Jerry Lawson is the original lead singer, arranger and producer of the A Cappella group The Persuasions. After forming and rehearsing in New York city, they were quickly discovered by Frank Zappa and signed to record their first LP on Frank’s label. Zappa, heard them singing over the phone at a Jersey City record shop and a few days later The Persuasions were officially on their way to a long fruitful singing career. The Persuasions prided themselves as a top notch vocal group that was different from the rest of the pack because they sang a variety of genres of current charting hits. They could go from The Partridge Family to The Grateful Dead. This is what made them interesting and very successful. Jerry Lawson now has a very exciting solo career and has just released a very fine album "Just a Mortal Man". I had the recent opportunity to talk with Jerry to discuss his new album and his career.
J.L. - Good morning.
R.V.B. - Good morning Jerry, how are you today?
J.L. - I'm fine sir. How are you?
R.V.B. - I'm doing pretty good. Is it very hot over there by you?
J.L. - About 105. Hahaha
R.V.B. - So I gather you got the air conditioner cranking.
J.L - Oh yes. Hahaha
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your new record.
J.L. - Thank you so much.
R.V.B. - It must have been fun to record songs at this point of your career, as kind of a reflection.
J.L. - When I reflect on my life, it's just unbelievable. I said to myself, my wife, and my friends that are in the Baptist Church "When you enter the kingdom of heaven, you must be born again." A cat has nine lives and I feel like I have lived nine lives. This new album and new career that we are starting now is just unbelievable.
R.V.B. - You've introduced instruments into your music at this point and stage. I also noticed on your album that there is a variety on genres that you play. Did you concentrate on keeping it open and mixing it up a little bit?
J.L. - I give that credit to Eric Brace the producer. He sent us most of the songs. I suggested 2 and my wife suggested two of them. I brought in "Mortal Man"... which was originally done by David Ruffin. He was one of the leaders of The Temptations and my hero, and “Members Only” by Bobby Blue Bland. I've always admired his work. There’s a song titled “Woman In White”. Some years back Rip Rense sent me the poem by Robert Hunter who was Jerry Garcia’s writing partner of the Grateful Dead and I wrote the music. But we had no band to bring it to life, I was still caught up in the A Cappella world. So when Eric asked if we had any we’d like to include my wife knew this was the perfect opportunity to finally record it. And a similar story with “Down On My Knees” by Ayo. My wife had seen her perform it on The David Letterman show years prior and woke me up to tell me it was perfect for me when I ever get a band. So here again, a great opportunity. Ayo’s version remained on the top 10 pop charts in Europe for 2 years and it hasn’t been covered by a male vocalist, certainly not a soul singer. It’s got kind of a Reggae thing happening, and Eric’s musicians did a hell of a job on the arrangement. It really turns the whole album around. Makes the album really cool.
R.V.B. - It did have a very nice flow to it from start to finish.
J.L. - Yes, and I must say that I really love the song that Eric Brace wrote, "Time and Water" And his partner Peter Cooper wrote the song "Wine” which is one I really relate to after all my years of drinkin’ on the road. Haven’t touched a drop in 16 years now.
R.V.B. - Let's start with "Time and Water". There was some very deep lyrics in there - "Will you be holding me when my day is done?" and "Will you be holding me when the morning comes?"
J.L. - Yes, that's very heavy. I told Eric that anybody who's been traveling the road, away from home for weeks or months at a time & thinkin’ about whether their relationship is going to last with so much separation ... entertainers, professional athletes... can relate to that song. "Will you be holding me when the morning comes?" I get chills when I sing it. My wife said it's one of the great songs on the album.
R.V.B. - It is one of the great songs. I noticed you have it positioned nicely at number 2 also.
J.L. - A lot of people don't realize it takes a lot of work placing those songs. It's a whole other thing placing the songs where they're supposed to be on the album.
R.V.B. - It's extremely important... the order of the songs. It creates the whole outcome of the listening perspective.
J.L. - It sure does.
R.V.B. - You started with the song "Peace like a River" and one of the lines in it is "You can't out run the history train".
J.L. - That is so heavy. "You can beat me with wires, you can beat me with chains, but you can’t out run the history train." No matter what you do, it's going to be documented, and it's going to go down in history.
R.V.B. - There's no stopping it and there's no changing it.
J.L. - No, you can't do nothing about it. It's going down in history.
