Chirpin’ is the group’s eighth album, their first for Elektra, and the first on which they reach a listener not in terms of how well their music holds up without backing but in terms of how well it holds up as music—specifically, as black vocal-group music that can be enjoyed and considered right along with that of nameless backcountry ring-shouters, the Mississippi Shieks, the Orioles, the Temptations, and the Spinners. It is also the Persuasions’ most compelling album judged strictly as acapella (traditionalists may not agree; on Chirpin’ doowop is less something the Persuasions sing than something they sing about); as the Persuasions finally reach the music that justifies their long devotion to purity of form, they no longer sound like purists, nor like any sort of novelty act.Chirpin’ is one of the most complex albums I’ve heard in a long time, emotionally, musically, and racially, not that the three are really separable. Take what the Persuasions have done with Tony Joe White’s “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” which was first recorded by Dusty Springfield in 1969. White, a white Southerner, wrote the song as the reminiscence of a poor white fanner thinking back over the friendship he and his family shared with his black neighbors, before hard times forced them all off the land and down separate roads. The song had virtually no plot-line—nothing was wrapped up—and, save for a fewer words about dirt farmers not having “time to worry ’bout another man’s color,” it had no explicit politics. It called up the past, and past friends, and paid tribute. The Persuasions sing the song from the black man’s point of view, and the manner in which they shape that point of view is extremely interesting.
Where Dusty sang (and validly understood) the song as an ordinary story utterly lacking in drama, the Persuasions orchestrate it as a dirge. The mood is somber, even ominous. On first listening, this seems appropriate, because White’s lyric is, among other things, about how friendships are broken up by conditions poor people cannot control. But this is not what the Persuasions are singing about. Within their dominant mood is an almost shocking note of good riddance. The blacks of the Persuasions’ version maintain a crucial distance between themselves and the whites. The most affectionate verse in White’s song has the white and black families making music together; such a subject would seem irresistible to a group as committed to folk music forms (albeit urban folk music forms) as the Persuasions, but they drop the verse entirely. In its place, they add their own. White’s tale of the two families ends when they leave the land; here, the black farmer chances to see the white farmer and his wife 20 years later—standing in line for their welfare checks. There is no emotion in the singer’s voice as he describes this scene, and he doesn’t say hello.
Even more striking than the shifts in lyric and mood is the Persuasions’ arrangement of the second verse, an arrangement that would lose half its force were voices replaced, muted, or adorned by instruments. The singer is describing how, every Saturday, the white family makes a trip into town. They ask the black family if they can get them goods from the store; the blacks decline, but invite the whites to come over later for something to eat. In Dusty’s version it is all very prosaic; in the Persuasions’ it is an explosion. “Do y’all need anything from town?” asks the white farmer, and the response is a hard no, a stark outburst of saddened moans from lead singer Jerry Lawson and wild field-holler screeches from tenor Joe Russell. It is a cacaphony that at first seems out of control and after a time sounds like the black man’s retrospective fantasy of the resentment and rage he would have revealed had he dared. “That was another place, and another time,” runs the last line of Tony Joe White’s chorus; as the Persuasions sing it, it is full of dignity, close to bitter, and empty of regret. I don’t know that I have heard new black music this strong since the days that followed Sly Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On.
Chirpin’ begins with its most commercial cut, the Rivington’s immortal “Papa Oom Mow Mow” (“Is he serious or is he playin’/Papa oom mow mow is all he’s sayin'”); the move from rock and roll at its most playful to “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” which follows, makes sense because the Persuasions have such control over their sound. Almost as impressive as “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” is the Persuasions’ treatment of Richard Reicheg’s magnificent “Looking for an Echo,” a tribute to the doowop of the ’50s; slightly rewritten by the Persuasions’ producer, Dave Dashev, to make the song work as a Persuasions autobiography, it escapes the corniness of Kenny Vance’s original recording to emerge a genuine expression of the beauty of early rock and roll. The album ends with a performance equally as moving: a bizarre, damned, despairing reading of “To Be Loved,” a hit in 1958 for Jackie Wilson, who collapsed on stage late in 1975, and who will likely never sing again. Here, the song is meant as an offering to Wilson, but it is sung as if Wilson is already too close to death ever to hear it; Joe Russell sings the song alone, in a setting of impossible melodrama, almost choking on the long, last note. It is the sort of performance that, as Jon Landau once said of Sam and Dave, doesn’t break on through to the other side, because it is on the other side.Acapella singing was originally a music made by teenagers; its changes and melodies were meant to be sung by sweet, supple, youthful voices capable of effortless falsetto and smooth harmonies. All of the Persuasions—Lawson, Russell, Jimmy Hayes (bass), and Herbert Tubo Rhoad (baritone)—are in their thirties; their voices have roughened over the years, and many of the harmonies that must have brought them together—from songs like “Sincerely,” “Diamonds and Pearls,” and scores of others—are now out of their reach. They-have kept a deeper sort of harmony intact, though, and Chirpin’ measures just how much that harmony is worth. Whatever may have been lost along the way, the result of that harmony, today, is a perfect marriage of passion and intelligence.
Village Voice, May 1976