The tight, street-corner harmonies of a cappella group the Persuasions and the loose, improvisational style and cryptic lyrics of the Grateful Dead might seem like an odd pairing.
But Persuasions lead singer Jerry Lawson calls his group's upcoming album of Dead covers a spiritual convergence.
"I got goose bumps on me here,'' Lawson, 56, said from his parents' home in north Florida, where he was reviewing tracks for Might As Well: The Persuasions Sing Grateful Dead, tentatively due Oct. 10. "My wife is playing that Grateful Dead, and she's saying this thing has got a spiritual connection, and all of us felt it."
The Persuasions Lawson, Jimmy Hayes, Joe Russell, JayOtis Washington and Raymond Sanders spent two weeks in a Berkeley, Calif., studio, laying down tracks for the collection.
The group had help from the Oakland, Calif., a cappella group Mary Schmary; ex-Housejacks vocal percussionist Andrew Chaikin, veteran bluegrass singer/guitarist Peter Rowan; ex-Dead keyboardist Vince Welnick; and Grateful Dead scholar and "Grateful Dead Hour" radio host David Gans, who co-produced the album with Rip Rense.
"Everybody who has touched this project has been knocked out by it," Gans said. "The experience of recording it was magical. ... Every day, I'd come home from the studio with a new type of chill up my spine. It was life-changing, really."
Might As Well was born of another Gans project, Stolen Roses (Aug. 8) an album of Dead covers by various artists, to which the Persuasions contributed their version of "Black Muddy River." Rense came up with the idea of a Persuasions album of Grateful Dead covers. Gans successfully pitched Rense's idea to the Dead organization.
A Vocal Approach
"Even with some of the more interesting things, like [the 1991 tribute album] Deadicated, you've never had great vocalists approach Grateful Dead material before," Dennis McNally, longtime Dead publicist, said.
Might As Well features "Liberty" and "Lazy River Road, two tunes the Dead never gave a full studio treatment to, before iconic guitarist/vocalist Jerry Garcia's death in 1995. The singers also recorded "Brokedown Palace" (RealAudio excerpt of rough mix), "He's Gone," "Ripple" (RealAudio excerpt of rough mix), "Ship of Fools," "Loose Lucy," "It Must Have Been the Roses," "One More Saturday Night," and "Sugaree," featuring harmonies by Lawson and Rowan.
Gans recruited Mary Schmary to help on the title track, "Might as Well," a tune from Garcia's 1976 solo album, Reflections. Lawson wanted a big sound.
Mary Schmary singer Alyn Kelley added some improvisational magic to the session, breaking into a trumpet imitation in the song's bridge.
"Everybody loved her trumpet solo so much that a whole bunch of Persuasions and Schmarys started playing this trombone section behind her," Gans said. "We had this whole vocal a cappella horn section, with Jimmy Hayes, the bass singer, doing this sax solo behind them."
The Persuasions started as a group of displaced Southerners living in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, N.Y., singing with 20 or so other men after pick-up basketball games. Five of the singers stood out, Lawson said, and they became the Persuasions. Frank Zappa, the late avant-garde guitar wizard and social satirist, "discovered" the group in 1968. The Persuasions went on to record or tour with a host of artists including Stevie Wonder, Lou Reed, B.B. King and Zappa's Mothers of Invention.
The Persuasions paid homage to Zappa earlier this year, releasing Frankly A Cappella an album of Zappa tunes. The group's motto remains "We Still Ain't Got No Band."
"These guys came to this thing ready and really, really loving this material, because they recognized the depth and the breadth of Robert Hunter's influences," Gans said about the Persuasions. "In the folk and bluegrass days, [the Grateful Dead] were way into folk and gospel music and blues ... Jerry [Garcia] loved the R&B from which the Persuasions sprang."
During downtime while recording Might As Well, the Persuasions shared tales of sneaking into theaters to see such performers as Sam Cooke and Brooke Benton singers Lawson compares to Garcia. Lawson praised not only Garcia's songwriting with lyricist Robert Hunter, but the late guitarist's rarely recognized vocal prowess.
"I didn't know Garcia was such a great lead singer," Lawson said. "More and more, I hear people say that the Grateful Dead couldn't sing, but the more I listen to Garcia what phrasing that guy has got! And the songs ... they mean whatever you want 'em to mean. I'm singing, 'I don't know, it must have been the roses' it's such a beautiful love song. I don't know whether the lady's dead or is she laying in a meadow of flowers, but when I sing it to my old lady, it just comes out a beautiful love song."