Ambassadors of A Cappella

In 1962, five Brooklyn teenagers – four transplants from the South and one from Detroit – found that their voices meshed. Fifty-two years later, the Persuasions continue to amaze audiences with their vocal prowess, which they bring to the Door Community Auditorium for Ministry Door County Medical Center’s 20th annual Celebration of Community on Oct. 5.

While the group never had a Top 40 hit, they are the undisputed Kings of A Cappella, proudly touring the world on the strength of their voices, or as one of their 26 albums declared, We Still Ain’t Got No Band.

They have worked with a diverse group of artists that include Joni Mitchell, Lou Reed, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Liza Minnelli, B.B. King and Country Joe McDonald. The New York Post once described the group this way: “They are to singing what Muhammad Ali was to boxing – invincible, innovative, original, and beautiful.”

Most importantly, they are ambassadors of a cappella, which, they will tell you, is the most popular form of music in the world because everybody sings in the shower or in their vehicles. The difference is that The Persuasions do it together on the world’s stages.

Jimmy Hayes, the group’s basso profundo and widely recognized as one of the greatest of a cappella bass singers, recently talked by telephone about the group’s history.

“We didn’t go to school together or grow up together,” he said of the group. “We all came from different states, from the South, with the exception of Jay(otis Washington), who came from Detroit. We all moved into the same neighborhood and we used to go to this park every day and play basketball. Afterwards, we would just get together and sing.”

Hayes confirmed that you can thank a rock god with a passion for vocal groups for helping The Persuasions to make their musical mark on the world.

“We never met Frank Zappa at the time,” Hayes said. “We sang to him over the phone and he sent us tickets to fly out to California to record. We met Gail (Mrs. Zappa), but we never met Frank while we were recording. We finally met him when we opened a couple of shows for him at Carnegie Hall (two shows on the night of Oct. 11, 1971).”

The result of being signed by Zappa was the group’s first album, Acapella, released in 1970 on Zappa’s Straight Records, a label that also featured more outré acts such as Alice Cooper, Captain Beefheart and a posthumous recording by comic hipster Lord Buckley.

“That’s when we knew we had really made it,” Hayes said.

Since then the group has recorded 25 more albums, Persuasionizing pop, rock, country and soul music, including concept albums covering specific artists – The Beatles, Bob Dylan, U2, the Grateful Dead, JJ Cale and Frank Zappa.

“That was our way of saying thanks to Frank,” Hayes said of the 2000 Frankly A Cappella, where the group pays tribute to Zappa with 16 tracks, including “Lumpy Gravy,” “The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing,” and “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Momma.” The Zappa tribute came out a year after The Persuasions did their first children’s record, The Good Ship Lollipop.

If nothing else, you heard The Persuasions when Steven Speilberg used their version of The Rivingtons’ 1962 novelty hit “Papa Oom Mow Mow” on the ET soundtrack (it’s during the great chaotic kids-in-the-kitchen scene when one of the kids phones in a request to a DJ to play “Papa Oom Mow Mow”); the song also kicks off their 1977 album Chirpin’. They were also featured in Spike Lee’s 1990 PBS documentary Do It A Cappella.

On the accompanying CD, The Persuasions sing three songs, including “Looking for an Echo,” sort of the story of The Persuasions told in song. It first appeared on the 1977 album Chirpin’, which The Rolling Stone Record Guide described as “one of the best albums in any genre put out in that year” and also rated it one of the 100 best albums of the 1970s.

One question had to be asked regarding the group’s choice of music to cover, in particular, a legendary vocal group deciding to cover the songs of Bob Dylan (Knocking on Bob’s Door, 2010), whose voice has been the butt of more jokes than any other singer/songwriter.

“Hey, I like Bob Dylan’s voice,” Hayes said. “It is unusual, but whenever you hear it, you know it’s Bob Dylan. And he writes great songs.”

In addition to Hayes, the original Persuasions included Jerry Lawson, “Sweet” Joe Russell, Jayotis Washington and Herbert “Toubo” Rhodes. Rhodes died while on tour with The Persuasions in 1988. Russell died in 2012. In 2003 lead singer Jerry Lawson left to pursue his own career. Russell was replaced by Dave Revels, who sang with The Drifters in the 1980s.

The Persuasions have always been known to invite audience members on stage to sing because they enjoy sharing their love for singing. Sharing that love of singing with children has always been part of their musical mission.

Revels, author of Mastering the Art of Live Entertainment, will be assisting the Sevastopol students – 4th and 5th grade music students along with members of the middle school and high school choirs – in rehearsing a song he wrote called “Stand Up America” that the choir will sing with the Persuasions at the DCA concert.

“We are so excited! I have approximately 40 students right now that will be singing,” said Cheryl Pfister, Sevastopol choir teacher, who added that the high school choir will also sing a song with singer/songwriter Dorothy Scott, who is opening for The Persuasions.

And after The Persuasions perform the free concert on Oct. 5 and leave Door County, what does the future hold for a singing group with 52 years under its collective belt?

“I’m going to be doing this as long as I’m having fun doing it,” Hayes said.

The Door Community Auditorium doors open at 6:30 pm for the free 20th annual Celebration of Community concert sponsored by Ministry Door County Medical Center on Oct. 5. The show starts at 7 pm.