Five black men in a sea of bearded, 20-something festivalgoers—the Persuasions were easily spotted in the crowds of the Dawson City Music Festival.
On Thursday, the Persuasions played Dawson’s Palace Grand Theatre.
Technically, they didn’t perform at the festival—but they quickly became fixtures.
Dawson street corners occasionally lit up with impromptu Persuasions concerts.
All weekend long, the singers accepted public praise and fielded questions with charm.
Saturday afternoon, second tenor Jayotis Washington and lead singer Joe Russell were hanging around the front steps of the Downtown Hotel.
Washington spotted a group of Dawson teenagers, one wearing a Zoo York brand sweatshirt.
“Zoo York. You see how they talk about your hometown up here,” joked Washington to Russell.
“You guys hang with 50 Cent?” asked one, overhearing the remark.
Among festival performers, the Persuasions were revered elders.
“Some of these kids weren’t even born when we started,” said Persuasions bass singer Hayes.
Saturday night, the group’s first tenor, Ray Sanders, dropped in to catch Quebec’s Sunset Rubdown’s closing act on the main stage.
Immediately, he had a girl on each arm.
Fittingly, the Persuasions have spent much of their 47-year-long career trying to persuade the mainstream to accept them.
When they first hit the scene in 1962, they faced a market and a record industry that saw a cappella as a novelty.
“It was like nobody took a cappella seriously,” said Hayes.
Hayes and Sanders sat down for an interview in the restaurant of Dawson City’s Downtown Hotel.
“It’s called the Downtown Hotel, although I don’t know how much of a downtown there could be up there,” said Brooklyn-based booking agent Glen Knight when he arranged the interview.
“This town reminds me of that show Deadwood,” said Hayes.
When their plane touched down at the Dawson airport, the group was surprised to see clouds of dust billowing up from the gravel runway.
“What kind of place is this?” thought Hayes.
Hayes did most of the talking, Sanders chimed in occasionally to back him up or refresh his memory.
“Give me a bottle of your finest brandy,” joked Hayes to the waitress before ordering a coffee.
When the group started out as buskers on the streets of New York City, none of them thought they could make a living at a cappella.
To be a success, they thought, there would need to be at least a guitar or two behind them.
Their first guitarist sounded “like Curtis Mayfield,” but “he had a problem with that wine … and he never made a gig,” said Hayes.
The group’s first recording was made with Stuff, a renowned funk session group.
Still, it didn’t sound quite right.
“It seemed like the songs; they were just too cluttered up,” said Hayes.
In the end, the Persuasions attributed their a cappella leanings to “divine intervention.”
But even if the Divine thought they should go a cappella, few else agreed.
Even neighbourhood friends couldn’t be relied upon to fill the seats at their earliest gigs.
A cappella, they told the Persuasions, was undanceable.
Even young kids poked fun at the band-less group.
“Mr. Jimmy, why y’all ain’t got no band? People can’t dance to y’all’s music,” the neighbourhood kids told Hayes.
“It was a brainwashed thing,” said Hayes.
Disc jockeys denied them radio play.
At worst, jockeys derided them as a novelty; at best, they were eschewed as an outdated doo-wop act.
The doo-wop death knell had been dealt only a few years previously, with the Beatles’ landmark 1964 performance on the Ed Sullivan Show.
To be called doo-wop in the late 1960s was a kiss of death.
Meanwhile, the doo-wop brass weren’t having any of the Persuasions.
The group became an object of scorn while playing a doo-wop tribute show at the New York Palladium.
“The other entertainers, they were pissed because they were saying we weren’t doo-wop,” said Hayes.
They were just scared, said Hayes.
“They heard us rehearsing, and the harmonies we had were so tight that the guys were saying, ‘I don’t want to go out there with these guys,’” said Hayes.
Hayes remembered playing a show at the Apollo Theatre, and overhearing their songs coming from the neighbouring dressing room; it was the Temptations warming up for their set.
