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Lift Up Your Voices : A cappella masters the Persuasions teach a course in singing with soul and style.


The visit of the Persuasions, the deans of a cappella doo-wop singers, to the California State Summer School of the Arts had all the earmarks of a disaster.

The group, which has sung in concert venues all over the world, was to be the visiting faculty at the state-sponsored, monthlong arts program for high school students. But few of the students had heard of the Persuasions, whose popularity peaked in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"I heard my parents talk about the Persuasions once, but I thought they were dead," said Krista Boone, 14, a student from Davis, Calif. "Everyone they talk about is dead."

And the administrators of the school, which was held this summer on the CalArts campus, clearly had little experience in attending to the needs of performers who do more than 250 concerts a year.

"They put us in rooms with no TV, no phone!" said Persuasions bass Jimmy Hayes, 48, shaking his head.

The Persuasions, none of whom went to college, were put up in dorm rooms. This after not being met at Union Station upon their arrival from Eugene, Ore., where they had last sung.

After 14 hours on a train and a $90 taxi ride to the school, they were in no mood for the Spartan accommodations.

"They don't understand. We can't get to sleep without a TV," said lead singer Jerry Lawson, 48. "I said, 'Man, get me to a motel,' " Hayes said.

To make matters worse, the group thought they were coming to the school--which chooses its attendees through statewide auditions--to work with college students. But Lawson said he was not worried.

"The guys came to me and said, 'What are we going to do?' I told them it would be OK. Sometime during the night the Lord was going to tell me what to do."

What the Persuasions did in the nine classes they taught at CalArts was what they do best--perform.

They strolled into the classroom precisely at 10 a.m. on a Tuesday and gathered in front of the 20 seated students. They made small talk for a few seconds. Then casually, Hayes, whose bass voice would probably register on a seismometer, started to sing. The other Persuasions joined in and Lawson began to croon "You've Really Got a Hold on Me."

The students sat quietly as these men, all original members of the group, effortlessly wove their voices around the song. No matter that the tune was a hit for Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in 1966, several years before any of them had been born, they were awe-struck.

But a Persuasions performance is not a one-way deal. "You'll never see anyone handle an audience like the Persuasions," said tenor Joe Russell, 52. "We feed on them, fitting the concert to them."

As soon as the song ended, Lawson greeted the students and asked if any had heard of "The Banana Boat Song." No hands went up. But then Lawson let out a musical "DEY-O!" and there were squeals of recognition.

By motioning with his hands, Lawson got the students to join in with the chorus. The Persuasions quickly spread out--Hayes brought the three boys in this class up front to sing bass with him, Jayotis Washington, who sings tenor, took on the sopranos and Russell worked with the altos. They moved through the room correcting by example.

It was clear that the learning was to be by doing, rather than lecture. Lawson stopped the song only for brief explanations. The students learned how the way a word is pronounced affects the rhythm, how some notes need to be sung "blow-mouth" through puckered lips, and how the parts in the song are divided among the voices.

After about 10 minutes, the students were sweetly harmonizing. Lawson segued into "America the Beautiful." And by the time he hit "for spacious skies," the students joined in. Again the sound was sweet, but Lawson stopped. He had something else in mind.

"They sang this song in 1918," he told them. "This is 1992, you know what I am saying? Get a little funk in there, whatever you feel. Something of your own. Just don't rap it."

Lawson, who seems to try to find something positive in everything, can see little value in rap. "I try to get them to leave room for the kind of music my mother taught me," he said later.

At the group's urging, the students, many of whom have terrific voices, started to let loose. Fifteen-year-old David Zobel of Lompoc wailed out a high note, then stopped in surprise and asked Russell, "Was that an F-sharp?"

"Yes, it was," Russell said, and they both beamed. "I am emancipating these kids."

On the other side of the room, Washington was working with tenor James Dilda, 16, of Travis Air Force Base. Washington was showing him how to add embellishments between phrases. James did it beautifully, but Washington, 48, cautioned, "It's great, but you can't do it every time or it loses its impact. Pick your spots."

He put his hand on the student's shoulder and said proudly, "This is my second tenor." James looked as if he had won a gold medal.

A couple of more songs, and the hourlong class was over. The students buzzed with excitement. "It's like a runner's high," said Erin Bienenfeld of Napa.

Despite their history of working audiences, the Persuasions did not seem at all jaded. "When I came to this place I was ready to turn around and get out of here," Hayes said. "But to meet these kids and see their eyes light up when they sing, it is really exciting.

"I'm thinking, maybe we can stay on here a few extra days."

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