the undisputed heavyweight champs of
a cappella. . .
By Rip Rense
are the undisputed heavyweight champions of a
cappella. They are, as the L.A. Weekly once
wrote, "to singing what Muhammad Ali
was to boxing---invincible,
The original five Persuasions---Jerry Lawson,
Jimmy Hayes, Joe Russell, Jayotis Washington, and
Herbert "Toubo" Rhoad---fell together by chance in
1962, harmonizing on outdoor basketball courts in
Brooklyn after pick-up games. They went on to
release 18 albums (the group has released about 27 at
this point) and to perform or record with artists
Liza Minelli, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed,
Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Gladys Knight,
Patti LaBelle, Little Richard, Nancy Wilson, The Neville
Brothers, Country Joe McDonald, B.B. King, John Hiatt,
Leon Redbone. Their music has turned up in films
from Joe and the Volcano
to The Heartbreak Kid, Streets of Gold, and
Throughout the 60s, 70s, and most of the 80s, The
preached the a cappella gospel almost entirely
alone---certainly the secular, eclectic a cappella
gospel. When the genre suddenly acquired mainstream
popularity, partly as an outgrowth of rap and hip-hop,
groups such as Take Six and Boyz II Men pointed to The
Persuasions as nothing less than their main inspiration.
Rock critic and author
Greil Marcus once called
The Persuasions’ style a
"perfect marriage of passion
and intelligence," and
Rolling Stone rated
their 1977 album, Chirpin’,
as one of the hundred best
works of the 1970s.
These were singers in the tradition of great
gospel a cappella
groups such as The Golden Gate Quartet and
The Fairfield Four, but they advanced
the art form into a percolating, pulsing,
street-edged meld of rock 'n' roll, soul,
country, blues. . .In short, they "Persuasionized"
any songs that suited them, and made them
their own---from "Papa
Oom Mow Mow" (heard in "E.T.") to
"Curtis Mayfield's "Man
Oh Man" to Kurt Weill's "Oh
Though discovered by college radio in the
early '70s, championed by Barry "Dr.
Demento" Hansen (who had them record his
theme song), they got little more than token
FM airplay in the '70's. Their albums were
often wrongly relegated to "doo wop" and
"oldies" bins in record stores. Still, they
carried on, building a deeply devoted
audience and touring the world. Their live
performances were absolutely electric.
Thankfully, there are audience recordings
shows) to bear this out.
Persuasions in the their
prime, in the '70s: Jayotis
Washington, Jimmy Hayes,
Jerry Lawson, Toubo Rhoad, "Sweet
In 1988, baritone Rhoad, whose rough-edged
voice was considered the "glue" of the
group's sound, blending the high profile
voices of Lawson and Russell in particular,
died in the middle of a tour from a stroke.
His ashes were scattered by his fellow
Persuasions in his beloved San Francisco
Bay, and the group continued as a quartet
for the next seven years, always introducing
Rhoad faithfully at each concert. Baritone
and former Drifter
Bernard "B.J." Jones joined in 1996, and
in March, 1999, the addition of first tenor
(and frequent album addition) Raymond X.
(The Coasters, The Paragons) made the group
a sextet. Both had previously toured and
recorded with The Persuasions throughout the
In 2002, lead singer/arranger and founding
member Lawson left the group to pursue
an independent career. He currently works as
a specialist in caring for disabled adults,
and more recently has recorded an album with
the venerable San Francisco a cappella
group, Talk of the Town. In
2010, Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town were
audience favorites on NBC's "The Sing Off."
(For more information, please visit
The Persuasions were
"discovered" by Frank
Zappa in 1968. The
group's friend (and eventual
Zappa from a New York
studio, declaring, "You've
got to hear
Zappa signed the group, and
The Persuasions debuted to
the world with the LP,
Said Zappa many years later:
"I could tell, even over the
phone, that these guys were
The Persuasions' remaining members
continue to tour and record, most recently
with new lead singer and arranger Dave
Revels. They recorded a tribute to the band,
U-2, on Chesky Records, a tribute to Bob
Dylan on Zoho, and in 2009, were inducted
into the Doo-Wop Hall of Fame (even though
they have never considered themselves a
doo-wop group!) at Symphony Hall in Boston.
