Jerry Lawson Brings It Home
Although 2015 is still young, Jerry Lawson’s new album Just a Mortal Man already wins the award for top soul album of the year. Having spent 40 years as the lead singer of the a capella group The Persuasions, having performed on the same bill as Joni Mitchell, Solomon Burke, The Grateful Dead, and Ray Charles, among others, and having spent ten or so years singing in local clubs in Phoenix and then with the San Francisco-based a capella group, Talk of the Town, Lawson now sails solo, backed by many of Nashville’s finest musicians. The power of this album lies in Lawson’s powerful and passionate interpretation of each of the album’s 13 tracks. Not only does he know his way around a song, but he possesses a genius for understanding the heart of the song’s lyrics and singing them straight to the hearts and souls of his listeners. Lawson calls Sam Cooke, Brook Benton, Bobby “Blue” Bland, and David Ruffin his heroes, but one listen to this album and you’ll hear why Lawson stands shoulder-to-shoulder with them, often transcending musically the achievements of his heroes.
While David Ruffin made famous the album’s title track, in Lawson’s hands becomes a tongue-in-cheek, Sam Cooke-inflected, call-and-response gospel tune, with the angelic voices of the McCrary Sisters playfully weaving under and around Lawson’s Saturday night/Sunday morning reflections. “I’m Just a Mortal Man” opens with a horn riff reminiscent of Cooke’s “(We’re) Having a Party,” but soon soars off into a tune that recalls the best of Carolina beach music, but ending with a gospel growl. In his sure voice, Lawson delivers a new classic version of this Bobby Miller-penned tune.
The Peter Cooper-penned song “Wine” riffs on Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You” as Lawson croons about the benefits and the drawbacks of the fruit of the vine. “Never Been to Memphis” features Jen Gunderman’s honky tonk barrelhouse piano and delivers a jumpin’, can’t-sit-still, boogaloo. Lawson’s voice and Gunderman’s piano create the sparseness of the melancholy, almost dirge-like “In the Dark” until Joe Pisapia’s lilting steel guitars on the bridge carry the song in a different, at least momentarily brighter, direction.
Lawson’s version of Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Members Only” is the highlight of the album. Opening with forceful horns and Pisapia’s bluesy guitar riffs, rather than Bland’s piano, lets us know we’re in for a party—“we’re throwin’ a party for the broken-hearted/it’s members only tonight”—and with the McCrary Sisters’ soaring background vocals, the song discovers the celebratory spirit of being a member of the broken hearts club. The genius of the song is in the bridge—on Bland’s version, a flute solo carried the keyboard theme on the bridge for a duller sound—where Lawson trades vocal licks with Pisapia’s bluesy lead; the call-and-response between Lawson and Pisapia’s guitar brighten the dark side of the road where everyone at this party finds themselves.
Jerry Lawson talked candidly, warmly with me about his new album, his love of singing, and his hope for the future by phone recently from his phone in Phoenix.
How did this album come about?
Lawson: About 20 years ago, The Persuasions—whom I was with for 40 years—were doing a show in DC; Eric Brace was a writer for the Washington Post back then, and he wrote an article where he called me the greatest singer since Sam Cooke. When I read that review, I wrote him a letter thanking him, and then he wrote me back, and I wrote him back, and through the years we became friends. One day Eric and his band came through Phoenix, and he invited me up on the stage to sing with them. We tore the stage down and tore the roof off the house that night. Eric eventually sent me some songs he’d written and recorded earlier but he wanted to hear my interpretations and when I heard them I thought, “this guy has been following me and knows my taste in music.” I thought, “Man, I think this is a Jerry Lawson song.”
So, how did you select the songs that ended up on this album?
Lawson: Eric did a fine job of choosing most of the material; he was really into Jerry Lawson, and I fell in love with these songs. I mean, there are some songs that I won’t sing, like those songs about “meet me down at the Motel 6” or “I love big booty”; but the songs that Eric wrote for the album are just down my alley because they go straight to my heart. Like “Time and Water”; for anybody who’s been out on the road performing show after show, staying in hotels, listening to the clickety-clack of the trains carrying you from one show to another; this song captures that lonesome and tired-to-the-bone feeling of being on the road. Eric wrote four of the songs on the album; his brother, Alan, wrote “Never Been to Memphis”; there’s one on here, “Woman in White,” I co-wrote with Robert Hunter; and then there are a few songs like “Members Only” and “I’m Just a Mortal Man” that I really wanted on the album. I laughed on one song, “Wine,” that Peter Cooper seemed to have written just for me; back in my younger days we used to drink wine while we were out playing basketball, and that song took me back to those days.
Why did you choose “Just a Mortal Man” as the album’s title?
Lawson: My wife, Julie, suggested that I use that song as the album title. But the song really reflects how God works in mysterious ways. Just after we finished recording the album, I got very sick, and didn’t know if I’d make it or not. Man, there in that hospital, I got to thinking to myself just how helpless I really am—I’m just a mortal man!—and those lyrics just said it all: “I can’t make myself live forever/God knows I try/the hands on the clock keep tickin’ on by/I don’t know if I’ll ever go to heaven/even I /even I might get to go/say goodbye to bein’ a mortal man.” When the nurse came to my room every night, my wife Julie and I would play that song.
David Ruffin made the song famous, right?
Lawson: Well, I got the song from David Ruffin and I recorded it on my Comin’ At Ya album with The Persuasions. And I always try to include a Ruffin song on all my albums so here was my chance to do one of my favorites but with a band! I remember the night I was up in New York City and went to a club to see Brook Benton and David Ruffin do a show. Henry, there were only six people in the audience that night; can you believe it? David threw the mike out into audience, and I caught it and joined him for a few songs.
