Voices in the crowd

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

The whole band only played one in­stru­ment — the hu­man voice.

I’m talk­ing about The Per­sua­sions, the undis­puted kings of a cap­pella soul. Armed only with their vo­cal cords, th­ese guys, who first got to­gether in New York City more than 40 years ago, made some mag­i­cal sounds cov­er­ing doo-wop, gospel, show tunes, rock ’n’ roll, and, of course, sweet ’ 60s soul.

On their lat­est release, The Per­sua­sions: Live at McCabe’s Gui­tar Shop, they do songs made fa­mous by Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Elvis Pres­ley, The Drifters, The Oak Ridge Boys, The Mills Broth­ers, and Frank Zappa, and songs writ­ten by Arlen and Mercer, Leiber and Stoller, Thomas Dorsey, KurtWeill, and Bobby Bare.

But it all sounds like The Per­sua­sions to me. And that’s a good thing.

This al­bum was recorded 12 years ago in Santa Mon­ica. (Lo­cal note: the night be­fore they recorded this show, The Per­sua­sions drove all night from Sil­ver City. “It’s won­der­ful,” one of the group mem­bers says.)

Af­ter a rous­ing “IWoke Up in Love This Morn­ing,” The Per­sua­sions launch into one of the great­est songs they’ve ever sung— Cooke’s “Chain Gang,” which kicked off their won­der­ful sec­ond al­bum (the first Per­sua­sions al­bum I ever owned), 1971’s We Came to Play. With no dis­re­spect to Cooke’s orig­i­nal, The Per­sua­sions do this more con­vinc­ingly than he did. While none of the in­di­vid­ual Per­sua­sions could match Cooke’s vo­cals (few if any mor­tals can), without the strings and slick ar­range­ment of Cooke’s clas­sic record, The Per­sua­sions sound as if they re­ally could be on a chain gang work­ing on some high­way or by­way.

This is fol­lowed by “Looking for an Echo,” which orig­i­nally ap­peared on The Per­sua­sions’ 1977 al­bum, Chirpin’. Though they didn’t write it, they al­tered the lyrics a bit so it tells their story. “We used to prac­tice in a sub­way, in a lobby, or a hall / Even in the door­way, singing doo-wops to the wall. / And if we went to a party, and they wouldn’t let us sing / We’d lock our­selves in the bath­room, and no­body could get in.”

Two of the best songs here are Nat King Cole hits—“Mona Lisa” (with lead vo­cals by Jay­otis Wash­ing­ton and bass­man Jimmy Hayes) and “Ram­blin’ Rose.” Lead singer Jerry Law­son’s finest mo­ment in this show might have been “500 Miles Away From Home.” Shortly be­fore this show, his home had been de­stroyed by a flood. He sings the re­frain “away from home, away from home, cold and tired and all alone” with real ur­gency.

Gospel mu­sic was al­ways one of The Per­sua­sions’ ma­jor strengths. They do some fine ver­sions of “Peace in the Val­ley,” “Come on and Save Me,” “I Have but One De­sire,” and Weill’s “Oh Heav­enly Sal­va­tion.” So it comes as a real sucker punch when they do Zappa’s “The Meek Shall In­herit Noth­ing,” a cyn­i­cal look at church hypocrisy and su­per­sti­tion right be­tween “When Je­sus Comes” and “Build­ing a Home” (“Some take the bi­ble / For what it’s worth / When it says that the meek/ Shall in­herit the Earth / Well, I heard that some sheik / Has bought New Jer­sey last week / ’n you suck­ers ain’t get­tin’ nothin’”).

(True fact: Zappa and The Per­sua­sions go back a long way. Zappa signed the group to his Bizarre la­bel, on which they re­leased their first al­bum, Acap­pella, in 1970. The group paid trib­ute to him in 2000 with an all-Zappa cov­ers al­bum called Frankly A Cap­pella.)

But they sound heav­enly, even when singing Zappa’s hi­lar­i­ous blas­phemy. If there is a king­dom come, I bet Zappa and Mark Twain are up there lis­ten­ing to The Per­sua­sions.

I’m not sure why Live at McCabe’s Gui­tar Shop took so long to release. Per­haps it had some­thing to do with Law­son leav­ing the group in 2003 and mov­ing to Ari­zona (where he hooked up with a group called Talk of The Town.) But it re­ally doesn’t mat­ter. This is time­less mu­sic that sounds good in any decade. Check out thep­er­sua­sion­slive.com and jer­ry­law­son.biz.

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