Jerry Lawson, leader of a cappella Persuasions, dies at 75

Jerry Lawson’s smooth baritone led the eclectic sextet the Persuasions. He died last week in Phoenix.
Stacie Huckeba via Associated Press
Jerry Lawson’s smooth baritone led the eclectic sextet the Persuasions. He died last week in Phoenix.

LOS ANGELES — Jerry Lawson, who for four decades was the lead singer of the eclectic cult-favorite a cappella group the Persuasions, has died.

Mr. Lawson died Wednesday at a Phoenix hospice after a long illness, longtime friend and sometime Persuasions producer Rip Rense said.

Mr. Lawson’s smooth baritone led the group of five and later six singers, who were revered as the ‘‘The Kings of a Cappella’’ by their small but devoted fan base.


Through 25 albums the Persuasions recorded rock, blues, gospel, and pop songs, all with no sound other than their own voices, long after the doo-wop era and long before the ‘‘Pitch Perfect’’ movies, when a cappella was rare.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

‘‘Thirty-eight years and we still ain’t got no band, man!’’ Mr. Lawson told The Associated Press in 2000. ‘‘That’s the story right there.’’

They had many famous fans including Rod Stewart, the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, the members of Boyz II Men and Frank Zappa, who gave their career a boost when he discovered them in the 1960s.

‘‘After working together at the Hurricane Katrina Benefit Concert, I admired the undeniable depth in Jerry’s big voice,’’ Stewart said in a statement. ‘‘A true soul singer.’’

They began as a casual and nameless collection of singers on the basketball courts and stoops of Brooklyn in 1962, with Mr. Lawson bringing the warm, friendly voice he developed singing gospel songs during his youth in Apopka, Fla.


‘‘It was just five guys who used to stand on the corner or go down to the subway station every night and just do this,’’ Persuasions member Jimmy Hayes told the AP in 2000.

Joseph Russell, Herbert Rhoad, and Jayotis Washington rounded out the original quintet. They got their break when Zappa signed them to his independent label for their first album in 1969.

The Persuasions performed with everyone from Liza Minnelli to Joni Mitchell to the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and covered the songs of Motown, Sam Cooke, and Paul Simon.

The eclecticism that made them so beloved also kept them from reaching stardom. Music executives never knew how to market them, and radio had no clue what niche to put them in.

‘‘They’ve never gotten their due,’’ Rense told the AP in 2000. ‘‘They’re the greatest, most enduring American a cappella group. In another country like Japan they’d be declared a living treasure.’’


Mr. Lawson left the group in 2002. A few years later he joined a much younger group of San Francisco a cappella singers that had based themselves on the Persuasions to form Jerry Lawson and the Talk of the Town. The group released an album, coproduced by Mr. Lawson and his wife, Julie, in 2007.

Mr. Lawson is survived by his wife. At his request, no funeral will be held, his family said in a statement.