J.L. - Yes it was recorded in Nashville. What happened was, Eric sent us some of the tracks to Porcupine Studio here in Phoenix. We did most of the singing parts over the guitar tracks. Then we flew into Nashville to do some of the music there and add the great harmonies by The McCrary Sisters who are the daughters of Reverend Sam McCrary of the Fairfield Four who I grew up listening to! They were fantastic and we have them placed in a few songs.
R.V.B. - That must have been a nice time mixing it up with all the talented musicians in Nashville. Did you get to go out around the town?
J.L. - Oh yeah, we did our catfish and chitlin' runs and our barbeque run. We did the regular Nashville eateries. Hahaha And me and Eric were interviewed on the Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale Show on Sirius XM Outlaw Channel 60! It’s recorded at Buddy’s home studio in Nashville. So that was really cool. What nice guys they are too.
R.V.B. - I see that you have a band that you perform with to play these songs and you also mix in some of your older stuff like the Zappa covers and some Nat King Cole. How do you go about choosing the songs your live set?
J.L. - My wife and I go over the songs that we're going to perform on the album and we want to make the show very interesting. We want to make you cry and we want to make you laugh. We want to bring out the singers of yesteryear, so when you leave you say "Boy that was a good show. We really had a good time." That's what we want it to be, and we want it to be a family show also. We added some Nat King Cole, some Brook Benton, some Grateful Dead to the act. And of course we are debuting many of the songs from the “Just A Mortal Man”, the new album. We get down a little bit. In fact, one of my favorite songs we do in the show is "Rockin' Phenomena and the Boogie Woogie Flu". That was Huey and the Clowns, way back in the day. That's one of the rockin' songs in our live show. Along with “Never Been To Memphis” which was written by Alan Brace, Eric’s brother.
R.V.B. - So you mix it up to get everyone a chance to enjoy it. Do the younger folk appreciate it?
R.V.B. - Very Nice. Now if you don't mind me asking a few questions about your past. I understand you were born in Florida, and you grew up just outside of Orlando. I read that your uncle had a juke joint there. Can you describe some of your experiences in there and what kind of music you first got exposed to?
J.L. - Well my uncle, he had a juke joint. He had the pot belly stove in the middle of the floor, and we had the jukebox. I used to listen to Randy’s Record Mart on WLAC out of Nashville Tennessee, and they would play all of the hits and I would listen to them. I would go back to my uncle and tell him, "You know I heard this song". He would say "You know the record man is coming Friday. I'm going to put you in charge of selecting the tunes that will go in the jukebox." I had the joint jumping, man. (Starts singing) "Fannie Mae, won't you please come home."... Little Richard, Chuck Berry, The Platters, The Del Vikings. These were songs that you wouldn't ordinarily hear in the southern juke joints... Jimmy Reed, and I can go on and on.
R.V.B. - That's a big responsibility for a young kid.
J.L. - At 13, I think I did pretty good. I also remembered most of the songs that my godfather played... who lived on Ft. Lauderdale Florida... he was a DJ on a radio station. I would go down in the summer months, and spend time listening to songs and songs. When I joined The Persuasions, I brought a lot of that with me. I also had a band in high school. I sang in my Baptist church there. I also had my own trio, so my whole life was full of music.
R.V.B. - Was the music that you heard in the north... when you went on your jaunts up there... considerably different than the music that was playing in the south?
J.L. - Very much. When I got to New York, there was songs that I never heard. “Toubo” who was the baritone for The Persuasions introduced me to a lot of the street songs like (Starts Singing) "Gloria, is my cherie". I never heard those songs. A lot of the doo wop songs that we sang were introduced to me by the members of The Persuasions. We did come from different parts of the United States. Toubo grew up in New York so he knew the songs of the streets... the group songs. The Orioles, The Clovers and groups like that. Although I had heard of The Clovers in the south, some of them I had never heard of until Toubo introduced me to them. We put those songs in our act. When we went out as the Persuasions, we did songs all over the charts. We did the Partridge Family, we did songs by The Everly Brothers... when The Persuasions asked me to be the lead singer I said that I also wanted to be the leader of the group. I knew then that my responsibility was to make us a group that people would want to listen to, especially not having a band.
R.V.B. - Now The Persuasions started in the early 60's, which was kind of the tail end of the doo wop era. The Beatles came in and kind of put a squash on things, but The Persuasions had the ability to make it through this period and thrive. Why is that?
J.L. - It was very amazing. The reason why is because we weren't rock and roll, we weren't oldies but goodies, we weren't doo wop, we just sang songs of the times. We sang The Grateful Dead, The Beatles, Gospel songs and the element of surprise was one of the greatest things we had in our act. To sit there and listen to five guys with no band and wonder what they're going to sing... Boom, we'll hit you with "Dream, Dream, Dream, we'll hit you with "Searching for My Baby”... “Shadows and Light" from Joni Mitchell who we toured with and that can be seen on youtube. We toured with Liza Minnelli, Stevie Wonder and so many other great artists and we would borrow songs from their acts and incorporate them into our act. We were different.
R.V.B. - Well I'll say, because some of the acts that you were associated with... you mentioned Joni Mitchell and Liza Minnelli which is kind of two different ends of the spectrum... but you also mixed it up with the San Francisco Psychedelic band The Grateful Dead, and you mixed it up with Frank Zappa, and you mixed it up with Ray Charles... that's quite a variety.
J.L. - Oh man, getting back to my relationship with The Persuasions... I told The Persuasions that we had to be different. We didn't have a band, so we had to make the audience really want to listen to us. We would sometimes open a show with "The Lord’s Prayer" and that in itself would really make you want to listen. We had the fans wondering what in the world would we be singing next?” We'll go from "The Lord’s Prayer" to one of Frank Zappa's irreverent songs like “The Meek” Fans would say “you guys are all over the board." Then we'll go back to The Everly Brothers or The Partridge Family. So it was very, very interesting to see The Persuasions perform.
R.V.B. - When you got your first big break with Frank Zappa... what kind of experience was it recording under his direction.
J.L. - The truth about it is that I had never heard of Frank Zappa. David Dashev, who was our manager at the time, and another friend of ours, Stan Krause who had a record store in Jersey City... we went there and he said "I want you guys to sing over the telephone to a friend of mine". We sang "I Can't Work No Longer" over the telephone, and the friend turned out to be Frank Zappa. Two weeks later he flew us out to California to record on his label. That was our first album which was on Straight Records. It was called "Acappella". It’s out of print but I made it available in my website shop. He had his group The Mothers of Invention but his early roots consisted of a love of street corner harmony. Lotta people don’t know that about Zappa.
J.L. - We did quite a few shows with him. In fact, one of the first shows he took us on was at Virginia Beach. Boy, what a show. Five guys with no band opening for Frank Zappa. That was very interesting.
R.V.B. - That should have been interesting.
J.L. - Hahaha
R.V.B. - After that you went over and signed with a major label... Capitol Records, and your recording careers basically took off. During that time of your heyday were there any memorable shows that you played that really stick out in your mind?
J.L. - Well the first show. Stan Krause produced a show at The State Theater in Jersey City. He had 14 A Cappella groups on that show and he invited us to be one of them. Nobody had ever heard of The Persuasions. We performed and we brought the house down. The place went wild and also Stan had recorded it. That started our career; in fact when you listen to that first album on Zappa’s label one side is that State Theater recording.
We worked for a company in Bedford-Stuyvesant called " The Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation". Run by the Astors and the Kennedys. They had found out that they had five guys in their organization that could sing, and they took us all over the five boroughs of New York. They set us up for our first professional show and it was at the Philharmonic, opening up for Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach and that set it off. I remember coming off the stage and Donny Hathaway was in the hallway and he said "You guys are going to go far in the business". I will never forget those words.
R.V.B. - Well you obviously did and had a long fruitful career with The Persuasions.
J.L. - 40 years +
R.V.B. - I'm sure you had many great memories, with all your television appearances and everything else.
J.L. - I always tell people that some of my best days were with The Persuasions. Now I'm with Red Beet out of Nashville and we got a brand new album. "Jerry Lawson - Just a Mortal Man".
R.V.B. - That’s beautiful. After you left The Persuasions, you went to work with disabled children for a while?
J.L. - Yes, and I still work with developmentally disabled in-between the music life. I work with a company here in Arizona called "Arizona Mentor". I've had three boys that I've been working with for quite a while and I manage one of the group homes. Plus, I go on the road and I have my band, and I'm still doing my music and pushing forward.
R.V.B. - Now, The Talk of the Town years. After you left The Persuasions and you had a little time off, you met those fellows... I guess they were from the west coast?
J.L. - Yes, but I really never did retire. I was always singing in local clubs here in Phoenix. We were doing a wedding up in San Francisco and my wife contacted the group, and I had just left The Persuasions. The lady who was having the wedding wanted an A Cappella group. When my wife contacted the group they said "We know you guys, because we met you at the Johnny Otis show." That was "Talk of the Town". They came into the dressing room after the wedding and sang a Mills Brothers tune. To do that kind of harmony from the Mills Brothers, you got to be something special. They were something special. We recorded an album "Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town". It's one of the best A Cappella albums that I ever did. The difference is that with The Persuasions, we were raw. Talk of the Town grew up listening to The Persuasions so they were polished. When you listen to the two, you can tell the difference. The Persuasions were great at what they did but Talk of the Town just put the polish on what I consider the best A Cappella album of all time.
