut solo album, Jerry Lawson “Just A Mortal Man”, on Nashville based Red Beet Records that includes contributions from Jim Lauderdale. The title is a nod to a 1973 song that was sung by one of his biggest influences, the late David Ruffin of The Temptations.
Here’s a video of Jerry rehearsing “Woman in White,” a song co-written by Lawson with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter for the solo album he recorded with producer Eric Brace at a studio in Chandler Arizona in 2015.
Over the years Lawson made some remarkable music and brought joy to hundreds of thousands of people in concert on the road or through recordings, radio and tv appearances. In 2017, his hometown of Apoka Florida honored him with a special street designation, “Jerry Lawson Way”.
Aside from the street naming, and his solo album release, one of the last accomplishments he was proud of was having his Persuasions’ recordings used in advertisements, like the sample of his voice on “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” by Jamie XX that was used in a 2015 Apple I-Phone spot. Another was the Persuasions’ version of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready” that was chosen as soundtrack to a 2018 Winter Olympics promo spot that aired all over the country featuring young athletes preparing to head to the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang South Korea. The ad was produced by 72andSunny, a Los Angeles based advertising agency
In the years prior to his death, Jerry was excited that a documentary film was in the works that would tell his life story. That film “Jerry Lawson – Just A Mortal Man” is as yet unreleased, but will tell the story as Jerry went from street corner singer, to internationally renowned recording artist, and into his later life, when after beating alcoholism, he was a renaissance man, who became a humble, yet proud counselor and caregiver to developmentally disabled adults he referred to as “his kids”. Lawson is survived by his wife Julie, his children, and has two official personal websites that document his storied career