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No backing band necessary

They may not have invented it, but the Persuasions have kept a cappella alive for nearly five decades.
The Persuasions have the dynamic duo on their side: talent and charm.
Image by Y. Yoneda
The Persuasions have the dynamic duo on their side: talent and charm.

A cappella music toes a careful line. For a truly great performance to emerge, each element must converge at the perfect moment.

Bass vocalist Jimmy Hayes maintains that the advent of his group, the Persuasions, came together like a well-done song. He said the group hooked up through “divine intervention” in the mid-1960s.

“None of us were from New York. We all came around the same time and moved into the same neighborhood,” he said. “That was how the Persuasions came to be.”

The group’s members happened to be neighbors who enjoyed blowing off steam after work by singing together and playing basketball in the Big Apple’s city parks.

Successful groups like Boyz II Men and the Nylons have found inspiration in the quintet’s work, but the idea that they’d become so influential never crossed Hayes’ mind when they first started singing together.

Hayes and his four comrades got serious when they began to busk in the subways, before the group even had a formal name.

“We couldn’t wait to get home every day and go down to the subway station and get that echo,” Hayes said, championing the acoustics at the Lafayette Avenue station in Brooklyn as the best in the city.

Singing in public inspired the crooners to finally name their band. Hayes said since they were always working so hard to get passersby to stop and listen, it felt like they were persuading pedestrians with their voices.

By 1968, the soul singers had been regularly scoring gigs around New York, but they remained relatively obscure. This changed once Frank Zappa — at the insistence of the band’s future manager David Dashev —agreed to listen to some of their recordings over the phone. After that one listen, Zappa decided he was going to produce their first album, “Acappella,” in 1970.

The record established the powerful sonic foundations of the Persuasions. Whether Herbert Rhoad’s silky baritone was soaring through a bouncing harmony or Hayes’ honey-thick bass was laying melodic pavement, the group’s signature synthesis made the soul- and gospel-filled track list of “Acappella” feel united.

The Persuasions eventually became known for their uncanny knack of being on the same page — the group often sounds as if they’re one, multi-layered force.

The Zappa-produced effort was only the beginning of their series of collaborations with other legendary artists.

“Anyone you can name, the Persuasions have probably sung on the same bill with them or did background singing for them,” Hayes said.

In their nearly half-century-long career, the Persuasions have performed with the likes of Liza Minnelli, Joni Mitchell and Stevie Wonder, to name a few. Their adaptability has also allowed them to cover a wide variety of artists, including Zappa and the Grateful Dead.

Today, Hayes and Jayotis Washington are the only remaining original members. While the lineup has seen artists come and go, Hayes said the sound remains the same.

“It’s love that you have. I think that’s the only way you can do a capella,” he said. “That passion, to me, is what soul is.”

Even after years in the group, Hayes said this passion is what keeps him on the road, sharing his music.

Mikalyna Sell, a member of a University of Minnesota student a cappella group called the Enchantments, was in the audience at a 7Days A Cappella concert when she first felt that same sense of soul that vocal-only music can provide.

“I like that we can perform at anytime, anywhere,” the pre-veterinary medicine sophomore said. “We’re able to collaborate so much with only our voices.”

Sell respects a cappella pioneers like the Persuasions, but she takes more detailed notes from contemporary acts like Pentatonix — an outfit that Hayes finds particularly impressive.

“I guess we are old school, like the old gospel groups we used to listen to,” he said. “People today do hip-hop and boom box sounds. They’re fantastic.”

Like Hayes, Sell feels a strong dedication to the genre and said she’s made some of her closest friends through singing.

Hayes couldn’t agree more.

“This is what makes me happy, and I’ll keep doing it for as long as I can,” he said.


What: The Persuasions
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: The Cedar Cultural Center, 416 S. Cedar Ave., Minneapolis
Cost: $25-28


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