R.V.B. - It's a collection of 20 songs. Was that a lot of fun to make?
J.L. - It was a lot of fun. We practiced here in Phoenix for three weeks. We held Talk of the Town hostage because we brought them here to practice and then we went to San Francisco to record it.
J.L. - Wow... Man... That was something. Rod Stewart called us and wanted to sing the song that he had heard years earlier on a Persuasions album titled "People Get Ready". So me & Talk of the Town performed it live with Rod for the Katrina Fundraiser that aired in a dozen countries for about a week. That's a song in my collection that I play all of the time. It's one of the highlights of my life.
R.V.B. - I watched the video of it. It was very impressive. Also what was impressive was your appearance on the NBC TV show.
J.L. - That was so special. To have spent 40 years preserving the dying art of A Cappella and to have lived long enough to see the Black sheep genre of the music industry finally be part of mainstream America, wow.. It was very special to me especially with the kids. A lot of those kids performing didn't even know who The Persuasions were and that was a lesson in itself. To be featured on the NBC show “The Sing Off", it was another special part of my life.
R.V.B. - Besides the song "People Get Ready", in which everyone knows The Persuasions special version of it... are there any other favorite songs that you have recorded in your career?
J.L. - When I was asked by Eric Brace... the producer of our album "Just a Mortal Man"... that was one of the songs that came to my mind "Just a Mortal Man". It was originally done by David Ruffin. You know it's like asking General Motors Do you like the Oldsmobile or the Cadillac better?.
Right now we're producing “The Jerry Lawson Legacy Project” I’m being filmed going through all my albums chronologically and sharing stories about the making of each album, and all songs will be included. One of the songs that is very special to me is "Good Times" which was recently sampled by some hot shot DJ and a rapper and it’s all over the place. Time Magazine just named it one of the top 10 songs of 2015 and I just saw it accompanying a TV ad for the iPhone. It’s my vocals that open up the recording and I’m laced throughout the mix. I learned it from Jerry Butler. I've enjoyed doing a lot of the covers that I have done during my career...especially the ones by Sam Cooke.
R.V.B. - Your musical career has taken you to special places but I wanted to ask you about playing football.
J.L. - Yes. I played football in high school. When I got to New York, I was a split end for the Brooklyn Cardinals for about three years. I made a touchdown one night and the members of The Persuasions were in the end zone and they said sign your name right here. Little did I know I was signing my name to sing with The Persuasions and give up football.
R.V.B. - Hahaha. What do you like to do when you're not performing? Do you have any other hobbies?
J.L. –My hobby is TV. I’m a TV fanatic! Can’t get enough of the old Westerns, Andy Griffith, King of Queens and of course women’s college basketball, to mention just a few.. But no physical hobbies, just got 2 new knees and I’m learning to walk again.
R.V.B. - I guess that performing is a lot of exercise in itself.
J.L. - People don't understand what it takes to perform. Last week in Washington DC, we did two shows. You sort of have to save yourself because you’re not 20 years old anymore. You have to give the audience the best that you can give them.
J.L. - Julie is from Boston. She saw The Persuasions on a marquee and we were one of her favorite groups at the time but she had no idea we were out there touring. She said it was so hard to find anyone who had heard of us and few record stores had our albums that she thought we might be dead. She went in and asked someone "Is this the group that sings a cappella?" He said "It sure is". So she came to the show and had some requests and wrote some songs down on a napkin and went to the dressing room and asked one of the guys if he’d give it to Jerry. I looked at the list and I sang the songs and I asked one of the guys "Who's the lady that gave you this?" He pointed her out and I went over and introduced myself and Julie and I have been together now for around 40 years.
R.V.B. - That's fantastic. Thank you very much for giving us all of that wonderful music up to this point. I know there's more to come. It's been a pleasure to listen to and I'm glad your career is still going strong. Your new album sounds fantastic. Good luck with it and we hope to see you in the New York area shortly.
J.L. - I hope to be in the New York area and I want to say "Rob, thank you so much for the call."
R.V.B. - It was my pleasure talking with you. Have a nice day Jerry.
J.L. - You too.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Jerry Lawson visit his website http://jerrylawson.biz/
Special thanks to Julie Hurwitz for all her help
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