'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.