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A Special Web-Only Review:

CD graphic Jerry Lawson: Talk of the Town

by George Graham

(An independent release. Posted to the web 1/21/2008)

Millennia ago, the first musical instruments probably took the form of people banging things together. But even before that, there was the sound of the voice. When people started singing together is lost an antiquity, but a cappella vocals have crossed all the musical eras, from Gregorian Chant to what I supposed could be called the "high-tech" a cappella sounds of today.

Since the 1980s, especially after the commercial success of Bobby McFerrin's Don't Worry Be Happy, a number of groups have appeared, most notably the Bobs, who have developed new techniques, emulating instruments, and generally performing with remarkable vocal technique and virtual acrobatics.

But before the Bobs there was doo-wop. The early days of rock bred a generation of street corner singers, many of whom became stars in the early days of rock and roll, usually backed up on their records by instrumentation. But there were those who maintained the a cappella purity, and none more so that the Persuasions. For close to five decades, the group has combined the sweet, soulful sound of early doo-wop with impressive vocal prowess that did not engage in the pyrotechnics of the new a cappella groups, but applied their skills in the cause of the song, and generally having a good time in the process. Inspired by African-American Gospel, the Persuasions have left a remarkably lengthy recorded legacy, serving up an impressive range of material, and applying their own distinctive touch.

For 40 years, Jerry Lawson was their lead tenor, the voice of those great voices. But, as many may well guess, singing undiluted doo-wop a cappella music is not likely often to fill stadiums, or go multiple platinum, so Lawson grew tired of what had become a fairly difficult way to make at best a modest living, and departed the group, which carried on without him. Lawson took some occasional gigs, but settled in Phoenix, and took a job with an organization that provides housing for disabled adults, driving a bus, cooking, and general domestic duties for people who need the help. Lawson says he loves his job, and notes that for essentially the first time in his career, he had a steady job with benefits.

But you can't keep an artist with Lawson's talent out of music for long. Years after Lawson was impressed by recording of Talk of the Town, an a cappella group out of San Francisco who learned their style from listening to Persuasions records, a woman booking talent for her wedding was doing her best to get Lawson to perform, and had booked Talk of the Town. She convinced Lawson to sing with them. The immediately hit it off, though it would still be some time before they began to collaborate on a recording. It took Lawson a while to be persuaded, as it were, but the bride at whose wedding Lawson performed, helped to finance the first rehearsals, flying the group to Arizona, and work began on material for what would be a very independent and self-financed recording. The result is Jerry Lawson: Talk of the Town, which is actually the first recording by the Talk of the Town group in their 20 year career. And it's a gem in the classic style, a generous, nearly 74-minute collection of 20 tracks ranging from revivals of obscure doo-wop songs to Tin Pan Alley songs to traditional folk songs to Motown to compositions by Billy Joel (River of Dreams) and Randy Newman (He Gives Us All His Love).

While most of the recording is classic pure self-contained a cappella, there are some guest voices, including Lawson's daughter Yvette and wife Julie. The female voices add a nice touch to sound of the bunch of guys doing harmony.

Right from the start, this is a recording that brings a smile: It opens with a old doo-wop standard, Mountain of Love. Lawson speaks his introduction to Frankie and Johnny on the CD, citing his source as being Sam Cooke, though it's a traditional folk song that was a standard at the hootenannies of the 1960s. One of the more fascinating choices of material is I Hope a Gospel-style tune by the Dixie Chicks. There are added female vocals giving a further Gospel-chorus feel. Lawson and colleagues reach back before the doo-wop era age for Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, a World War-era tune with a perhaps a nod to some of the current generation of a cappella instrument emulators, with a guest singer voicing trumpet parts. Lawson sits out the track to let Talk of the Town have at the song that is part of their repertoire.

The group provides a great example of the intersection of spirituals and doo-wop on a couple of traditional tunes, especially on New Buryin' Group, with a great bass part sung by Talk of the Town's Ray Ragler. Of course, a CD like this would not be complete without music in the style of the Persuasions, and the include a Persuasions medley, nicely performed by the present company.

Trends, techniques and various instrument and recording technologies may come and go, but the sound of a group of human voices is timeless, especially when there is such a combination of great technique, a spirit of good fun and of course, lots of soul. The combination of the self-contained San Francisco group Talk of the Town with long time Persuasions lead singer Jerry Lawson is the embodiment of great doo-wop a cappella. The sound quality is commendable, with all the vocal harmonies blending as well in sound as they do among the singers.

An added bonus is the extensive liner notes in the CD booklet, telling in detail the story of how the CD came to pass.

A cappella music is not something likely to hit the top of the charts in this day and age, especially with the presence on the pop charts of heavily processed, artificial-sounding, electronically pitch-corrected manufactured pop singers signed almost entirely for their looks. But if you want the real thing -- five guys singing in what sounds like the pure fun of it -- this is it. While this CD might lack some of the flashy vocal techniques of some of the more contemporary a cappella groups, this is honest music that can't help but make you smile.

(c) Copyright 2008 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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