Deck the malls

This season's Christmas album offerings

It's been looking a lot like Christmas here in the office since about July, when the first "seasonal" albums began arriving, presaging a time when the people of the world--or at least those who aren't Muslims, Jews, Jains, Bahais, animists, cargo cultists, Druids, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, or born-again pagans--celebrate the world's rebirth with a wash of overindulgence and commercialism. Without any further ado, here is the soundtrack to our garish, neon-lit holiday season, starting with the year's best:

The Persuasions
You're All I Want for Christmas
Bullseye Blues

Christmas parties tossed by the Kennedys and the Astors were yearly gigs for the Persuasions starting shortly after the group's formation on the street corners of Brooklyn's rough Bedford-Stuyvesant area in 1966. They continue to do good Yuletide work with You're All I Want for Christmas, one of the richest holiday CDs of 1997. Certainly it features some of the grandest singing. It's a cappella--a style the Persuasions have personified for 35 years, during which time they've cut over 20 albums.

"All that time, we never did a Christmas record!" says Jerry Lawson, the group's lead singer. "We were going in the studio to do a "Persuasions Do Elvis" album, and my bass singer Jimmy (Hayes) says, 'Lawson, why don't we do a Christmas album and a gospel album?' So, we went in and did both of 'em in eight days. The gospel one'll be out in March or so."

Spread the Word, a PBS documentary that airs in February, has abundant footage of Lawson and his singing partners (Hayes, Jayotis Washington, and Joe Russell) in impromptu surroundings, whipping off soulful renditions of everything from Men At Work's "Down Under" and Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldiers," to "My Yiddishe Mama" and the theme song to the old Wyatt Earp TV show. Anchored by Hayes' rib-rattling bass vocals, their voices intertwine with the incredible precision that's awed fans and critics throughout their careers.

The Persuasions cut this Christmas album with new member B.J. Jones, who brings the group to a quintet for the first time since the death of long-term member Toubo Jones in 1986. It's Jones' baritone you hear leading "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

"B.J. came to us as a gift from God," says Lawson. "Jimmy got ill for a minute and we had to go to Europe. Jimmy knew B.J. was a fan of the Persuasions and knew our material. We got B.J. and didn't even slow down, man. He worked out so well when we did this Christmas CD. We were goin' to lunch, and I said, 'Jones, y'know any Christmas songs?' and he says, 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' So we started singin' it right there in the parkin' lot, and it was so happenin', we went right back in the studio and cut it on the spot."

Instrument-toters the world over might envy the Persuasions' ability to rehearse whenever and wherever. One of the album's most touching selections is "The Jesusong," which Lawson had been trying to write for two years. The bridge had been eluding him, and when the muse struck, he started singing in that lustrous voice some have compared to great vocalists like Jerry Butler and Brook Benton. The ever-intuitive Hayes came right in behind him, followed by the other three members, and all of a sudden a full-blown a cappella session was under way--never mind that it was in an airport in Sweden.

"Everybody was standin' around listenin' to us, and that's when we stopped, 'cause it dawned on us--these people were probably missin' their planes!" laughs Lawson.

The Persuasions are agreeable men but they grow irritated at the mention of how badly they've been marketed in the past. They've had a 20-year running battle with Tower Records over the chain's insistence on stocking their product in "oldies" bins. They've had managers who bilked them on cockamamie "doo-wop" shows, putting them on the bill with faux groups like the Coasters, the Penguins, et al.--groups that are composed of singers unborn when the originals were around. They've done fine albums for major labels: Street Corner Symphony and the cunningly titled Still Ain't Got No Band for Capitol and MCA respectively; they have also recorded for A&M and Elektra. Unfortunately, there was nothing major about the promotion these outfits did for them. They've never had a hit or the attention that's come to certain Johnny-come-latelies. (Boyz II Men had a hit with their a cappella version of "In The Still of the Night," which has been in the Persuasions' repertoire for decades. Take 6 won a Grammy for an a cappella CD, while Rockapella and Color Me Badd also work in this genre.)

"Used to be, this was a dyin' art," muses Lawson, who finds the presence of such youngbloods heartening. "Now there's a cappella societies in Australia, Japan, and America. There was an A Cappella Summit concert in San Francisco the other night--had seven or eight groups on it. Every show we do, there's a group there wants to meet us, sayin' they sing a cappella. Boyz II Men was one of 'em. The guys from Take 6 were really nice, man. They said, 'When we were in college, we got Spread The Word [Capitol, 1972], and that's what turned us on to a cappella.'

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