Jerry Lawson, who for four decades was the lead singer of the eclectic cult-favorite a cappella group the Persuasions, has died in hospice care in Phoenix. He was 75.
Lawson died Wednesday after a long illness, longtime friend and sometime Persuasions producer Rip Rense said.
Lawson’s smooth baritone led the group of five and later six singers, who were revered as the “Kings of a Cappella” by their small but devoted fan base.
Through 25 albums the Persuasions recorded rock, blues, gospel and pop songs, all with no sound other than their own voices, long after the doo-wop era and long before the “Pitch Perfect” movies, when a cappella was rare.
“Thirty-eight years and we still ain’t got no band, man!” Lawson said in a 2000 interview. “That’s the story right there.”
They had many famous fans including Rod Stewart, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, the members of Boyz II Men and rock iconoclast Frank Zappa, who discovered the group in the late 1960s.
“After working together at the Hurricane Katrina Benefit Concert, I admired the undeniable depth in Jerry’s big voice,” Stewart said in a statement. “A true soul singer.”
Born Jan. 23, 1944 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Lawson grew up in Apopka, Fla., and as a youth developed a warm, friendly voice while singing gospel songs.
The Persuasions began as a casual and nameless collection of singers who gathered on the basketball courts and front stoops of Brooklyn in the early 1960s.
“It was just five guys who used to stand on the corner or go down to the subway station every night and just do this,” Persuasions member Jimmy Hayes said in 2000.
Joseph Russell, Herbert Rhoad and Jayotis Washington rounded out the original quintet.
They got their break when Zappa signed them to his independent label for their first album in 1969.
The Persuasions performed with a range of collaborators including Liza Minnelli, Joni Mitchell and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and covered the songs of Motown, Sam Cooke and Paul Simon.
The eclecticism that made them so beloved also kept them from reaching pop stardom.
Music executives never knew how to market them, and commercial radio had no clue what niche to stick them in.
“They’ve never gotten their due,” Rense said. “They’re the greatest, most enduring American a cappella group. In another country like Japan they’d be declared a living treasure.”
Lawson left the group in 2002. A few years later he joined a much younger group of San Francisco a capella singers that had based themselves on the Persuasions to form Jerry Lawson and the Talk of the Town.
The group released an album, co-produced by Lawson and his wife, in 2007, and in 2011 they appeared on NBC’s music competition show, “The Sing-Off.”
In 2015, Lawson released his only solo album, “Just a Mortal Man.”
A documentary on Lawson is in the works and is expected to be released this year.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by daughters Yvette and Wanda.