The Divine Intervention of The Persuasions

The year was 1962, and the place was Brooklyn. None of the five men that would eventually form the a capella group known as The Persuasions knew each other, but somehow they all came together at the right place at the right time. Nearly four decades later, the group would look back on those days with a sense of wonder. To all, it seemed as if they had been drawn together by some higher force. It was like magic.

persuasions“I myself always said it was a divine intervention,” explains Jimmy Hayes, the group’s bass vocalist. “We were just some guys from the South and from Pittsburgh. No one ever expected us to come into this.”

After forty years of telling the group’s story, Hayes’ recollection of the band’s early days is still fresh and alive. His stories could have taken place just last week, and yet when he talks, it seems like the events are unfolding right before your eyes.

He recounts how, in 1967, as the group had been singing mostly on street corners an in subway stations, they had a chance encounter with a man who “knew a guy with a label” on the East coast. Before they knew it, they were singing into the handset of a telephone for this mystery man. In retrospect, it may seem a little bizarre, but within weeks they had their first recording deal. Even stranger was the identity of the mystery man. “It was Frank Zappa that gave us our first recording contract,” explained Hayes. “We didn’t listen to that kind of music, but we [still] knew about Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention.”

Since that time, The Persuasions have performed with some of the biggest names in music. They’ve worked with people like Stevie Wonder, Bette Midler, and Paul Simon. Master song-stylist Tom Waits has sung their praises, and director Spike Lee has featured them in his documentaries. For Hayes, however, these relationships have gone beyond just music. “We weren’t just sharing the stage with these people,” he said, “we were becoming friends with them. Real friends, real close.”

In another story, Hayes remembers the weeks the group spent in the Holy Land. For all of them, it was a magical time. Now, they were seeing all the places that they had first heard of in church as children. Now, they were here, singing music for this land’s inhabitants. They felt compelled to sing something, anything, with some religious merit, but they didn’t want to start trouble.

“Finally,” said Hayes, “Jerry [Lawson, the group’s lead singer] suggested “Jesus On The Mainline.” We started singing it, and the man who was putting on the concert came down yelling, “No Jesus in here! No Jesus in here!” We thought we were supposed to do that stuff. We were in the Holy Land.”

Even with nearly four decades of stories behind them, The Persuasions still feel that their greatest moments are yet to come. As a reflection of this, they have tried to keep their music fresh and vibrant. That open-mindedness has allowed them to stretch the traditional boundaries of their music, placing one of this group of veterans at the cutting edge of a cappella. Their music is frequently mentioned in the same breath with that of relative newcomers Rockappella and Bobby McFerrin.

Even their recordings reflect a sense of experimentalism for a cappella music, like their all-vocal versions of the works of Frank Zappa (Frankly A Cappella, 2000), The Grateful Dead (Might As Well, 2000), and most recently, The Beatles (The Persuasions Sing The Beatles, 2002).

“I like “Yesterday” on that CD,” said Hayes of their Beatles tribute album. “Particularly our arrangement of it.”

After all these years, Hayes is still enamored with the sound of A Cappella music. In another of his stories, he talks about the emotional power of the human voice, and the way audiences all over the world, from Israel to Asheville, all respond to it the same way. “It’s celestial,” explained Hayes. “There’s just something about [a cappella]. It’s celestial . . . it’s other-worldly.”

This story was originally published in the 2002 Bele Chere Guide published by Mountain Xpress.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *