In a Brooklyn neighborhood 38 years ago, five young guys--four of them still in their teens--would get together to shoot hoops. Afterward, they'd sing. No instruments, just a couple of baritones and tenors and a deep, deep bass, rising in harmony on the corners of some of New York's toughest streets. In 1962, they became the Persuasions.
Today the Persuasions, with their innovative vocal style rooted in Southern gospel, R&B; and pop, are esteemed as a cappella masters--the "godfathers of a cappella" Spike Lee called them in his video production "Do It A Cappella."
Singers' singers who have performed and recorded backup vocals for major artists from Paul Simon to Stevie Wonder, their influence on the art of four- and five-part harmony singing can be heard in '60s doo-wop, and in the music of Boyz II Men and Bobby McFerrin.
Baritone Tubo Rhoad died in 1988, but lead singer and baritone Jerry Lawson, tenor Joe "Jesse" Russell, tenor and lead Jayotis Washington and basso profundo Jimmy Hayes are still going strong. With recent fifth member, former Drifter B.J. Jones, the group has just recorded a children's album.
From the opening "bum-ba-dum-ba-dum-da-dum" and "diddy-wop, diddy-wop," you know that the Music for Little People release, "On the Good Ship Lollipop," is never going to gather dust on a CD shelf. Whether it's Hayes' extraordinary velvet bass in "Teddy Bears' Picnic," Lawson's husky-sweet baritone in Dan Conley's tender "My Daddy Do, Too" or the soulful rendition of "On Top of Spaghetti," this mix of old and new children's songs is infused with exuberant life and cross-generational appeal.
Spreading good cheer through a cappella is what the Persuasions do. Upbeat Lawson, who frequently breaks into song during an interview, says that music is much more than a profession for the group.
"It's something God wanted us to do," Lawson said. "He wanted us to use what he gave us naturally, and that's our voices. And when you get together and you sing and that harmony comes out ringing, that's just something special.
"It's like getting up in the morning and mixing the grits. You can put grits on the plate and you can put eggs on the plate, but when you mix the grits and the eggs together with a little black pepper, ohhh. . . . It goes right down just right.
"And when you put the tenor and the bass and the baritone in there together and they've got that sweetness, it's just like that."
Although a children's album is a first for the Persuasions, they often perform in schools and children's hospitals, and their rapport shows on the album with the songs and with their Lollipop Kids Chorus.
"I'd go off sometimes and shed a tear, because when the kids came in, they were Chinese, they were black, they were Jewish, they were Korean, they were Mexican--and they were singing 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.' I went out and started crying. Chills just came up and down my spine to see these kids having such a good time.
"I played [the album] in Brooklyn at our favorite barbershop, where they're used to listening to rappers. When it got to 'Swing Low,' people came in from outside. [They] kept playing it over and over and I was saying to myself this is amazing; they don't know that that's a little white Jewish kid [Bernie Steinberg] singing--and they wouldn't care, you see what I'm saying? Teenagers came in and were getting down off of this 'Good Ship Lollipop,' and they didn't even know who we were."
Lawson says passing the a cappella torch is what it's all about.
"I think it's deep in people that they were born wanting to sing."
The Persuasions' latest project, recorded with a new sixth member, high tenor Ray Sanders, is an album of songs by the late Frank Zappa. Zappa gave them their break in 1968, signing them to his Straight label after hearing them sing over the phone.
"Now we're doing a tribute album to Frank," Lawson said. "I really believe he is going to love it."
* "On the Good Ship Lollipop," Music for Little People/Kid Rhino. CD: $15.98. Cassette: $9.98. (800) 409-2457.