To start, let me state that this was undoubtedly one of the more difficult album reviews that I have attempted thus far. The Persuasions’ “new” CD, “Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop”, was recorded in Santa Monica, CA, Feb. 22-23, 1998. Yep, 1998. The Persuasions (Jerry Lawson, Jimmy Hayes, "Sweet Joe" Russell, Jayotis Washington, B.J. Jones, Raymond Sanders) have been singing a cappella since 1962 when they were blessing the corners of Brooklyn streets with their tight harmonies. Casual grooving between friends led to larger performances in concert halls and clubs, before they opened for Ray Charles, Bill Cosby, and Richard Pryor. These days? They reign as the self-proclaimed “Kings of A cappella”, and back up this statement with their rich history and dedication to our genre. This is the same genre that inspired Boyz 2 Men and Rockapella. B2M left the a cappella genre for a more lucrative venture into mainstream music, which gave us more than a few hits. Who can blame them? Rockapella became a standard and jumped into the contemporary scene, giving us a cappella renditions of some of our favorite rock and pop songs. The Persuasions? They keep singing the same style that earned them recognition over 40 years ago.
Most people reading this might understand that the best way to experience this style of a cappella is live. There aren’t twelve different parts being sung or guitar riffs making their way through the chords. There are five guys creating their own full sound, all the while entertaining a packed crowd at the world-famous McCabe’s Guitar Shop. Their latest album, “Live at McCabe’s Guitar Shop” aims for a specific result in final product. It displays the thing that these five men have done exceptionally well over the past 47 years: perform! Plenty of a cappella groups put out studio albums that amaze their listeners and break new ground every album by setting the bar even higher for production. The Persuasions? They keep it old-school, for lack of a better phrase. What do you hear in this album? Pure voices, along with plenty of applause, with no studio effects or pitch-adjusting. Why? These guys don’t need it! Well, in truth, there are places where they could use some, but it wouldn’t suit the live performance feel that makes this album so human and touching. They may not nail every note perfectly, but they get about as close as five guys can. Now, chalk this up to the fact that they have performed these pieces time and time again even on the biggest stages. Or, you could account for their dedication to every single chord and every single word being perfect. How do you maintain your high standards of performance for over 40 years? Practice. Repetition. Dedication. There are other factors as well, but no amount of talent can replace these values.
Listen to “500 Miles Away From Home” and try not to get caught up in the solid sound that they create together. Recognize how the basses carry the bottom section of the song, and out of nowhere, jump into the lyrics with the soloist before he falls back into his part; seamless. That is the best word to describe their performance chemistry. Flip over a few tracks to “Mona Lisa” and get a taste of their lower registers in a baritone solo, mixed in with some rare moments of vocal percussion. Need proof that they enjoy what they do? Check out “Return To Sender”. The energy that they are conveying is contagious. If you are a tenor, you will find some beautiful higher harmonies. Basses? Try to keep up. Just try. Early in the track, their original “Looking For An Echo” is all about their start. The emotion pours out of each singer as you hear about their start singing on street-corners. Even though they made it to the big stage, they never forgot where they started, and they take special care to keep a piece of that history in each song that they perform. The live segues in between each song truly make this album special. Before “Building A Home”, you hear excellent interaction between the guys and the audience. The connect with everybody they sing for, which makes their live performances stand out from many a cappella groups today, professional and amateur.
This is the spot in a review that I would normally critique what a group could improve on or what I specifically did not care for in their release. This challenge is more present in this review than ever before, because the little flaws here and there are supposed to be there. It is a live performance! I could go on and on about song selection because I tend to gravitate towards more contemporary pieces, but that wouldn’t be fair to these a cappella pioneers who helped create the genre that we all enjoy today. I won’t try to correct The Persuasions. I won’t offer constructive criticism, either. I will simply commend them and state that if you are involved in a cappella today, plan on being involved in the future, or have been in the past, that you need to buy this album. It doesn’t matter if you don’t care for the style or usually listen to more contemporary albums. This is a learning experience for all who listen. Take notes on their chemistry, how they react to the audience, and how they still love a cappella music 46 years after they first started singing it. They ignored numerous chances to jump into pop or R&B and make the big bucks, and probably went through tough times. In the end, they continued to carry the torch for our genre, and I can only hope that another group uses the same care and passion as the torch gets passed to new Kings of A cappella. Who will take the throne?
About the author:
Eric Talley fell in love with a cappella music the very first time that he heard it. He is the founder of Appalachian State University's only co-ed a cappella group, Lost In Sound. He served as their President for three years. During that time, a cappella brought him not only musical joy, but love as well. He met his fiancé Nicki - who was the music director - while in the group, and the two will be married in August 09. A background in a cappella music and sound engineering led Eric to become involved in professional album production, where he continues his work today and as a contributor to CASA.