Just a Mortal Man: The Jerry Lawson Story will premiere on PBS and their WORLD channels in select markets on February 10, and will air in most markets during the month of February in conjunction with Black History Month. The film will also be available to stream nationwide on the free PBS app after February 10.
No music fan has ever discovered the great Jerry Lawson while listening to the radio. It’s the elephant in the room whenever I talk about a man who I think was one of the five greatest soul singers of my life. As the lead singer of The Persuasions, Lawson introduced the world to a cappella soul music and set the stage for two generations of acts ranging from The Nylons to Pentatonix. And while subsequent bands have rigged and smoothed a cappella to wider audiences and certainly greater fortunes, no one has ever matched the power, artistic authenticity or timelessness of the 20+ albums and countless shows that the “King of A Cappella Soul” brought on a career that spanned half a century.
Jerry Lawson’s unsung impact as a pioneering performer and the humility of a man who defined “success” in his own personal way are two of the themes running through Just a mortal man, the lovingly created documentary by producer Gail Kempler and producer/director Miles Merritt.
That this movie was even made is astounding. While media giant Phil Lerman called Lawson “The most famous singer you’ve never heard of”, it was the “never heard of” part that made Merritt and Kempler particularly brave to spend years working. on film, believing there would be an audience for it. What’s even more of a blessing is that all of the filming — hundreds of hours of interviews, sets and performances — was done while Lawson, who died in 2019, was still active.
But back to my first point: no music fan ever discovered Jerry Lawson by listening to the radio, because radio in those days wouldn’t consider running an a cappella band. Even as an avid soul music fan, I had never heard of The Persuasions until I walked into the Grapevine record store in Flint, Michigan and saw their debut album. Five-year-old Capitol Records We came to play. The cover was spellbinding, combining my two loves (soul music and basketball) into one shot. So I bought it blind and put it on my home stereo. What came out of the speakers was unlike anything I had ever heard. It was the 70s, and the musical leaders of the day in Philadelphia and Detroit were increasingly rounding the boundaries of soul into a beautifully elegant sound. Well, the Persuasions took their music in a whole different direction: no electronics, no instruments, no gimmicks. Just five voices and music so raw and organic the vinyl practically sweated.
I was hooked that day, and I was not alone. Even though the masses didn’t hear the group’s recordings, other artists did. And the Persuasions have won a fanbase of many of the world’s most influential musicians, from Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell to one of the most unlikely admirers and mentors: avant-garde singer and songwriter Frank Zappa. And so began a 40-year career for the Persuasions that interspersed regular recordings, headlining shows in small clubs and opening world tours for some of the biggest artists of the moment.
Just a mortal man looks back on those days, with particular emphasis on Lawson’s unsung genius as singer and arranger for the band. Beginning with the story of his adoption as a baby in Florida, he recounts the emergence of unearthly musical talent under the most unexpected of circumstances and a life filled with both struggles and triumphs – often at the same time. time. It’s filled with a landmark music career, that’s for sure. But particularly in the low-key interviews with Lawson, his wife Julie, and those who lived and worked with him, the film lays bare the humanity of a man who admits personal mistakes, but whose moral compass always has him. brought back to the right place in music and in life, finally finding his logical coda as he spent the last few years working with developmentally disabled adults in Arizona.
We often think that the measure of an artist’s impact is how bright the spotlight shines on them. But as Just a mortal man exemplifies so beautifully, over the course of his life, Jerry Lawson used the dimmer glow of small club scenes, independent record labels and long bus rides to impact the musical world in a way few superstars will ever match. Highly recommended.
By Chris Rizick
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