‘Sweet Joe’ Russell dies at 72; singer with the Persuasions


“Sweet Joe” Russell, who spent half a century harmonizing with the Persuasions, an influential vocal group widely regarded as the “kings of a cappella,” has died. He was 72.

Russell died May 5 in a Brooklyn hospice after a long struggle with diabetes, said his wife, Arlena.

“If the Persuasions were a single body, Joe was the heart and soul,” said David Dashev, who was their manager and producer in the 1970s at the height of their fame. “He had a larger-than-life personality combined with a genius voice.”

He was a tenor who occasionally sang falsetto and sometimes the lead, including on the Persuasions’ version of “Papa Oom Mow Mow” that was featured in the 1982 film “E.T.”

On their standout 1970s albums, “Chirpin’” and the gospel-flavored “Spread the Word,” Russell “has the largest, most powerful voice,” Dashev said. “He was a force of nature that way.”

Rip Rense, who produced several of their later albums, called Russell’s voice “gigantic, bluesy, mournful, celebrative, rousing, ecstatic, sometimes all at once. He had a soul shriek to rival James Brown, and a deep, chesty vibrato that was straight out of field song, blues and church.”

The Persuasions started out informally in Brooklyn in 1962, five guys who gathered at the end of the workday to sing on street corners and in the subway. Their harmonies reflected a heavy gospel influence but also soul, R&B and pop.

“Joe was the voice of the Persuasions,” Jimmy Hayes, who sings bass with the group, told The Times last week. “It was the most powerful voice that I’ve ever heard. You could have a hundred people singin’ and you would only hear Joe. His voice was loud, and it was sweet.”

Joseph Jessie Russell was born Sept. 25, 1939, in Henderson, N.C., to gospel singer Jettie Russell and her husband, Joseph.

In the 1950s, young Joe picked cotton in North Carolina and later said the days went faster when he sang with co-workers. For much of his life, Russell also worked as a butcher.

The Persuasions got their big break in the late 1960s when Dashev walked into a New Jersey record store and heard a recording by them. He took a recording of the group performing live to Frank Zappa, who signed the quintet to his label, Straight Records.

The resulting 1970 album, “Acapella,” brought the Persuasions attention, and they became known for “winding sinewy harmonies around such varied songs as ‘Slip Sliding Away,’ ‘Five Hundred Miles’ and ‘Under the Boardwalk,’ ” according to the “Encyclopedia of Pop.”

Critics contend that the group has never received the attention it deserved, yet the Persuasions are considered peerless standard-bearers of a cappella.

They recorded about two dozen albums, including perhaps their most famous release, 1972’s “Street Corner Symphony.” More recently, they produced a series of tribute albums to the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Zappa and others.

Through relentless touring, the Persuasions built a devoted fan base. When they performed with such names as Van Morrison, Lou Reed or Joni Mitchell, the artists connected with the group “because everyone loved Joe,” Dashev said.

Besides Russell and Hayes, the Persuasions’ founding five included lead singer Jerry Lawson, Jayotis Washington and Herbert “Toubo” Rhoad, who died at 44 in 1988. The group took several years to replace Rhoad, and after Lawson left in 2002, a revised lineup that included three original members continued to perform.

Russell last appeared with the Persuasions late last year. The group plans to continue with a permanent replacement, Hayes said.

In addition to Arlena, his wife of 24 years, Russell is survived by three daughters, Patronia, Keisha and Sandra; two sons, Joseph and Aron; 11 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

“Sweet Joe” always said he was given the nickname by singer Aretha Franklin when they were talking about sweet potato pie, according to his wife.

“He was happy-go-lucky,” she said, “and matched up to his name.”