Here is the first official bosun records interview with legendary singer Jerry Lawson, original lead singer of both The Persuasions and Talk of the Town, two of the most influential a cappella groups of all time. Jerry has more than 50 years of experience in the music industry, as lead singer, arranger and producer of more than 22 albums.
I wrote about Jerry and The Persuasions last month here, and after doing a little more research I learned that Jerry actually lives in the area. After reaching out through his website, Jerry and his wife Julie were nice enough to welcome me in to their valley home last month to spend some time talking about his a cappella career, his debut as a solo artist with some great Nashville musicians “Just a Mortal Man” that comes out today, and the music that first brought him to my attention, the Grateful Dead.
Throughout the interview, Julie played me songs off the new album as well as older demos and songs from other albums he’s sung on from the last several decades. For someone with no journalistic background, I couldn’t have asked for a better first interview experience. The energy Jerry and Julie have for music even after all this time in the industry is infectious, and I hope I’ve allowed that to come across here.
The new album is fantastic too, so check out the link at the bottom and be sure to buy a copy or three.
B.R. – Thanks so much for taking time out of your day for this. I can’t say I’ve known about you for all that long, but after discovering the “Persuasions of The Dead” album a few years ago I was just blown away by those songs and your takes on them. “Brokedown Palace” is my favorite song of all time, and you absolutely nailed it.
Jerry – Well I’m gonna start with this story. “Brokedown Palace” is one of my favorite songs too, and while we recorded the album my wife and I were living in northern California and we were listening to the album at night and we would go out in the woods and we would listen to the album and we would think about “Lazy River Road” -we actually lived on River Road and Vince Welnick was our friend and neighbor-
Julie – They were actually in the middle of recording the album in San Francisco, which was an hour drive from where we were living. We lived near an apple orchard and I had been begging Jerry to go on this walk with me for months to check out the path that led to the river. Finally he gave in and we went out for the walk through the orchard and the woods down to the river. As we walked, we talked about the next day’s schedule. He would be recording Brokedown Palace with The Persuasions.
So while we’re on the walk, before we get down to the river we come upon this tree, and it looks like there’s these little tchotchkes, these little things stuck on the tree, and we walk up closer and someone had made a shelf and nailed it into the tree. And on the shelf were all these little charms and things and beneath the charms was a piece of paper that looked like the type of paper scroll in an adding machine hanging down, all messed up from weather and rain and whatever, and we pull it up to read the writing, and it’s the lyrics to “Brokedown Palace”! He actually accused me of planting the scroll on the tree!
Jerry – So now when you listen to Brokedown Palace, that’s really how I got into the spirit of the song, seeing that tree with the lyrics on the paper I said “Man this is heaven, this is unbelievable, this is too good” and I just sang it with a little more emotion than any of the others we recorded because I just felt it that much more.
B.R. – How did 5 black guys from Brooklyn end up making a Grateful Dead a cappella album to begin with?
Jerry – The way that album came about was because Rip Rense was a huge Grateful Dead fan, and he’d already been a friend of ours for years and helped us produce The Good Ship Lollipop and the Frankly A Capella CD, which was my tribute to Frank Zappa who gave us our first recording contract in 1969. I think Rip was friends with some of the Dead members. So we said to Rip “Send us some Grateful Dead songs” because we had never heard them. “Black Muddy River” was actually recorded in the bathroom of a friend’s house in New York (the acoustics were great in there!).
Another quick story: I had played with Jerry Garcia at the Westbury Music Fair many years before the album was recorded. The Persuasions opened for the Grateful Dead. We went out on the stage and started singing “The Lord’s Prayer” and the audience- I told the guys “this is the Grateful Dead, we’re gonna open with ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and the audience started throwing things at us and we all thought they didn’t like us.
