The Persuasions in the pulpit: (from left) Jayotis Washington, B.J. Jones, Sweet Joe Russell, Jimmy Hayes, Jerry Lawson.
Salvation Is Nigh
By David McGee
Live At McCabe’s Guitar Shop
Got the Beyonce blues? Tired of auto-tune? Can’t figure out what Ke$sha has done to merit a feature story in the NY Times Arts section? Curious as to whether the Times is in fact on Taylor Swift’s payroll? Falling asleep to that Antlers album, are you?
Well, friends, the Persuasions are here to save your soul. America is safe again. Al-Queda is on the run, and the only thing in our underwear is what should be there, just waiting to be used properly and for the advancement of civilization. Banks are regulated and lending again at fair interest rates; the Wall Street crooks are in jail; Sarah Palin is lost somewhere in the Brooks Range above the Arctic Circle and will never be heard from again.
I’m gonna say it again, brothers and sisters: the Persuasions are here to save your soul! Salvation is nigh!
The Persuasions perform Kurt Weill’s ‘Oh Heavenly Salvation,’ here and on Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop
Now, truth be told, these Persuasions are not exactly here, y’understand. They’re here on this amazing new live CD, but these are the vintage 1998 Persuasions, when the masters of a cappella—“the undisputed heavyweight champions,” as the announcer says in bringing them onstage—were led by one of the great singers of this or any other time, one Jerry Lawson. He has since gone his own way, and the Persuasions of today are not quite the same without him (although there is a sentiment among Persuasions fans that if “Sweet Joe” Russell is around, and he is, everything’s gonna be alright. Say yeeeaaahhh!). But on this night, Lawson, though his gritty tenor voice had been rubbed raw by the Santa Ana Winds and his soul was tormented by his California home having been destroyed in a flood, steered the set masterfully—singing and, between songs, chatting—through exuberant celebrations and deeply introspective reflections on life, love and the hereafter. But he was never alone in these endeavors; in fact, as much personality as Lawson adds to his readings, as much drama as he injects into every surge of a song’s narrative flow, he is shadowed and supported, on the most fundamental rhythmic level, by bass singer Jimmy Hayes, a man who brooks favorable comparison to the greatest group harmony bass man of them all, the Ravens’ Jimmy Ricks (one big difference between the two being that Ricks had so delicate a touch with lyrics that he often took the lead part; Hayes, who does do a powerhouse solo turn in wringing the last ounce of testifying out of Kurt Weill’s “Oh Heavenly Salvation” and has a delightful verse of his own in a rocking take on “Mona Lisa,” more serves as the ballast, but within the strictures of that role mixes up the beats and the bomp-de-bomps with an unerring sense of the moment, always inserting himself into the fray at precisely the right juncture to bolster the lead or add some necessary propulsion). This is not to diminish the clarion tenor cry of Sweet Joe, or Jayotis Washington’s personable baritone or the contributions to the vocal mix made by two relative newcomers to the lineup, baritone B.J. Jones and tenor Raymond Sanders. But Hayes and Lawson provided the breathtaking historical sweep that made a Persuasions performance no mere concert, but rather a gathering of souls summoned from history’s most hallowed ground. If Hayes provided the link to the fathers of modern group harmony, then Lawson’s tenor and manner—alternately explosive and driven, soothing and tender—evoked a breathtaking pantheon of stylistic touchstones from whom he appropriated techniques as he shaped his own signature sound. Ultimately, it all goes back to the church, it starts there, it comes out of there and it returns there: talking about Julius Cheeks of the Sensational Nightingales, whose muscular, fevered attack leads us to Johnny Taylor, then to David Walker of the Mighty Clouds of Joy, on to the Rev. James Cleveland, then to Wilson Pickett, then to Otis Redding, finally stopping at Jerry Lawson.
So we are here, brothers and sisters, to talk about the great gift the vintage Persuasions, the Persuasions of legend, when they were giants walking the earth, truly men among men, have bequeathed us with this amazing live recording assembled seamlessly by producers Rip Rense and Marc Doten from recordings of four performances over two nights in late February, 1998, at one of the group’s favorite venues, McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Los Angeles. Hallelujah! as Jerry Lawson says more than once.
This is not an atypical set, ranging as it does from a rousing opening take on, yes, the Partridge Family’s “I Woke Up In Love This Morning,” dips into the Great American Songbook with nuggets such as a tasty 1:45 rendition of Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer’s “Old Black Magic,” in an arrangement that blends the best of Frank Sinatra’s lightly swinging treatment in 1961 and the driving syncopation of the 1958 duet between Louis Prima and Keely Smith (instead of Smith’s feminine cooing, though, we are treated to Hayes’s bubbling bass—an altogether nice tradeoff), and every so often overtly returns to the church, lest we forget.
