Soul Singer Jerry Lawson's 'Just A Mortal Man' Almost Came True "Boy, the truth of that song really came out," says the 71-year-old soul artist and former lead singer of The Persuasions. He spent three months in a hospital due to an infected esophagus.
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Soul Singer Jerry Lawson's 'Just A Mortal Man' Almost Came True

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Soul Singer Jerry Lawson's 'Just A Mortal Man' Almost Came True

Soul Singer Jerry Lawson's 'Just A Mortal Man' Almost Came True

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to another kind of epic adventure. Jerry Lawson was the lead singer of the a cappella group The Persuasions for decades. At the age of 71, Lawson is now striking out on his own and releasing his first solo album. The new record is called "Just A Mortal Man." And as NPR's Joel Rose reports, the title turned out to mean more than Lawson expected.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The Persuasions didn't plan to be a cappella group. Jerry Lawson says they just wanted to sound like The Temptations or The Impressions.

JERRY LAWSON: We were like any other group. We had a guitar player. And the guitar player, he wouldn't show up a lot of times for a lot of gigs. And really that's how we started singing a cappella. It was luck, fate, you might say.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PEOPLE GET READY")

THE PERSUASIONS: (Singing) People get ready, there's a train coming. You don't need no baggage, you just get on board. All you need is faith to hear the diesels humming. You don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord. All aboard.

ROSE: The Persuasions got together in the mid-1960s. Lawson says they started out singing in a park in Brooklyn.

LAWSON: It was like 40 or 50 guys in the park, and we would sing and sing. And out of those 40 or 50 guys, there were some voices that sort of stood out. And it was the five guys.

ROSE: Lawson sang lead, Joe Russell - tenor, Jimmy Hayes - bass, Herbert Rhoad - baritone, and Jayotis Washington sang tenor and baritone. The Persuasions got their first record deal from Frank Zappa, who signed them after hearing them sing over the phone. They released dozens of albums over the next three decades, reaching beyond soul and doo-wop into pop, folk and rock.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT BE")

PERSUASIONS: (Singing) And in my hour of darkness, she's standing in front of me. Always speaking words of wisdom, let it be, oh, Lord.

ERIC BRACE: The Persuasions did it better than anybody I'd ever heard. There was something about all these voices together that just made my head explode, and it was primarily Jerry's lead singing that really got under my bones.

ROSE: That's Eric Brace. He was working as a music journalist at The Washington Post when he wrote a short preview of a Persuasions concert about 15 years ago.

BRACE: I said something along the lines of, lead singer Jerry Lawson is my favorite soul singer since Sam Cooke. And a couple weeks later, I got a really nice letter in the mail from Jerry Lawson saying thank you for those kind words. And we kind of became pen pals, and then we just became friends.

ROSE: They agreed to make an album together someday, but someday kept getting pushed off. Jerry Lawson quit The Persuasions in 2003 and moved to Arizona. Four years ago, he appeared as a contestant on NBC's "The Sing-Off," fronting another a cappella group called Talk Of The Town.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAVE THE LAST DANCE")

TALK OF THE TOWN: (Singing) Oh, you can dance every dance with the guy who gave you the eye and let him hold you tight...

ROSE: The show's judges loved it, including rock musician Ben Folds.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SING-OFF")

BEN FOLDS: The unfair advantage that you have is that you own your genre, and you're sitting in it.

(APPLAUSE)

FOLDS: That's not fair.

ROSE: Lawson and Talk Of The Town didn't win that competition, but millions of people saw him on TV, including Eric Brace. By then, Brace was working as a full-time musician in Nashville and running his own record label. He called Lawson to see if he was still interested in making that solo album.

BRACE: I just always knew I wanted to work with him, and he works his voice like an instrument more than any singer know. You know, he's got his big voice and his soft voice and his tender voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY LAWSON SONG)

LAWSON: (Singing) Time and water carve out canyons in the earth. You never know until after it's done what the changing was worth. Try to put a price on every kiss, every letter, every word

ROSE: Brace produced the album, and he helped pick the material, including songs by Robert Hunter and Paul Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY LAWSON SONG)

LAWSON: (Singing) Oh, peace like a river ran through the city. Long past the midnight curfew, we sit starry-eyed. Oh, oh, we were satisfied.

BRACE: When we were making this album, he approached every song with an incredible dedication. And he listened to it so many times and worked on his part more than any musician I've ever worked with. He knew exactly what his phrasing was going to be so that he could bring out the meaning in every song.

ROSE: One of the songs almost turned out to have too much meaning, the title track, "Just A Mortal Man." After finishing the record last year, Jerry Lawson went into the hospital.

LAWSON: I just went in to get two new knees. And I come to find out I had an infection that had poisoned my whole body.

ROSE: Doctors discovered that Lawson had a torn esophagus that had become infected.

LAWSON: When you're laying in that hospital bed, man, and you can't even clean yourself, you can't even feed yourself, boy, the truth of that song really came out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST A MORTAL MAN")

LAWSON: (Singing) I was just thinking to myself this morning...

UNIDENTIFIED CHORUS: (Singing) What were you thinking?

LAWSON: (Singing)You know, what I thought? Just how hypnotized I really am, helpless, Lord.

I was all right, but when the priest came in and he started doing the dominant domines, and he had on the white-collar and everything, and I said to myself, you know, I might not even be here long enough to even hear this album come out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST A MORTAL MAN")

LAWSON: (Singing) My hair was turning gray. I got a new wrinkle every day. Guess I'm just a mortal man. Let me tell you all about my troubles.

ROSE: Lawson spent three months in the hospital. When he got out, he wasn't sure how his voice would sound.

LAWSON: When I got back to myself, that's one of the first things I did. I wanted to see (raises voice) if I had the big voice. And I said, oh, wow, I still got it, thank God.

ROSE: With his solo album out this week, Jerry Lawson is getting ready to play some concerts. Even after half a century in the music business, he says it's a thrill to see his own name alone on the marquee. A lot of people may be wondering what took him so long. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY LAWSON SONG)

LAWSON: (Singing) I hope you're happy wherever you go. My heart goes with you, darling. I think you know.

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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