On the Tuesday before the Persuasions are set to perform a free concert on the beach in Somers Point (July 20, 6:45-8pm, with The Shakes playing from 8:15pm on), founding member and 69-year-old vocalist and song connoisseur Jimmy Hayes takes a call to chat about the legendary a capella group’s 50 years of success, a milestone the New York-based singing group is celebrating this year. Prior to the call, Hayes and his group are putting together their set for the Somers Point show.
Starting out in the 1960s, and taking their name from a Bible passage, the Persuasions went on to work with an eclectic cast of musical characters including Frank Zappa, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, and appearing in several recently filmed documentaries.
Over the past 25 years, the group has lost a trio of its founding members (Toubo Rhoad in 1988; lead vocalist Jerry Lawson left in 2003; and the great "Sweet" Joe Russell, who passed away at 73 this past May), but has remained a constant touring and recording force. The group has always been known to sing songs they love, from whatever genre or songwriter, but over the past several years, it has released tribute albums to the Beatles, Grateful Dead, U2, and, most recently, Bob Dylan (the exceptional Knockin’ on Bob’s Door).
Here are excerpts from the interview.
I know that there have been some personnel changes with regards to the Persuasions. I just want to get the current lineup right. One of the voices of your group, Sweet Joe Russell, passed away just this past May.
Yeah, ‘Sweet Joe’ Russell, he, uh, passed the month before last, in May.
So now, the lineup is … we got two originals left, that’s myself, Jimmy Hayes, and Jay Otis Washington. We also got Dave Revels, Raymond Sanders and, uh, Cliff Dawson. … We [also] use B.J. Jones when one of the other guys is, you know, can’t, uh, make it. I think B.J. will probably be with us when we come down to do this gig [in Somers Point].
The Persuasions were told for decades that there was no market for a cappella. Now 50 years later, jokes on them, right?
A lot of journalists and record labels, and executives said you needed a band.
What do you have to say to them now?
Well, you say that there was the market for a cappella, because we’re celebrating 50 years now.
We were told that by quite a few people. Not only record companies [that we needed a band]. We were told that by all the artists that was in the business. ‘Hey man, you guys got a nice sound, but uh, you’re not gonna make it with that, that a cappella stuff. It’s long gone. You’ve got to have a band.’ But the way we saw it, this group was put together by somebody that was bigger than all of us.
Kind of brought you guys all together.
Yeah, we felt that divine intervention came in some place, to put this group together, because this is a group that didn’t know each other. We didn’t grow up together; we all grew up in different parts of the South, different states. And we all came to New York, around the same time, and moved into the same neighborhood, and we would go in the park everyday and play basketball and start singin’.
You know, a whole bunch of guys singin’, till we weeded out, and got to five guys, who became the Persuasions. So, we thought that it was something very spiritual about this group.
Yeah, even the name, right?
I mean, it was just spiritual, you know? Yeah, yeah, and that’s where the name came from, The Persuasions.
Right, from the Bible.
Somebody said, ‘let’s get a name’, so we went on, you know, trying to think of a name, and I’m just looking through the Bible one night, and I saw this passage in the Bible, the way it said, ‘Christ was going to have to persuade [people] to listen to his teachings. And that name, ‘persuade,’ at the time, the groups were being named ending in ‘ions.’
Right, right, right. Temptations, etc.
Yeah, and instead of Persuaders, I said Persuasions. And I came back to the guys the next night and said ‘I got a name, man. We are the Persuasions.’ And everybody agreed with it. And that’s how the name came up. But, uh, like you said, we had been told that there wasn’t a market for a cappella, but, you know like I said, we are celebrating 50 years this year. This is our 50th year in this business.
So there was the market for it. And there was resurgence, because you had some of the younger groups, Boys II Men, Bobby McFerrin. A lot of other people had start doing a cappella.
Right, Take 6.
Take 6, yeah. So all these guys, I dunno, bestowed that upon us. We didn’t bestow it upon ourselves. That [we are] the Godfathers of a cappella. I guess maybe because when a cappella had gone out, and another genre [came] in, we just continued to do a cappella. We kinda kept it alive.
Through many different paths and genres, like you were saying, and with the assistance of Frank Zappa initially, getting you guys recorded, right?
Yeah. Frank was our first recording. The first album we did was on his [Straight] label.
What was he like when you first met him, if you remember?
Uh, he was a great guy, man. We had never met him when we recorded. We had met him when we opened a couple of shows for him. We opened at Carnegie Hall for him, and that’s when we met him. And we also opened in Virginia Beach at a place called The Dome. Now, I was born and raised in Virginia, that’s where I came up from, Virginia. Now, at that time, blacks could not go to Virginia Beach.
We were the first black act to ever play Virginia Beach.
And we played Virginia Beach because we were opening for Frank Zappa.
And this was like, in the late ’60s?
Uh yeah, yeah. Around ’67, ’68, something like that.
And you know, like I said, I was born and raised in Virginia. Our beach was Seaview Beach, which was the same Atlantic Ocean, but there was this imaginary line. Seaview Beach went from here to here, and that imaginary line was part of Virginia Beach where blacks couldn’t go, on that beach.
So when we came down, and got out of the car, and all these people was there. ‘What is going on? What is going on?’ But after we did our show, we were, I mean, the reception we got was great, man.
"I usually always tell people that they should get Apostrophe and Over-Nite Sensation. I think on those records he hit a stride where he was blending rock, jazz, classical, funk -- all of these things all together in these unique arrangements. And the sound of the records are so great. So I think that's a great starting point to hear some of his signature styling, but again, he's got over 75 records and there's so many periods to choose from."
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