Jerry Lawson was inducted as a solo artist
the following year.
Today, The Persuasions are hailed by
a cappella ensembles everywhere as a
seminal, inimitable influence. From
Rockapella to The Nylons,
contemporary vocal bands speak of
Persuasions albums with reverence and awe.
Critics often place
inspired phrasing and warm baritone in a
Brook Benton, Otis Redding. Bass singer
group’s "basso profundo"---is widely
regarded as the greatest a cappella
bass man ever; he "plays" bass more than
eruptive voice, gospel and R&B chops, and
ability to whip up a crowd, are legendary.
Washington's elastic tenor took the group
into jazz and swing territory. The
collective harmonies, learned on the
streetcorner and honed over decades on the
road, have given the group a sound as
unmistakable as The Beach Boys.
"One More Saturday Night" with
Grateful Dead's Vince Welnick.
photo by Susana Millman.
Rock critic and author Greil Marcus once called
The Persuasions’ style a "perfect marriage of passion
and intelligence," and Rolling Stone rated their
1977 album, Chirpin’, as one of the hundred best
works of the 1970s. Mix Magazine
proclaimed "The Persuasions are four parts of one voice,
one spirit." Cash Box correctly noted, in 1996,
"These all-vocal, instrument-free heroes paved the way
for today’s platinum a cappella acts,
Take 6 and Bobby McFerrin, as well as
the retro-hip-hop styles of Boyz II Men and
Color Me Badd."
Perhaps, to really understand the charm of this American
musical institution, it is best to quote Tom Waits:
"These guys," he said, "are deep sea divers. I’m just a
fisherman in a boat."
Springsteen once opened
for The Persuasions. In
1979, they became an
integral part of Joni
Mitchell's legendary "Shadows
Why the name, "Persuasions?" Well, as one story goes,
the group decided early on that if Christ had to
persuade people to listen, and so did five guys without
The original Persuasions came to Brooklyn
from Florida (Lawson), North Carolina (Russell),
Virginia (Hayes), and Detroit (Washington.) (The late
Willie C. Daniels, who sang with them in place of
Washington for two albums in the mid-70's, was from New
York. Newer members Jones and Sanders are New York
born-and-raised.) They all came from both church and
secular musical backgrounds, and from the start, their
repertoire was a mix of gospel, soul, and pop. They
graduated from parties to performance by the mid-60s, a
pivotal point coming when they worked for Robert F.
Kennedy's Project Restoration, and other efforts to
aid African-Americans in the inner cities. These
experiences helped cement their resolve, and sense of
The Persuasions were "discovered" by Frank and Gail
Zappa in 1968. The group's invaluable friend (and
eventual producer/manager of the '70s) David
had heard that Zappa had recently started his own label
(Straight, for Warner Brothers), and phoned him from a
New York rehearsal studio, declaring, "You've got to
this." Zappa was so
taken with the tape, even over the phone, that he had
Dashev bring it to California for a listen. There, after
getting a thumbs-up from an enthused Gail, Frank signed
the the group, and The Persuasions debuted to the world
with the half-studio, and half-live LP,
A Cappella, in the
fall of 1970.
Said Zappa, to this writer, many years later:
"I could tell, even over the
phone, that these guys were something special."
Following their Straight album, The
Persuasions signed with Capitol and recorded three
of the most arresting vocal albums ever made: the Dashev-produced
We Came to Play, Spread the Word, and Street
Corner Symphony. They covered tunes by Bob Dylan,
Curtis Mayfield, Sam
The Temptations, Joe
South, Rogers and Hammerstein,
Lennon and McCartney.
The Persuasions came to be regarded as hip fare on
college radio in the early 70s, and their first albums
became FM staples. It was then that Dr. Demento
enlisted them to record a jingle for his novelty radio
show, still fondly remembered by listeners.
"Feeling depressed?" wrote
Andy Klein. "Life got ya
down? Is that your problem,
Binky? If it is, I can think
of no greater remedy than to
watch Fred Parnes’s
documentary, Spread the
Word: The Persuasions Sing A
moving, and invigorating
look at a vocal group that
is one of America’s national
Still, ‘70s rock-and-disco-dominated radio never quite
figured out how to program or market The Persuasions.
