DeepSoul: The Persuasions - "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother/You've Got a Friend"

Honor original lead singer Jerry Lawson by diving into the eclectic a cappella group's extensive catalog.
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"Still Ain't Got No Band."-- motto of the Persuasions 

A cappella singing has seen a resurgence in recent years, but the Persuasions set the standard  over 50 years ago.  The R&B group enjoyed a devoted following, performing with everyone from Frank Zappa to Liza Minnelli.  Their rich, gospel-enriched vocals reimagined songs; they would reinterpret tracks rather than simply cover them.  Recently the Persuasions lost the heart of the group: Jerry Lawson, the original lead singer, passed away on July 10, 2019.  His husky, joyful, and distinct vocal touches enhanced songs including the "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother/You've Got a Friend" medley off their classic 1972 album Street Corner Symphony

The story of the Persuasions begins in 1962 Brooklyn, when Lawson (lead vocalist), "Sweet" Joe Russell (second tenor), Jimmy Hayes (bass), Herbert "Toubo" Rhoad (baritone), and Jayotis Washington (first tenor) formed a singing group.  Their musical roots remained firmly in the church, but also contained healthy doses of R&B and pop.  After performing at numerous local venues, the Persuasions were finally discovered by Frank and Gail Zappa in 1968.  When he heard a demo tape provided by mutual friend David Dashev (who later became a producer and manager of the group), Zappa signed them to his own "Straight" label.  By 1970, Zappa had produced their debut album, appropriately titled A Cappella.  Recorded in Los Angeles, the album boasted a number of covers, including "Up on the Roof" and "Since I Fell for You."  

After leaving Zappa's label, the Persuasions recorded for several labels, reinterpreting 50s and 60s doo-wop and soul classics but also venturing into rock territory. Lawson chose their songs and arranged or what he called "Persuasionized" tracks.  For example, the group tackled  the seemingly incongruous track "Walk on the Wild Side" for their 1971 release We Came to Play,  But they came into their own on the 1972 album Street Corner Symphony, a work still regarded as among the best in a cappella singing.  Cuts such as Curtis Mayfield's "People Get Ready" perfectly suit their church backgrounds, but their reimagining of several Temptations tracks in "Tempts Jam" astounds with their dizzyingly complex vocal arrangements. They render "Don't Look Back," "Runaway Child, Running Wild," and "Cloud Nine" as different yet still familiar.  Clearly the group feels great affection for the Temptations, as Lawson and the group tear into the tracks with joy (anchored by Lawson's heartfelt vocals).  

Another highlight of Street Corner Symphony, a medley of "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother/You've Got a Friend," succinctly encapsulates what makes the Persuasions special.  Lawson's earnest, David Ruffin-like voice suggests he has lived every word.  "The road is long / With many a winding turn," he sings, instantly transporting listeners to church.  When he reaches the lyrics "But I'm strong enough to carry him / He ain't heavy, he's my brother," Lawson infuses the words with spirituality beyond the Hollies' original message of peace.  The song naturally segues into "You've Got a Friend," which the Persuasions instill with soul.  In addition to Lawson's emotional vocals, pay close attention to the intricate backing arrangements.  The bass singer astounds with his deceptively simple vocal parts, but they ground the cover firmly in R&B.  

Along with the other Street Corner Symphony tracks, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother/You've Got a Friend" provides a lesson in superior a cappella singing that reshapes rather than replacates a song.  Perhaps referring to their diverse choices in music, Lawson told Rolling Stone in 1977 that the Persuasions aspired to emulate the Mills Brothers, a group that successfully crossed over to white audiences during the pre-rock era.  

Rip Rense, who created four albums with the group in the 2000s, stated that their impressive range of material made them further stand out from their peers.  "They were also really the first a cappella group to be entirely secular in their choice of music," he said.  "And they were spectacularly eclectic. Jerry arranged whatever he thought could be 'Persuasionized,' and that included Dylan, Paul Simon, Kurt Weill, The Temptations, Sam Cooke, Brook Benton, Zappa, Elvis, The Beatles, gospel, damn near anything. Even the Partridge Family." 

The Persuasions would go on to release numerous critically acclaimed albums and earned a devoted following among fellow artists.  They would experience a creative resurgence beginning in 2000, when music journalist, producer, and Zappa and Persuasions fan Rense reached out to the group. Among the albums he would produce includes the Zappa tribute Frankly A Cappella (coproduced with Lawson and Gary Mankin) (2000) and Persuasions of the Dead (2011).   During each project, Rense said, the group's professionalism and attention to detail impressed him. "Jerry did not like to waste time, so he had the group very well rehearsed with whatever new material was to be recorded," Rense recalled. "Efficiency was the priority for all of them . . . The worst thing you could do in the studio was suddenly introduce a new song, or a new arrangement. They needed time, and they needed Jerry's guidance to work out the songs in advance, get comfortable with them. They were serious and methodical."  Beatles fans would also appreciate their 2002 release The Persuasions Sing the Beatles, a complete reshaping of group and solo tracks.

Lawson departed the group in 2002 but formed another group, Jerry Lawson and the Talk of the Town, and released his only solo album, Just a Mortal Man, in 2015. 

While the group never achieved massive critical success due to their eclectic musical tastes, the Persuasions saw themselves as the keepers of the flame of a cappella singing.  "We been fightin' that novelty tag all these years," Hayes told Rolling Stone in 1977. "We ain't no novelty act or nostalgia or any of that. We're truth. People don't like the truth."  

Rense summarized Lawson's distinctive singing style: "It was captivating, full of implied stories, the weight of the world, the joy of the world. A full-throaty, soulful baritone with a lot of heart. All heart."  Indeed, Lawson's passionate delivery and the other members' skillful backing vocals exuded honesty and sincerity.  Their passion and determination to record songs on their own terms will remain their legacy.