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May 7, 2006

Perpetual Harmony

San Francisco Chronicle (CA):

"The Persuasions! Aren't you that old doo-wop group?" Jimmy Hayes, bass singer with the Persuasions, chuckles as he recounts the oft-heard remark. "I can't count the times people have called us an 'old doo-wop group.' It's kind of insulting," he says. "We may be old, but we're an a cappella harmony group, not a doo-wop group. We look for songs that suit our kind of harmonizing and do all kinds of music, not just doo-wop."

In a career that spans 44 years, the Persuasions have lived up to their tag line -- "We still ain't got no band" -- with a powerful vocal sound that can raise the roof, as well as the spirits of the audience. They've put their mark on soul, R&B, rock 'n' roll, folk songs, blues, pop standards and gospel and produced their share of concept albums. They've done a Beatles album, a Grateful Dead album, a Christmas album and a children's record and have covered tunes by Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and Frank Zappa. Still, their most recent disc, "The Persuasions Sing U2," took a lot of people by surprise, including Hayes.

"David Chesky, the president of our label, called me and asked what I thought of U2. I'd heard 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' but didn't know much about the group. Chesky gave us a couple of CDs and, as I listened to them, I realized I'd heard the songs before. U2 writes songs about the struggles we all go through; they're like Irish guys doing gospel. We picked the songs we thought would suit us best and did the CD in three days."

The group arranged the tunes, building a rich harmonic sound on the foundation supplied by Hayes' impressive, rumbling bass. "We've been doing the U2 songs in our shows and getting a lot of 'wows' from the crowd," Hayes says. "We've made a lot of albums doing songs we choose, but when you do an album of Grateful Dead songs or Beatles songs or Frank Zappa songs, you pull in those fans. Those albums have done well for us, but they're not part of a master plan. I think our career is more a case of divine intervention."

The original Persuasions -- Jerry Lawson, Jimmy Hayes, Joe Russell, Jayotis Washington and Toubo Rhoad -- came to New York in the early '60s with dreams of a musical career. "When we met, we all had day jobs," Hayes says. "Joe was a butcher. Jayotis was a plumber. Toubo was a shoe salesman. Jerry was a store detective. I was an elevator operator. We'd play basketball after work at Washington Park in Brooklyn. After the game, somebody would strike up a song, and 15 or 20 guys would make a whole lot of noise. I could hear voices in the crowd that knew what it was all about, so one night I said we should all get together in my apartment and rehearse. Only four guys showed up, and we became the Persuasions."

Hayes says at first they were modeling themselves on such popular African American vocal groups of the day as the Drifters. "We had a great guitar player named Howard, but every time we had a gig, he'd have pawned his guitar or he didn't show up," Hayes says. "So we'd get our harmonies together and do what we had to do to entertain the crowd. Divine intervention told us we didn't need musicians. We've kept the a cappella flame alive for more than 40 years now, traveling the world and having a lot of fun doing it."

After the five friends started singing together, they landed jobs at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corp., a project to advance the neighborhood's social, physical and economic development, headed by Robert Kennedy. The Persuasions became the "house band" for the group's fundraisers, including a gala at Lincoln Center. "We rented tuxedos and, man, were we clean," Hayes says. "We had Bill Lee, Spike Lee's dad, backing us on bass, and we really made our mark. We put on a great show and got an encore. Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach were supposed to headline, but Dionne said she had laryngitis and didn't go on. I don't blame her. If I had to follow us onstage, I would have got laryngitis, too. That was the night we turned pro."

Divine intervention, Hayes says, also played a part in naming the band and finding its first manager. "We were always coming up with names, but the birds had all been taken: the Falcons, the Orioles, the Meadowlarks. The cars had been taken: the Cadillacs, the Imperials. I was browsing through the Bible and saw the word Persuader and knew we'd have to persuade the crowd to listen to an a cappella group. When I said, 'We're the Persuasions,' there was no argument. "We met our manager one night when we were singing in a subway station to get that echo effect. David Dashev and his wife got off a train and, although he'd never managed a group, he took us on. He eventually hooked us up with the William Morris Agency and got us our first record deal. He had us sing over the phone to some guy in L.A. -- who happened to be Frank Zappa. A week later he sent us a contract and six round-trip airplane tickets to come out to California and make an album."

The Persuasions went on to cut more than 20 albums and headline major venues all over the world, with minimal personnel changes. The group that will sing Thursday at the Swedish American Hall still has three original members: Russell, on second tenor and lead; Washington, second tenor, baritone and lead; and Hayes. New members are baritone B.J. Jones and tenor Ray Sanders, an original member of the New York doo-wop legends the Paragons. "We call B. J. the utility man," Hayes says. "He's from New York and a great singer who's been with the Drifters, Platters and Del Vikings."

The Persuasions are also in-demand session singers with a resume of A-list artists, including Bette Midler, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder. "People say we have haunting harmonies," Hayes says. "That's because we don't use the high harmonies. We have low harmonies. That's why the Ramones hired me to put a low bass line on one of their songs. You look on the back of any album, you're likely to see the Persuasions."

Posted by acapnews at May 7, 2006 9:51 PM