Song Of The Day 2/10/2015: The Persuasions - "You Are What You Is"

Quarterly Covers Report: You can imagine my shock – well, come to think of it, maybe you couldn’t, but pretend you could – that night in 2010 when I was watching The Sing-Off, to date the only TV singing competition I’ve ever stuck through for an entire season. Of course, it aired during the holidays and the season was something like six episodes total, but quality over quantity, right? The Sing-Off was all about a cappella groups, which are something of a fetish for Ben Folds, one of the show’s judges. Vocal bands from various backgrounds and styles competed with each other with one emerging as the final band of winners.

Imagine my surprise when I saw one of the competing groups that season: Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town. Lawson’s voice sounded way too familiar to me, though I couldn’t place it until Nick Lachey’s voice-over for their introductory segment confirmed it: Wait a minute! That’s right! Jerry Lawson was in The Persuasions!

The Persuasions (not to be confused with The Persuaders, of “Thin Line Between Love and Hate” fame) were a doo-wop a cappella group who emerged onto the scene a good decade-plus after the style was whisked out of the public eye. As much as I should have admired the style, I had some resistance to it – I’m not sure why. My frame of reference for rock and roll has always struggled to get too much before 1960 for reasons that are probably stupid and need to be corrected.

The Persuasions, though, were something else. They were the slightest bit post-modern, widening their range to incorporate songs from various genres that came after doo-wop’s initial hit. Their arrangements were beyond great, and they were recorded so that each member’s voice had maximum impact. Lawson was a bonafide legend behind the mic: gritty, smooth, assured but never cocky.

The group was discovered by, of all people, Frank Zappa, who was known for his deep and quite un-ironic affection for R&B and doo-wop music. Zappa was talking to somebody over the phone on the East Coast, and he somehow heard the Persuasions singing way off in the background. Based on that phone call Zappa got them to fly out to the West Coast and start recording.

Outside of Alice Cooper, they’re probably the most successful group that Zappa “discovered.” Their albums between 1969 and 1977 actually found a small measure of notice on the R&B charts, and scraped the medium ranges of the Billboard Top Albums. They are also, almost down the line, goddamned good records. If you can find copies of their albums Street Corner Symphony or Chirpin’, seize them and hold them to your bosom with jealous self-protection. Listen to them as well, but get them home in one piece.

Lawson gathered the Persuasions around for a Frank Zappa tribute and memorial album in 2000. Lawson was shrewd and adventurous with the songs he chose (“My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,” “Electric Aunt Jemima”) and he arranged every part. It’s a strange, crazy trip, a great example of mining a lot of humor out of playing it straight. They seemed to favor You Are What You Is, one of Frank’s most accessible albums, and their performance of the title track is a nicely executed piece of insanity in which they commit to lines like “I used to work at the post office!

By the way, Lawson and his new group finished either second or third in 2010. I don’t remember who won. I’m not even sure the people who won remember they won.

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