The Persuasions—Jerry Lawson, Jayotis Washington, Sweet Joe Russell, Jimmy Hayes—recall their origins and perform ‘Up On the Roof’
Jayotis steps into the lead for an driving rendition of “Mona Lisa” that has more in common with Carl Mann’s rockin’ Sun side than with Nat King Cole’s dreamy ballad treatment, but, in true Persuasions fashion, it has elements of both, and more—such as Jimmy’s delightful bass lead on the second verse, which adds a bit more gravitas to the lyric before Washington returns to take the song home with a keening final verse and chorus. Nat is evoked later, too, in a silky, serene take on “Ramblin’ Rose,” with Jerry and the fellows giving it a country ballad flavor via tight, Jordanaires-like harmonizing.
Nat King Cole is not the only spirit hovering overhead at McCabe’s on these nights, though. Sam Cooke comes around when the guys segue from the Partridge Family opener into a pumping take on “Chain Gang,” with Lawson rising up, exhorting the multitude with shouts and grunts, evoking “the sound of the men working on the chain gang.” And not least of all, Elvis Presley looms, and the Persuasions do right by the Hillbilly Cat, twice. Early into the set they settle into a reverent rendering of Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Peace In the Valley,” a stirring southern gospel treatment with Sweet Joe’s tenor crying out from the vocal mix; but at the 3:36 mark of this five minutes-plus version, Lawson ratchets up the energy and attacks it with the ferocity and urgency of Mahalia Jackson, a true believer deeply invested in the message of a better world beyond this one. And in a segment Lawson identifies as “traveling the a cappella highway,” the group lands in Memphis to address “Return to Sender” with Lawson’s cheery, syncopated exhortations soaring over the group’s smooth, supportive harmonizing.
The Persuasions, ‘Chain Gang,’ a Persuasions staple that appears on Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop
But brothers and sisters, any and all Persuasions shows were about faith, implicitly or explicitly, whether it be the faith in the ability of the human voice, unfettered and unembroidered, to speak inviolable truths, or the faith in the existence of a supreme being and a better world beyond on our own. As per the latter, the singers offer unequivocal testifying not one, not two, but six times among these 19 tunes; apart from “Peace In the Valley” they mount the pulpit to proclaim the Word in “I Have But One Desire,” taken in a close-harmonized crooning style out of early doo-wop’s playbook; get doom-laden in the aforementioned Kurt Weill number with Jimmy Hayes in a solo role; celebrate the Second Coming and the peace that passes all understanding in the gutbucket call-and-response pattern of “When Jesus Comes”; then send the crowd home with their souls restored in choosing for an encore the house wrecking stomp of “Building a Home.” And you say, “Brother David, how can this be a celebration of faith when the Persuasions end the set proper with Frank Zappa’s vinegary ‘The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing’?” Well, friends, because there’s a big difference between faith and blind allegiance to organized religion and all its messy, hypocritical strictures. The Persuasions have their eyes on the sparrow, you see, on freedom and free will and a common decency attending human interaction—less “do unto others” than “do the right thing—it’ll work out.”
The Persuasions, ‘I’ll Be Forever Loving You’
Given this spiritual backdrop for the proceedings at hand, how appropriate then that some of the between songs banter is so elliptical as to be positively Beckett-like—as in Samuel Beckett, as in Waiting for Godot, with Lawson as Estragon, Sweet Joe as Vladimir, Jimmy Hayes as Pozzo. Where do they come up with this?
Following a rousing cover of the Five Royales’ “I Could Love You (If You Let Me),” the following exchange ensues:
Jerry: 35 years.
Sweet Joe: Well, well…
Jerry: Last night we were in…
Sweet Joe: Silver City…
Jerry: Silver City, New Mexico. Hallelujah!
Jerry: The night before that we were in…
Sweet Joe: Santa Barbara.
Jerry: Hallelujah! Santa Barbara? You know who live in Santa Barbara?
Sweet Joe: Them lobster tails.
Jerry: The President. What kind of tails?
Sweet Joe: Lobster tails, boy. Servin’ them lobster tails right outta that Spocific…
Sweet Joe: Yeaaah….
Jerry: Spo-cific. And tomorrow morning where we’ll be?
Sweet Joe: New York.
Jerry: New York City!
Jimmy Hayes: Where will you be? Where you gonna be?
Jerry: Well, where am I gonna be? I really don’t know where I’m gonna be tomorrow.
Jimmy: You can use the beach house in Virginia if you want to.
Jerry: The beach house?
Jerry: You got a beach house in Virginia? I been with you for 35 years, I didn’t know you had no beach house in Virginia!
Jimmy: See, you in a situation now…
And before you can even finish admiring the sheer out-thereness of the moment, Lawson lays his honey-smooth tenor into Bobby Bare’s poignant “500 Miles Away from Home,” all aching regret, longing for the sanctity and safety of the home he foolishly departed, a man who has wandered too far, and is left spiritually and psychologically bereft, with too much of nothin’.
So brothers and sisters, as you go through this life, looking for an echo, seeking a direction, a purpose, look no further than the Persuasions to guide you on your quest. Because in this music, in the divinely ordained authority and humbling beauty of these magnificent voices, is the stuff that sustains life, inspires us to do good deeds and to be servants to humanity. Accept this invitation of theirs, come on down front, and join the human parade.
The Persuasions have come to save your soul. Selah.
The Persuasions’ Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop is available only at www.thepersuasionslive.com.