One of the many sly joys of the Pitch Perfect movies is hearing which songs the warring a cappella groups will take on and twist in to entirely new feats of vocal gymnastics. If they just got up and sang barbershop quartet classics, we’d wager The Barden Bellas wouldn’t be making box office bank. So while everyone’s marveling at the unadorned glory of the human voice’s ability to trump the work of pop music’s hottest producers, we thought it would be a good time to look back at The Persuasions, a group that’s been carrying the torch for a cappella with pitch-perfect taste and talent, long before Beca, Fat Amy and their crew were crying in cribs.
It should make no damn sense that in 1970, Frank Zappa would release the debut album by a street corner a-cappella R&B singing group from Brooklyn, but The Persuasions, like Zappa, spent their career gleefully defying expectations and categorization. See, by 1970, doo-wop was dead. The R&B charts were pretty much home to solo soul shouters like Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett or groups like Sly & The Family Stone and a bunch of folks trying to sound just like them. There were a handful of sweet harmony groups left, but they were slathered in strings, sitars, harpsichords and anything else to keep them from resembling the stripped-back harmony singers that once ran the scene. So when Zappa, a serious doo-wop freak himself, first heard The Persuasions sing (over the phone, long-distance, from a Jersey record shop), he was smitten. And, with a label of his own, he was the only one who could get the group a record deal that would matter. So there they were, a group a decade behind the times, now on Frank Zappa’s label alongside Alice Cooper, Tim Buckley, Captain Beefheart, and a few other acts that made just as little sense beside them. And, had it worked out any differently, we probably wouldn’t be talking about them (as a couple of great but conventional, went-nowhere-fast, soul singles they released in the late ’60s proved).
Despite its bizarre origins, The Persuasions first album is a pretty straight-forward jolt of classic R&B songs, recorded live with nothing but the instruments god gave ’em. But it’s intimate, real, and lets you know just who you’re dealing with. The Persuasions are the real deal. Watertight harmonies are delivered with hurricane force, breathing fire back in to songs too new to be considered classics but too old to be considered at all by anyone buying records in 1970. But, damn, what they could do with a song like “Drip Drop,” a barely-noticed Drifters single that would also be one of Dion’s last hits, now completely owned by The Persuasions.
From there, The Persuasions launched the kind of career that ticks all the boxes for Trunkworthy endorsement: A genre-bending, era-hopping taste for material and a decades-long commitment to bringing their A-game every time. While the group always returns to the Sam Cooke, The Temptations, and Curtis Mayfield songs they came up on, every album stretches to include songs that seem like terrible ideas for an a-cappella group to take on . . . until you hear how The Persuasions lovingly arrange them to sound perfectly natural echoing through an abandoned stairwell, under a bridge, or anywhere else vocal groups gathered to perfect their sound. Decades before it was revived in The Big Lebowski, The Persuasions took on Bob Dylan’s otherwise overlooked “The Man In Me” and made it sound like a lost doo-wop single from a decade back.
Over the past 20 years, The Persuasions would dedicate entire albums to the songs of The Grateful Dead, U2, The Beatles, and their old patron, Frank Zappa, without ever sounding like they were cashing or phoning it in. They always find the right songs and the perfect way in to them. U2’s “Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” becomes a hymn. Grateful Dead songs that many heard as frameworks for the band’s elastic instrumental excursions were stripped back to their core where the words and melodies could take flight on their own merits. And when The Persuasions sing “Oh! Darling,” they expose the song’s roots in The Beatles’ obsession with early R&B.
But no matter where The Persuasions went, they always brought it back home to their roots in R&B. One of their most stunning moments is a without-a-net performance of “To Be Loved,” belted out solo by the late “Sweet Joe” Russell. It’s a song R&B fans know by the great Jackie Wilson, but most folks probably first heard sung by a lovestruck Prince Akeem in Coming To America. I guarantee the residents of Queens would have been much kinder to Sweet Joe’s singing than Eddie Murphy’s.
This was on The Persuasion’s album Chirpin’, considered by most to be their masterpiece and considered by Rolling Stone to be one of the best albums of the ’70s. It also has the closest thing The Persuasions could call a hit, the version of “Papa Oo Mow Mow” that was used in E.T. Despite all that, the album is inexplicably out of print, even in this everything-when-you-think-of-it digital age. We’re sure there’s a reason for that, but we’re also sure it’s not a very good one. Check out The Persuasions and start writing letters to your local congressperson.
UPDATE: Shortly after we published this appreciation, we got word that Jerry Lawson of the Persuasions finally released an album of his own. It ain’t a-capella, but it’s damn sure worth your attention. His voice still thrills, the band cushions him perfectly, and his choice of material is as wild and wonderful as anything he picked for his old group: songs originally performed by David Ruffin, Bobby Bland, Paul Simon, and Sam Cooke sit perfectly alongside originals custom-cut to suit Jerry’s gifts. Check it out: