'Sweet Joe' Russell: Singer with the a cappella masters, the Persuasions

 

The albums released by the Persuasions transcend genres but they have one distinct boundary: no musical instrumentals. As a result, they are often regarded as a novelty act, and it didn't help that their first album was released by Frank Zappa's Straight label, a home for freaks. Tom Waits appreciated the depth of their music when he said, "These guys are deep sea divers: I'm a fisherman in a boat."

Joe Russell was born in Henderson, North Carolina in 1939 and grew up with an undying love for the church. He regarded the Persuasions' tour of the Holy Land as the highlight of his life. He loved the gospel music of the Golden Gate Quartet, the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Soul Stirrers with Sam Cooke, but his favourite vocalist was the '50s star Jackie Wilson.

He moved to Brooklyn and studied to be a butcher, a job to which he returned during lean years. He fell in with the doo-wop groups who practiced on the street corners. He was the lead singer with the Parisians, who recorded a fast-paced revival of "On The Sunny Side Of The Street" in 1962.

Around 1965, Russell and Herb "Toubo" Rhoad from the Parisians teamed up with Jerry Lawson and Jimmy Hayes of the Five B's and Jayotis Washington of the Interiors to form an a cappella group. They were taking a chance by getting audiences to like them without instruments and so Hayes named them the Persuasions.

Their break came when Stan Krause, who owned Stan's Square Records in New Jersey, played a concert recording over the telephone to his friend, Frank Zappa. Zappa was intrigued and signed them to Straight Records, releasing A Cappella in 1968. They came to the UK and worked with underprivileged black youths in Liverpool.

When Warner Brothers bought Zappa's catalogue, they offered to record the Persuasions with instrumental backing but the group declined. They switched to Capitol and released We Came To Play (1971), which included Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang". Their next album, Street Corner Symphony (1972), made the US charts and included their stage favourite, "Buffalo Soldier". In 1973 they recorded We Still Ain't Got No Band, and the following year, they were produced by the Brill Building songwriter Jeff Barry for the A&M album I Just Want To Sing With My Friends.

In 1977 they signed with Elektra and made the album Chirpin'; Russell's tenor featured on Jackie Wilson's hit, "To Be Loved", living up to his affectionate nickname of "Sweet Joe". Also with Russell's lead vocal, they revived the nonsensical "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow", and their recording was featured in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). The Persuasions provided vocal backing for many other performers including Don McLean, Stevie Wonder and Phoebe Snow, and they toured with Joni Mitchell, joining her for "Why Do Fools Fall In Love".

In 1990 they sang about their own career in "Looking For An Echo", part of Spike Lee's TV film Do It A Cappella. The Persuasions had taken doo-wop and a cappella to new heights and have intrigued generations of young fans and musicians. There have been a cappella hits from Bobby McFerrin and the Flying Pickets and in more recent years, Boyz II Men and Take 6.

Starting in 2000, the Persuasions concentrated on certain songwriters or acts for a series of exceptional albums. Those who knew Zappa's work were probably surprised by Frankly A Cappella (2000), but not half as much as listeners who didn't know his work. Tributes to the Grateful Dead, the Beatles, U2 and the Beatles followed.

Knockin' On Bob's Door (2010) transformed Bob Dylan's songs, turning "Blowin' In The Wind" into a spiritual. Russell takes one solo, a gruff "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right", a sad reminder of what age can do. Diagnosed with diabetes in 2004, he needed a kidney transplant, which never came. He played occasional dates with the group; the crucial factor was a dialysis centre near the theatre.

Spencer Leigh

Joseph Jesse Russell, singer: born North Carolina 25 September 1939; married; died New York 5 May 2012.

Life and Style
Small winemakers say the restriction makes it hard to sell overseas
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
News
Clare Balding
peopleClare Balding on how women's football is shaking up sport
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Sport
premier leagueMatch report: Arsenal 1 Man United 2
Arts and Entertainment
Kirk Cameron is begging his Facebook fans to give him positive reviews
film
News
i100
Sport
Jonny May scores for England
rugby unionEngland 28 Samoa 9: Wing scores twice to help England record their first win in six
Life and Style
fashionThe Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Jerry Hall (Hand out press photograph provided by jackstanley@theambassadors.com)
theatre
Sport
Tony Bellew (left) and Nathan Cleverly clash at the Echo Arena in Liverpool
boxingLate surge sees Liverpudlian move into world title contention
Voices
Neil Findlay
voicesThe vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
food + drinkMeat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin