HomeJerry Lawson is My Father

SeanAltman's picture

I became aware of The Persuasions in my sophomore year (1980) as a member of Brown University’s lone male singing group- the barbershop octet known as The High Jinks.  My acapella world was neatly pressed and primped. We sported bow ties and blazers, and we rehearsed vowel-matching and other precious endeavors, casually employing terms like "glottal stop," "phonate," "diphthong," and "hemiola" with Ivy League aplomb, as in "Oy Gevalt, phonate the doctor and tell’em I’ve got a nasty glottal stop on the head of my diphthong. Pray that it’s not a hemiola!”  We were tidy, gleeful and, well... soulless. (And oblivious. In the pre-internet age — hell, it was pre-CD, even pre-Walkman! — there were scant opportunities to learn about other groups — the barely nascent acapella community {mosimage}corresponded via Morse code and the occasional smoke signal, and Mr. and Mrs. Sharon were concerned that their toddler, Deke, had shunned the family’s heirloom penny whistle.)

Late in my freshman year, after we scrubbed sprites had mastered the obligatory 1890s repertoire of songs about petticoated girls named Nellie and Fannie, a couple of my fellow High Jinks — future Rockapellas Elliott Kerman and David Stix — suggested that, in lieu of running the bell chord ending of "Coney Island Baby" forty-seven more blasted times, we listen to an album called "We Came To Play" by The Persuasions, a group they'd read about on a cave painting or a piece of tree bark, or whatever Cro-Magnon medium we were forced to endure in the bygone daze of yore (probably the Village Voice.)  And so we listened, wide-eyed and drool-mouthed. And we listened.  And we studied.  And we learned.  And thus was our tidy-whitey college group transformed, and my own Dudley Dooright sense of acapella forever upended.  We had found our role model. 

The Persuasions' sound was a roaring, slobbery bear to The High Jinks' mewing, albino puddy cat.  The "We Came To Play" LP - with its renditions of Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang" and Curtis Mayfield's "Man Oh Man" - was so raw and raucous that I feared for the needle's safety.  There was none of the peroxide-dipped Q-tip cleanliness that we assumed was acapella's proper due.  In its place was a loose, nasty, almost raunchy explosion of vocal imperfection.  And it was f@$k!ng perfect.  Riding bareback on this sinewy runaway beast, and tugging it this way and that to do his bidding was lead singer Jerry Lawson, alternately crooning, riffing and shouting, and forever sweating, and egging Jay, Jimmy, Joe and Toubo toward higher heights of doo-wop soul and R&B.  

We had discovered fire, although we had really discovered some other group's discovery of fire.  Whatever- we were young, thrilled and inspired to burn things of our own. With missionary zeal we set out to mimic The Persuasions' sound.  The first step was dissecting their vocal arrangements: we persnicketously notated every single vocal lick from every voice part, no matter how obviously improvised or accidental.  If The Persuasions had sung it, growled it, hiccuped it or burped it, we copied it, exactly.  To this day, when I sing “One Mint Julep”, I know that I'm doing a Jerry Lawson impression, but hey — who better to imitate than the best?

When we finished studying "We Came To Play" we moved on to the rest of The Persuasions' enormous catalogue.  We also made pilgrimages from Providence to Manhattan to see our heroes at rickety venues like The Lone Star Cafe, The Bitter End and The Bottom Line.  The Persuasions ended every show by inviting fans onto the stage to sing with them, and we were always the first to rush up.  We saw so many of their shows that I think The Persuasions actually began to recognize us, or so we hoped.   By the time I graduated, I knew two-dozen Persuasions arrangements so meticulously that, if not for the indignity of my lack of pigment, I could have stepped into any non-bass role in that mighty group. 

Out of college and armed with an absurdist repertoire of barbershop standards and Persuasions covers, a quartet of us ex-High Jinks formed Rockapella.   Indeed, we could have called ourselves "Persuasions Lite" or, more aptly, "Persuasions White".  In our minds we sounded exactly like them.  In reality we sounded — let's face it — like whiny, reed-voiced munchkin Persuasionettes: the monochromatic vanilla paste that would emerge if the real Persuasions had been unceremoniously crammed into a soul-sucking CuisinArt knockoff.  

But, hey, we knew those arrangements cold, which served us well when we found ourselves on the same TV special as The Persuasions in 1990 — the seminal PBS Great Performances documentary {mosimage}"Spike & Company — Do It Acapella".  At 8:00 AM at The Brooklyn Academy of Music, where the shoot took place, two historic events took place. The first was Rockapella witnessing legendary bass man Jimmy Hayes charging in — late for the 7:30 AM call and flustered by the lousy parking situation — and using the word “motherf@$k3r” seventeen times in a single sentence, as noun, verb, preposition, whatever.  We had never heard any of The Persuasions cuss, so bearing witness to this dazzling soliloquy was a rare treat, and who knew that “motherf@$k3r” could be so multifunctional?  The second (arguably more notable) event was chipper morning Rockapella accosting a bleary-eyed Jerry at the coffee cart, reintroducing ourselves to him as the same fawning fans who had worshipped him since our teens.  By 8:15 we were over-caffeinated and backing him up on “Chain Gang,” “One Mint Julep” and “Man Oh Man”.  When Jerry jubilantly shouted to his sleepy band-mates “Hey, I don’t need you guys anymore — I got Rockapella to back me up”, it was the proudest moment of our young career. 

A few months later, Rockapella appeared on Vin Scelsa’s legendary radio show “Idiot’s Delight”, singing our “Spike & Company” hits — “Zombie Jamboree” and “Flat Tire”.  When Vin told us that he was a huge Persuasions fan, we busted out the time-honored repertoire on the air and blew Vin’s mind.  With his influence we got booked into Allan Pepper’s Bottom Line club in Manhattan... with The Persuasions!  The ebony-ivory combination clicked with audiences, and over the next several years we did numerous Bottom Line double bills with them, each show culminating in a rousing two-group finale.  Damn, I miss those shows.  

In the aftermath of “Spike and Company”, Rockapella was offered the role of the house vocal band on a kids TV show in development called “Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?”.  The show was an instant hit, and the theme song — lip-synched to perfection by Rockapella at the end of every episode — became particularly popular.  When it came time to record the Carmen Sandiego album for BMG, my theme song co-writer David Yazbek and I wrote the ballad “My Home,” specifically to be recorded as a Rockapella/Persuasions duet.  Jerry and I shared the lead vocals and traded improv licks in the outro. President Clinton has his cherished photo of himself as a teen meeting President Kennedy, and I have that recording of “My Home”.

“Zappa’s Universe” (November 1991) was our next memorable collaboration: a bizarre weekend of Zappa tribute concerts at the Ritz (formerly Studio 54), featuring The Persuasions (who had signed to Zappa’s label in the ‘60s), Rockapella, guitar wiz Steve Vai, Dale Bozzio of Missing Persons, members of Zappa’s band, and a full orchestra.  In preparing for these shows we got to see a side of the Persuasions we hadn’t seen on stage: the inner workings of the group in rehearsals.  Although the show’s music director had handed out a written vocal arrangement of “Elvis Has Just Left The Building”, the Persuasions did what they had been doing for three decades — they improvised their arrangement, and we dutifully followed suit.   The process was entirely organic — trial and error — with no overwrought talk of roots, thirds or fifths. This scene made an enormous impression on me; it was now clear to me that my two favorite bands in the world —The Beatles and The Persuasions — were basically “untrained”, relying (as I did) solely on their ears and their guts (sometimes, in a pinch, I rely on my testicles, too).  My favorite moment was when Joe Russell chastised Jayotis Washington for accidentally jumping onto his vocal part: “Get off that note! That’s MY note! Find y’OWN DAMN NOTE!”  Classic. 

After I left Rockapella in 1997, I continued to attend Persuasions concerts, and Jerry would tell the audience “Sean is like a son to me” before calling me up on stage to sing “In The Still of The Night”. Somehow, over time, I had managed to become another elder statesman of acapella music, sharing the stage with my idol, Jerry, as his protégé who had made good.  Did Britney feel this good when she french-kissed Madonna on TV?  

In 1999, The Persuasions came over to my East Village apartment to record “Black Muddy River” for a Grateful Dead tribute compilation called “Stolen Roses”. Jerry and Jimmy (lead and bass) laid down their tracks simultaneously in my living room; Joe, Jay and new guy Butch sang their parts in my kitchen; and I added the cherry to the sundae with a single high pedal note, sung from my engineer’s seat.  That recording appears on both “Stolen Roses” and The Persuasions’ own “Might As Well” Grateful Dead tribute CD.  When we finished recording that day, I asked Jerry to record a quick spoken endorsement for my forthcoming “alt.mania” album. I pressed “record,” and as Jerry matter-of-factly quipped “Sean is just like a son to me. Been knowing Sean ever since he was three years old,” I became aware that our mutual recollection of how long we had been in each other’s lives had indeed blurred.  Jerry cemented the myth when he joined the GrooveBarbers onstage at the 2004 East Coast Summit in Boston and referred to me as “my son Sean”.  My Dad was in the audience and played along, looking up at Jerry with a palms-up shrug, as if to say, “I suppose it’s possible...”

{mosimage}Now it’s November 2006.  When I heard in July that Jerry was recording his first acapella album since leaving The Persuasions, I jumped at the chance to be a part of it, asking him via e-mail, “If you need an extra tall Jew voice...” 

Three weeks later I was in a San Francisco recording studio with Jerry, his wonderful wife Julie, and Talk of The Town, laying down my parts to “Islands In The Stream” (I sing Dolly Parton’s harmony), Billy Joel’s “In The Middle of The Night” and another song whose title eludes me due to shock — shock at my good fortune for having been invited to share in my idol’s career in the first place. 

Although maybe I invited myself.  Am I worthy?  I suppose Father knows best.

YouTube of Sean & Jerry jamming on The Jarmels’ “Little Bit of Soap” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovqrlBvZz9c