Record companies weren’t sure how to promote them,
regarding them as a curiosity; even a tax write-off.
Sure, they were enormously popular on the road, but. . .
they had no band, and their material was so eclectic.
Were they a novelty? Folk? R&B? Soul? Oldies?
Gospel? It took Tower Records at least 20 years to stop
filing their records and CDs in "oldies," "vocals," and
"R&B," and finally just give them their own category
where they belonged: "Rock and Pop."
Asking why The Persuasions’ 1000-plus song repertory is
so eclectic is just silly. It's like asking the same
"I don’t believe in
categories," Lawson once said. "We love all kinds of
music: Brook Benton, gospel, blues, Frank Zappa---hell,
we even do ‘I Woke Up In Love This Morning,’ a song I
heard on The Partridge Family
TV show! (Opening track of "The
Persuasions Live at McCabe's.") It’s all
music. Give it to us, and we’ll do it Persuasions-style.
There are just certain songs that are Persuasions
Sanders, Washington, Hayes, Lawson.
by Valerie Ramos Ford
From Dylan’s "The Man in Me" to Zappa’s
withering commentary, "The Meek Shall
Inherit Nothing" and
Kurt Weill’s "Oh
Heavenly Salvation"---even The Grateful
Dead’s poignant "Black Muddy River"---The
Persuasions imbue songs with a
conviction, heart, and humor that perhaps
even the authors didn’t intend, or
understand. Gail Zappa, upon hearing them
sing "Black Muddy River" in concert, later
remarked to this writer, incredulity in her
voice, "I was in tears over a Grateful Dead
"We ain’t no novelty act or nostalgia or any of that.
The group’s peers, from Midler to Minelli, have long
recognized this truth---and enlisted The Persuasions'
services. Over the years, The Pers, as they call
themselves, have opened for The Mothers of Invention,
The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Jerry Garcia, Ray
Charles, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor.
Incredibly, Roseanne Barr
and Bruce Springsteen once opened for The
Persuasions. In 1979, they became an integral part of
Joni Mitchell's legendary "Shadows
and Light" tour.
The newly recorded Grateful
Dead track, "Stella Blue,"
marks the last time the
original surviving members
of the group sang together.
In the mid-90s,
director/producer/Persuasions fan Fred Parnes
completed his long-labored over labor of love, the film
documentary, Spread the Word: The Persuasions Sing A
film was screened at
the Smithsonian Institute, and played exclusive
engagements and festivals in New York, Los Angeles, and
Europe. It drew praise from publications ranging from
The New York Post to the Hollywood Daily Variety,
due in no small part to the charm of its stars. As one
reviewer wrote, "It’s nearly impossible to watch without
a) wanted to go hear the group live; b) wanting to sing
along, and c) wanting to be their friend." Film critic
Andy Klein, then with the (now defunct)
L.A. Reader summed things up nicely:
"Feeling depressed?" wrote Klein. "Life got ya down? Is
that your problem, Binky? If it is, I can think of no
greater remedy than to watch Fred Parnes’s documentary,
Spread the Word: The Persuasions Sing A Cappella---a
funny, moving, and invigorating look at a vocal group
that is one of America’s national treasures. .
.Actually, I can think of one greater remedy for
despondency: if the Persuasions happen to be playing
around town, go see them. No film could possibly capture
the sheer joy and energy of the group live."
"Spread the Word" found a home on PBS, which also aired
Spike Lee’s "Do
It A Cappella" (featuring The Persuasions as
"the godfathers of a cappella") and the tribute, "Music
of the Late Kurt Weill," in which The Persuasions sang
"Oh, Heavenly Salvation." The group has also turned up
on Today, Good Morning, America; The Tonight Show,
Saturday Night Live, and Late Night with Conan O’
Persuasions, 1998. Washington, B.J.
Jones, Russell, Hayes, Lawson. photo
by Rip Rense.