What about “Members Only”?
Lawson: You know, I first heard that song when I was driving in the car in North Carolina or South Carolina, and I couldn’t get away from it. I called a friend and asked him to send the record, and I learned it right away. Eric asked me if there were any songs I wanted to go on the
album, and right away I said, “Members Only.”
Do you have a favorite song on the album?
Lawson: I keep going to Paul Simon’s “Peace Like a River,” that opens the album, with that powerful line that touches me deeply every time I sing it: “You can’t outrun the history train.” But “I’m Just a Mortal Man” might be my favorite right now.
What are the elements of a great song?
Lawson: When you hear lyrics and they go straight to your heart, and bring tears to your eyes. On this album “Time and Water” does that to me.
Tell me about the role of gospel music in your life.
Lawson: I grew up listening to it. My mother would always play gospel music in the house, and I grew up listening to The Fairfield Four, The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, The Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, and The Swan Silvertones. I was brought up in the church, and when I was 5-years-old I started singing at church. We went to New Hope Missionary Church in Apopka, Florida, and on Sundays Reverend Bing would say to me, “come on up and sing a song, son.” I was so excited one time when The Persuasions opened for The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and we shared a dressing room with them. One night I started crying because I was sharing the dressing room with them, and one of them heard me and asked me why I was crying; I told him that I’d grown up listening to them and how I couldn’t believe we were in the same room. You know what he said to me? “Don’t leave no shit on the stage like you did last night?” Here I was crying with excitement because I couldn’t believe I was in the same room as my heroes, and he was telling me not to show him up when we opened for them the next night. (Laughs)
What’s your favorite mistake?
Lawson: I was hired to sing the theme song for a TV show called Roc [“God Bless the Child”]. They didn’t want The Persuasions on it. The Persuasions were pretty upset with me for accepting that offer without them. So the next time that producer asked me again to sing another theme song without the guys I said “no,” putting the group first. Looking back, though, I always wish I would have done it. Should have.
Who are your some of your greatest influences?
Lawson: Brooke Benton, David Ruffin, Nat King Cole, Elvis. We were the first black family in our town that had a black and white TV; you know it was one of those big pieces of furniture with a little screen in it (Laughs). The first time I ever saw Elvis, I thought, “I never saw a white guy do this.” The more I listened to him over the years, I thought, “this guy is a great lyricist and his delivery is unbeatable.” Frank Zappa. Jerry Garcia.
How did you meet up with Frank Zappa and Jerry Garcia?
Lawson: Before we were even The Persuasions a friend placed a call to his friend in California and asked us to sing over the phone to him. Turned out his friend on the phone was Frank Zappa! ( who we never even heard of ). Next thing we knew we had 5 plane tickets to L.A., and Frank produced our first album and on his own label. Years later we opened for Frank in Carnegie Hall and a few other cities. Long after Frank passed our friend and co-producer Rip Rense came to me with the idea to pay tribute to Frank, and Rip organized and co-produced it with me–“Frankly A Cappella, The Persuasions Sing Zappa.” And then a couple of years later Rip came to me about doing a Grateful Dead tribute. Again, I had no idea about their music either. But Rip was connected to The Dead family and once again ol’’ Rippie came through and co-produced “Might As Well: The Persuasions Sing Grateful Dead ( 2000). Sadly that is out of print but the great news is that recently Rip took it upon himself to produce a revised version of that CD and put it out on Zoho Records titled “Persuasions of The Dead” http://persuasionsofthedead.com/order.htm
And you have a co-write with Robert Hunter on this new album?
Lawson: Again my dear friend Rip Rense. He sent over Robert’s poem “Woman in White,” and Robert had told him if I wanted to try writing music to it he’d give me his blessings and co-publishing. I started putting some music to it. I sent my music back to Rip to share with Robert. Well, that was 7 years ago, I didn’t have a band so we just sat on it. The minute Eric asked me what songs I might like to include, my wife and co-producer said “this is our chance to bring “Woman In White to life!” And another example of how God works in mysterious ways, when we finished recording it Eric invited a friend to come meet me before heading back to Phoenix. Eric said he might like to have this friend add some harmony to “Woman In White.” I found out later that his friend Jim was Jim Lauderdale, who happens to be Robert Hunter’s writing partner! Now what are the odds of that!.
How have you evolved as an artist over the years?
Lawson: Well, in the Baptist church they talk about being born again. I feel like I’ve been born again four or five times and I’m still being born again. It was my calling for music to be in my life, and I’ve been blessed to sing background vocals for Stevie Wonder, Leon Redbone, Bette Midler, as well as to sing with The Persuasions for forty years.
What’s next for you?
Lawson: Well, Julie and I created Lawson Productions. We’ve been producing an assortment of projects. Collaborations with other artists. And I want to record a gospel album, a country album, an album of songs by my heroes and one of standards with a full orchestra. In fact, I have a friend who conducts The Moscow Philharmonic, and I’d love to work with him. And we are currently working on The Jerry Lawson Legacy Project which is very exciting which is me going through all 22 Persuasions albums chronologically and sharing tracks and stories of those times ( audio and DVD). And right now there is a movie in production about my life! So God keeps opening the doors for me to do all of these things. But I’d like to take this opportunity to let everyone know how grateful I am to Eric Brace and his wife Mary Ann, for appraoaching me with this project and all they are doing to tell the world about Jerry.