A BRIEF HISTORY
circa 1998, sing "500 Miles" live on the
long-running cable program, "Lil Art's Poker
Party" in 1998. Host Art Fein turned over
the whole show to the Pers.
(photo by Rip Rense)
BY RIP RENSE ©1999, 2005
The Persuasions are the undisputed heavyweight
champions of a cappella. They are, as the L.A.
Weekly wrote, "to singing what Muhammad Ali
was to boxing---invincible, innovative, original,
The original five Persuasions---Jerry Lawson,
Jimmy Hayes, Joe Russell, Jayotis Washington, and
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, and to perform or record with artists including
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. 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 80s, The Persuasions
preached the a cappella gospel almost entirely
alone, until the genre suddenly acquired mainstream
popularity, partly as an outgrowth of rap and hip-hop.
They were 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 meld of rock 'n' roll, soul,
country, blues. . .In short, they "Persuasioned" any
songs that suited them, and made them their own---from
"Papa Oom Mow Mow" to "Curtis Mayfield's "Man Oh Man."
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 Raymond X. Sanders (The
Coasters, The Paragons) made the group a sextet. Both
had intermittenly toured and recorded with The
Persuasions throughout the '90s.
In 2003, lead singer and founding member Lawson left
to pursue an independent career. He is currently
embarked on a variety of projects, including a
forthcoming a cappella album backed by the
venerable San Francisco group, Talk of the Town.
(For more information, please visit
The Persuasions' first post-Lawson album---the group's
24th---is a tribute to the
band, U-2, on Chesky Records, released in September,
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. Critics often place
Lawson’s inspired phrasing and warm baritone in the same
context with Sam Cooke, Brook Benton, Otis Redding. Bass
singer Jimmy Hayes---the group’s "basso profundo"---is
widely regarded as the greatest a cappella bass
man ever; he "plays" bass more than sings it. Russell’s
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 Modern Jazz
Quartet, or The Beach Boys.
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."
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.) (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 in
Project Restoration and other efforts to aid
African-Americans in the inner cities. It helped cement
their resolve, and sense of mission.
The Persuasions were "discovered" by Frank and Gail
Zappa in 1968. The group's friend (and eventual
producer/manager of the '70s) David Dashev
called Zappa from a New York rehearsal studio,
declaring, "You've got to hear 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 to his own label for Warner Brothers,
Straight Records. The Persuasions debuted to the world
with the half-studio, and half-live A
Cappella, in the fall of 1970.
Said Zappa, to this writer, many years later:
could tell, even over the phone, that these guys were
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,
Kurt Weill, Curtis Mayfield, Sam Cooke, 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, for a short time, FM staples. Dr. Demento,
an early champion of the group, enlisted them to record
a jingle for his still-running novelty radio show, still
fondly remembered by listeners.
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 perhaps like asking the same question of
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! It’s all music. Give it to us, and we’ll do it
Persuasions-style. There are just certain songs that are
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 song!"
"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, Ray Charles, Bill Cosby,
and Richard Pryor. Incredibly, Roseanne Barr
and Bruce Springsteen once opened for The
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 Cappella. The film was honored 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’ Brien.
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 Persuasions to Alaska,
Sweden, Israel, Europe, and Australia, continues
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
Christmas album, 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.
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
Reviews.") The 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!)"
March, 2000, The Persuasions released an all-Zappa
album, Frankly A Cappella:
The Persuasions Sing Zappa (Earthbeat!/Rhino)
in tribute to the man who signed them to their first
major album deal in 1968. The album was the brainchild
of this writer (then de facto manager of The
Persuasions), a longtime fan and friend of Zappa. "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!" Executive produced by
this writer, produced by respected Bay Area producer
Gary Mankin and Lawson, 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
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 this writer, who felt The Persuasions could realize
the rich songs of Robert Hunter and
Jerry Garcia in such a way as to reach
a broader audience than devoted Deadheads. Said Hunter,
"You done Jerry proud."
After over 40 sometimes harrowing years, The
Persuasions keep on truckin'--always with their motto
Still Ain’t Got No Band."
Persuasions, 2005: l to r, Jimmy Hayes, Joe Russell,
Jayotis Washington, Raymond Sanders, B.J. Jones.