"Study the masters. Do the homework. Phrasing is very important. Not to try to sound like anyone else."
Jerry Lawson: The Voice of Mortal Man
Jerry Lawson was born in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, but raised in the tiny country town of Apopka, FL, about 12 miles north of Orlando. This was when there were still a million orange groves there, untouched by Disney. Jerry’s uncle, Booker T. Washington, owned a juke joint in Apopka named The Two Spot, and he and his mom lived in the apartment upstairs during his early years. His Mom, Miss Estee, fried the catfish, and Jerry kept the joint clean. Summers were spent with family in Philadelphia, where he got to hear music that was not played on the radio in the South. Returning to Apopka every fall, Jerry became the deejay for the juke box—picking music he’d heard up north, and setting the place rocking. His godfather, Luther Holland, was a radio deejay, in Fort Lauderdale, FL and between Jerry’s time spent with him and church music, Jerry picked up more knowledge and influence. It seemed there was never a time when he wasn’t either listening to music, or singing. He began singing solos in church at age six.
Football called him as a teen, and he was the star wide receiver for the Apopka Panthers, also somehow managing to play trumpet in the school marching band. He put together a trio with his best friend Ken Thomas on sax and played gigs in the area, but after high school he knew he had to leave Florida—unless he wanted to spend his life picking oranges or landscaping. So he packed up and moved to NYC, a gutsy move that led to his meeting the guys who would become The Persuasions, in 1962. The fabled a cappella quintet went on to an astonishing career of 40 years and over twenty albums, acclaimed the world over. In 2002, Jerry retired from The Persuasions and from a cappella and took a job working with developmentally disabled adults at the Tungland Corporation in Phoenix, where he was finally able to get off the touring-go-round. But you don’t break up a marriage with music, and before long he was singing in Phoenix clubs with jazz combos and bands. It was while considering plans to record an album with the Moscow Philharmonic, that his wife, Julie, put him in touch with a fabulous San Francisco-based a cappella group, Talk of the Town. This group had essentially honed its skills by studying, you guessed it, Jerry’s arrangements for The Persuasions. A call from Rod Stewart invited all to join him on “Shelter from The Storm”, a fundraiser to help the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Jerry, on April 28 released his new album “Just a Mortal Man”. After an astounding 50 years in the music, at the age of 71, musical dreams continue to come true for this one-time kid from a juke joint in Apopka.
What do you learn about yourself from 40 years experiences in music?
I learned that it’s easier having a band! LOL
What does “Mortal Man” mean to you?
The song makes me understand more that I was born to die. The album Mortal Man is special to me because it’s my first time out as a solo artist and my first album with musicians, so it’s my first time doing what I intended to do before I ended up creating a new style of Acappella and preserving that dying art. (Photo: Jerry Lawson & Talk of the Town)
How do you describe Jerry Lawson sound?
I never thought about that. I originally thought of myself as a crooner because I was studying the master crooners such as Brook Benton, Sam Cooke, Roy Hamilton, Nat King Cole, Al Hibbler, Sinatra... I’m really an all-around vocalist. I can sound like an old time preacher or a crooner, or a classic R&B singer, but then there’s my Blues sound and my children’s delivery of kid ‘songs.
What characterize your music philosophy?
Study the masters. Do the homework. Phrasing is very important. Not to try to sound like anyone else.
Which is the moment that you change your life most?
Becoming the leader of The Persuasions (not just the lead singer).
Which was the best and worst moment of your career?
One of the best was going on tour and opening for Liza Minnelli.
One of the worst: Turning down doing commercials because they only wanted me, not the Persuasions and The Persuasions were already angry because I did the theme song to a TV show without them (only because the director asked me to do it without the group).
"The album Mortal Man is special to me because it’s my first time out as a solo artist and my first album with musicians, so it’s my first time doing what I intended to do before I ended up creating a new style of Acappella and preserving that dying art." (Photo: The Persuasions)
Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?
Meeting David Ruffin!!
What is the best advice ever given you?
My mother told me that understanding is one of the greatest gifts God gives us.
Are there any memories from shows, on the road and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
Sitting in the dressing room with The Five Blind Boys of Alabama getting ready to open for them. I started crying because as a kid I grew up listening to them on the radio and now here I was opening for them. Having breakfast with B.B. King and Ike Turner in Switzerland. Spending a week hanging out with Little Richard when we were staying in the same hotel.
What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?
I miss the depth of lyrics.
What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
My hopes is that my new CD “Mortal Man” wins a Grammy.
What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Jazz and R&B and Gospel music?
No idea. If you mean musically because I am not a musician and don’t have the vocabulary to explain that.
If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
I would love to see A Cappella be taken seriously not as a novelty act. I would like to see the genre be just as legitimate as any other genre. I would like to hear it on the radio regularly.
What has made you laugh lately and what touched you (emotionally) from the music circuits?
Watching a commercial with a dog playing the piano and the dog howled along, like he was singing. The words to the opening song on my new CD, it’s a Paul Simon song and the lyrics are heavy, very deep.
Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?
I’d like to spend a day with Sam Cooke to get to know him.