They kept throwing so many things on stage at us that we finished “The Lord’s Prayer” and I said “That’s it, we’re outta here.” We started walking off stage, and the stage manager yelled at us “What are you doing?” and we said “Man, they’re throwing things at us,” and he said “Look what they’re throwing- they love you!” and we looked at what was actually on the stage and realized they’d been throwing joints and hash at us!
So we went back out and finished our set, and as we walked back offstage the guy said “You know Jerry’s been in the doorway listening to you the whole time.” But we never met him, never saw him again, but to show you how God works in mysterious ways, years later we became part of the Grateful Dead family when we toured with Ratdog and opened for them on a monthlong tour.
B.R. – I’ve seen some videos of you guys onstage with Bob singing “Might As Well” and some other songs from the album you did. Would he bring you out for the encore after you’d already opened for them?
Jerry – When we first went out on the road with Ratdog we started in Oregon and finished in Boston after about 30 shows. We would open for them and then once in a while they’d bring us out for a song or two, usually something off the “Might as Well” album.
Now, when I got into the Grateful Dead, because I’m from a different part of music, a different era, you now? Gospel, soul background. But when I got into them I said “Wow”, I mean it opened my horizons to listen to Jerry Garcia’s lead. Being a lead singer myself, listening to him I just thought this guy is amazing. This guy’s phrasing is unbelievable. The timing is so weird and off and then at the same time it’s right on.
Oh man, “Liberty”- I couldn’t wait to get onstage to do that, especially with the band. Because we did it a cappella, but with Ratdog they’d have the full band, the sax player, so by the time we got to New York at the end of that tour we was hot. We was rollin’. And you know another song on this album that I love to sing at the end of a show is “It Must Have Been The Roses.”
I would sing that song and I mean I would have the audience in tears by the end of it. I would leave the stage and come out in the audience and I would touch some of the people in there while I was singing the song, and I’d rub their shoulders or touch their cheek and by the time I was done I would say to everyone “Isn’t that a beautiful song?” and the audience would all say “Yeah!” and then I’d say “Yes, it sure is. And I have no idea what the words mean!”
B.R. – you have a Robert Hunter song on the new album, right?
Jerry – Well about 8 years ago Rip Rense had sent us a poem that was written by Robert Hunter decades ago. When I got the poem (“Woman In White”) I thought “This is just a poem”, and I’m sitting there reading it over and over and over and, you know, it’s Robert Hunter, none of it makes sense to me!
Julie – Robert Hunter had published a book of poetry about 20 years ago, and in that book was a poem called “Woman In White.” Rip gave it to Jerry and said that Robert said if Jerry would like to try writing music to it he would share publishing with Jerry. So Jerry did write the music but we didn’t have a band. So Rip began working with a musician to put it together. But it never happened and it’s just been sitting in the can. Then this project came about and when Eric Brace, the producer of “Just A Mortal Man” asked Jerry what songs he’d like to do we knew this was time.
Jerry – Anyway I go and wrestled with this for days and put it down and I’d go back and I’d pick it up just trying to put some music to it in my head. Then one night at 3am while I’m laying there asleep you know BOOM it just came to me. Because I had looked the song over a million times and nothing seemed to work until it just came to me in my sleep, when I just got it. I just got it.
B.R. – How does that work, when you’re trying to come up with the music for a song that just doesn’t seem like it can be done? Because Hunter and Garcia wrote most of those songs together, putting the music to the lyrics usually at the same time, whereas with “Woman In White” you’re taking a poem that was written decades ago and trying to put a melody to it?
Jerry – You gotta plow right through whatever you’ve got and keep going so you don’t lose it, because you’re half asleep and you’ll feel so bad if you lose it when you just know you’ve got it. So you just keep humming and keep humming until it comes into your head.
