Thursday, February 3, 2005
Few could have guessed The Persuasions would become the template for a cappella music back when they were standing in the corner of a record store singing five-part harmonies for the storeowner.
The group of young men met on a basketball court in Brooklyn. They had moved to New York City from different parts of the country, mostly the South, and since meeting, they had been singing in the subway and on street corners.
° Strings in the Mountains: The Persuasions ° 7 p.m. Monday ° St. Paul's Episcopal Church ° $25 general admission; $35 reserved seating; tickets are available at All That Jazz or the Strings box office ° 879-5056, ext. 100
The record store owner listened closely as they took gospel tunes and popular music and shaped it with their voices.
As Persuasions member Jimmy Hayes tells it, the storeowner picked up the phone and dialed a number that changed their lives forever.
"He said, 'Do me a favor and sing into the phone.' We didn't know who he was talking to, we just started singing this song."
On the other end of the phone, listening closely, was Frank Zappa. Without ever seeing or meeting them, Zappa offered the five men round-trip tickets to California and a record contract.
"At that time, we all had jobs and a few of us had families," Hayes said. "We had to think about it." They sat in Jayotis Washington's car to decide whether they were going to accept the offer.
"It really was a spiritual thing," Hayes said. "Everybody started to cry. We decided that this was what we were going to do. We did it, and we've been doing it ever since."
That was 43 years ago.
They didn't meet Zappa until years later when he asked them to open his show at Virginia Beach.
"At that time, it was a segregated beach," Hayes said. "We were the first (black) act to play Virginia Beach. The next show we did for him was at Carnegie Hall."
Three decades later, The Persuasions recorded a tribute to Frank Zappa, an album called "Frankly a Cappella: The Persuasions sing Zappa."
"Frank did a lot of doo-wop songs, but we chose songs with a little more substance," Hayes said. "We wanted to give people something to think about. I think it turned out pretty good, and we got to meet Dweezil and Moon Unit and his whole family."
(The Persuasions also have recorded tributes to The Beatles and the Grateful Dead and are currently in the studio working on a cappella versions of U2 songs.)
In 43 years, The Persuasions tried to add a band to its sound once and only once.
"We did a 45 on the United Artists label and when we listened to it, we realized that the band was playing the same things we were singing," Hayes said. "It sounded so cluttered. The president of United Artists heard it and he said, 'you guys should just continue what you were doing. Do it a cappella."