Jerry Lawson is one of the most underappreciated singers in soul music today. In 1962 he helped co-found the famed a cappella ensemble The Persuasions, and for forty years Lawson, along with fellow founders Jesse Russell, Jayotis Washington, Herbert Rhoad, and Jimmy “Bro” Hayes created some of the finest R&B harmonies ever recorded. The Persuasions never really hit the commercial success that their ability deserved, and after forty years in the group Lawson decided to call it quits on the group and the music business, relocating to Arizona and working with adults with disabilities. Yet after a successful collaboration with the San Francisco based a capella group Talk of the Town, and now, over fifty years since The Persuasions were formed, Lawson is finally stepping out on his own with this fine album, Just A Mortal Man.
At 71, Lawson still possesses his rich baritone – sure, his voice has aged but his warmth remains. Just A Mortal Man begins with an irresistible cover of Paul Simon’s ‘Peace Like The River’. Co-produced by Eric Brace, Lawson is accompanied by a sparse arrangement allowing him to demonstrate his brilliant vocal abilities. The song is re-created brilliantly, with Lawson’s warm baritone oozing emotion and sophistication at every turn. ‘Time and Water’ follows in a similar vein – opening to a simple guitar and organ combination, Lawson’s voice is at its sultry best on this track, begging the question ‘Will you be holding me, when the morning comes?’
Lawson pays musical homage to the late lead singer of The Temptations David Ruffin on a cover of his ‘I’m Just A Mortal Man’ – the arrangement is more stripped back than Ruffin’s Motown original, but this suits Lawson’s voice perfectly. The horn arrangement is particularly nice on this track, as are the delightful harmonies of the The McCrary Sisters on backing duties. The song has taken on greater meaning – since the album was recorded back last year (as was reported NPR) Lawson spent a period of time in hospital last year suffering with a torn esophagus which had become infected, leaving Lawson fearing that he might not see this album released. As a result, this song is especially poignant.
Another standout on the album is a live version of Sam Cooke’s ‘I’ll Come Running Back to You’, which has Lawson accompanied purely by an acoustic guitar. He sounds a little breathy here, but his voice shines through creating one of the most seductive covers of this Sam Cooke classic. Similarly, ‘I Hope That Love Always Knows Your Name’ is equally brilliant, rich in emotion and laid back musically, it’s a perfect song for the end of a hectic day.
After several big name losses in the world of soul and R&B already this year, it’s reassuring to have artists of Lawson’s caliber still around making excellent music like that here on Just a Mortal Man. The Persuasions never really got the widespread acclaim they probably deserved, but the group continues to perform today with Jimmy Hayes carrying on their impressive legacy, and in recent years the re-invented group has released several impressive albums. Spending most of his career singing with no band, Lawson transitions on Just a Mortal Man brilliantly, combining his trademark voice with equal portions of blues, soul, R&B and even a hint or two of country. Lawson possesses one hell of a voice – his depth and emotion are stunning, and his singing about the pain and troubles of life make it perfect late night music, best enjoyed over a stiff drink.