With these Dead songs you know there’s a million words, you got to learn them. Not just learn them, you need to know them, really know them, even when you’re not sure what the words even mean. For the audience to believe you when you sing, you need to really know the heart of the song and get to the feeling of it. You want to stay right there with Garcia, with his greatness, you don’t want to go out and just make the song… you know, the dead heads know their music, and when you are studying the words you need to be right there with them because they’ll know if you’re not. It’s just really difficult, complex music that was a great challenge for me to arrange in our style.
B.R. – The new album is both a departure from your career in a cappella and a return to your roots in the big band style of music. How did the recordings and song selection come together?
Jerry – I recorded the song “Just A Mortal Man” with The Persuasions on our album Comin’ At Ya back in the late 70’s, early 80’s, after hearing the song by David Ruffin from The Temptations. David was a longtime friend of mine and one of my heroes. Now imagine a little country boy from Florida, I used to sit at night on my doorstep looking at the stars listening to this radio station out of Nashville and I would just dream, look up at the stars and just dream, never knowing that 3 years after I finished high school I would come to New York, I come to find out there’s a place over in Harlem and you could pay $2 and sit there and look at all of these people that I had heard on the radio in my little country town of Apopka. I could see them live! And the place was called The Apollo Theatre. I would go there at twelve in the afternoon and sit there ’til they closed at twelve at night. I used to sit there and look at Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke and, man… what a time.
B.R. – David Ruffin had a huge impact on you early in your career.
Jerry – When The Temptations came out I just fell in love with this one guy’s voice. Not like Sam Cooke’s or Jerry Butler or Elvis. He would scream and holler but boy it was so intense and so fine the way he would do it. And I got to learning his technique, and when he left The Temptations I would study his technique as a solo artist and buy all his albums.Then one night, he was playing at this place called Bojangles in Manhattan. It was a rainy night, probably a weeknight, and there were only 6 people in the audience, including me.
David came out and he was singing and doing his show and all of a sudden he turned in the middle of one of the verses as he was dancing and threw me the microphone! I caught the microphone, and didn’t miss a beat and went up on stage and we finished the song. I don’t know how he knew I knew the song or what, but just like the paper on the tree with the Brokedown Palace lyrics, it’s just one of those things that happened that way. I went backstage and I sat with him and talked and I just couldn’t believe it. I was tongue tied, this is David Ruffin and I’m looking at his patent leather shoes and his fancy socks, the next day I went out and bought a pair of my own patent leather shoes and the grey socks just like him.
Julie – So David being one of Jerry’s heroes, he’s always tried to include a David Ruffin song on his Persuasions albums. So when Eric asked Jerry about songs he’d like to include this was Jerry‘s chance once again to pay tribute to David, only this time with a band! And when the album was done we were all thinking of possible titles and I suggested Just A Mortal Man, and everyone liked it. The weird thing was that 2 weeks later Jerry landed in the hospital and nearly died so the lyrics to “Just A Mortal Man” nearly became his epitaph.
Another strange thing that happened is that Jerry, being an arranger, told Eric he could hear some Gospel women on a few tracks and Eric said he had just the right group. Turned out he was talking about The McCrary Sisters who just happen to be the daughters of Rev. Sam McCrary who was with The Fairfield Four who Jerry grew up listening to! So this whole album has kind of come full circle for him. And what people don’t know is that they think this is the first time he’s played with a band, but it’s just the first time he’s recorded a whole album with a band. He grew up in a band. So this is a natural progression, just 40 years of his life devoted to a cappella kind of waylaid everything.
Jerry – And with the Paul Simon song (“Peace Like A River”) which opens the new album, well you know me and The Persuasions did Saturday Night Live with Paul. He had The Persuasions sing harmony on “Loves Me Like A Rock.” In fact I recorded it a cappella on that same album (Comin’ At Ya), but when Eric sent me “Peace Like A River” I had never heard Paul Simon do that.
There’s so much I could get into about the songs on here and all the coincidences that have made it come together, but I’m just excited because this is another side of me that my fans haven’t heard before, really, ever.
buy: just a mortal man
read: jerry’s personal site