Dozens of newspapers ranging from the Philadelphia
Inquirer to the Denver Post carried major
feature articles during the group’s 35th
anniversary year, in 1997. The San Jose Mercury News
wrote: "That The Persuasions---the godfathers of the
movement---guys who were singing a cappella on
the streetcorners of Bedford-Stuyvesant, N.Y., long
before Boyz II Men were even Babiez II Men, are
sometimes overlooked is a howling injustice, in
five-part harmony." During the same year, The
Persuasions were also the subject of lengthy
interview pieces on National Public Radio, and NPR
stations in Boston and Los Angeles, which acclaimed them
as the "kings of a cappella."
The touring, which has taken the group to Alaska,
Sweden, Israel, Europe, and Australia, continued
undiminished---as does the recording. The long
procession of acclaimed albums on Capitol, MCA, A&M,
Elektra, Flying Fish, Rounder grew in 1997 with their
You’re All I Want For Christmas
(Rounder---Bullseye Blues)---and it was recommended by
The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and The
Urban Network magazine. That same year, Capitol
issued a compilation culled from their three albums of
the early 70s, entitled Man Oh Man.
Today, The Persuasions
are hailed by a cappella
ensembles everywhere as a
Rockapella to The
vocal bands speak of
Persuasions albums with
reverence and awe.
In May, 1999, The
Persuasions released their first children’s album,
On The Good Ship Lollipop
(dedicated to Patti Page and Country Joe McDonald)
on the Grammy-nominated Music For Little People Label.
Billboard called it one of the greatest kids'
albums of the year, People Magazine "picked"
it, and the Los Angeles Times and
Publisher's Weekly raved (see "Articles and
album has won
endorsements from parents publications across the
country, and awards including the Oppenheim.
Primarily A Cappella wrote: "You don’t have to be
under four feet tall to be charmed by this CD. In fact,
adult listeners will be transported with as much
enthusiasm as their younger companions. The Persuasions
have never been in better form musically (in all their
37 years as a group!)"
Journalist Rip Rense, who had
written about and championed The Persuasions in many
newspapers and magazines, began working with the group n
the late '90's. The first project was the children's
album, followed by, in March, 2000, the all-Zappa album,
Frankly A Cappella: The
Persuasions Sing Zappa
(Earthbeat!) in tribute to the man who signed them to
their first major album deal in 1968. "Frank gave us our
start, and this is our way of saying ‘thanks,’" said
Lawson. "And you can’t believe how great his music
sounds a cappella!" Co-produced by Lawson, Bay
and Rense, the album accrued unanimous endorsements,
from People Magazine
to Billboard, Daily Variety, The Washington Post,
San Francisco Chronicle, New York Times, Los Angeles
Times, CD Now!, and a myriad of publications. It
also received the hard-won endorsement of Gail Zappa,
the composer's widow, who graciously feted the group at
In October, 2000, The
Persuasions released an all-Grateful Dead album,
Might As Well: The Persuasions
Sing Grateful Dead,
on Grateful Dead Records/ Arista. This album was also
the brainchild of Rense, who felt The Persuasions could
realize the rich songs of Robert Hunter
Jerry Garcia in such a way as to reach
a broader audience than devoted Deadheads.
Now, almost ten years after the album went out of print,
Rense and The Persuasions have re-invented, re-mixed,
and re-imagined that album as a two-CD set,
Persuasions of the Dead, on Zoho Records. The newly
recorded track, "Stella Blue," marks the last time the
original surviving members of the group sang together.
Here's the Grateful Dead Bob Weir's comment on having
his music Persuasionized:
It's both entertaining and edifying to hear these guys, 'cause
that's American musical heritage. I think [audiences] are going to
love it, and they're also going to come back with... an
understanding of some of the stuff that [the Dead] used to do.
They're every bit as good at what they do as the Golden Gate Quartet
or the Swan Silvertones, only it's secular music."
It's a legacy that stands alone
in the history of recorded music, and one that will
always do their motto proud: "We Still Ain’t Got No
And we bid you good night: Washington, Russell, Sanders, Hayes, Lawson.
photo by Valerie
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© 2011 Rip Rense/Rensart
Productions. All rights reserved.