Two months ago, the Chicago-based DooWopp Hall of Fame handed the Persuasions a lifetime achievement award.
Hayes flashed a commemorative DooWopp Hall of Fame wrist watch. Sanders pointed to his DooWopp Hall of Fame T-shirt.
“After 47 years, someone finally acknowledged us,” said Hayes.
The Persuasions can sing doo-wop, for sure, but more than anything, the Persuasions can be lauded for exploring the decidedly non-doo-wop side of a cappella.
The group has cut albums of Beatles, U2 and Grateful Dead covers.
Even the group’s fashion sense has rolled easily with the decades.
Stardust, recorded in 1969, features five clean-cut singers in matching suits on the album jacket.
By the 1970s, the group could be seen in Afros and wide ties.
At the interview, Hayes wore an anime-print shirt, and a flat-top cap decorated with an RCMP pin.
The Persuasion’s first non-street-corner gig was at New York City’s Bitter End nightclub, where they opened for the improvisational comedy troupe Ace Trucking Company, said Hayes.
Of course, only the Persuasions knew that they were on the playbill.
The group approached the doorman with an offer: one song, no commission.
“We don’t want no money; just let us come in and do one song in front of a live, paying audience—not people on a street corner,” said Hayes.
“Beat it,” said the doorman.
Undeterred, the group took a few steps back, and counted in Searchin’ For My Baby.
The lineup of people entering the club came to a stop, fixed by the impromptu sidewalk performance.
Owner Paul Colby stepped outside to see what the commotion was about—and within minutes he had them behind a microphone.
The club soon counted on the Persuasions as their house band.
At regular Bitter End performances, the Persuasions’ opening acts would feature the cream of up-and-coming US talent.
The group saw a young pianist by the name of Billy Joel, budding songwriter Paul Williams, and Bruce Springsteen, then a New Jersey bus driver.
A cappella’s barebones setup made the Persuasions a favourite opening act for comedians, most notably for Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor.
“They didn’t have a band, and we didn’t have a band,” said Hayes.
The Persuasions were at the Kennedy Centre opening for Pryor when he appeared on stage behind them.
The audience roared with laughter—causing the Persuasions to steal a glance behind them.
“I don’t know what the fuck you looking at me for, you’re the one that’s fuckin’ up,” said Pryor.
As with any career spanning half a century, the Persuasions have seen trial and tragedy.
“It ain’t all been peaches and cream; there’s been some rough roads,” said Hayes.
On a 1988 tour, founding member Herbert (Toubo) Rhoad died of a brain hemorrhage before a concert in Davis, California. He was 44.
The other four members continued the tour, leaving an empty microphone on the stage in Rhoad’s place.
The tour over, it would be five years before the group recorded again.
In 1993, they returned with tribute album Toubo’s Song.
After the fall of doo-wop, the Persuasions were practically the only a cappella gig in town.
“If we had gone with a band, maybe a cappella would have just completely died out,” said Hayes.
Only in the 1990s, did the genre start to make a resurgence, with the likes of Take 6, Rockapella and Boyz II Men.
In 1993, Boyz II Men’s a cappella In the Still of the Night hit No. 3 on the Billboard charts.
“We’ve been singing In the Still of the Night for damn near 50 years; Boyz II Men come out, and they get a hit with it,” said Hayes.
But the world of a cappella is no place for rivalries.
“We ain’t trying to kill each other, because there’s so few of us,” said Hayes.
A cappella is like a brotherhood—with groups often trading members to fill in for absentees, says Hayes.
“There’s enough room for everybody out here—the more the merrier,” said Hayes.
While the Persuasions may have saved a cappella, the same can be said for the reverse.
The genre has been remarkably good at keeping the group out of trouble.
The sheer nakedness of the style demands pinpoint precision, night after night.
A few too many cigarettes, a particularly strong hangover—and the difference stands out like a sore thumb.
“You’ve got to be right; you ain’t got no guitar to cover a sour note,” said Hayes.
In the early days, the Persuasions partied hard with the likes of Tom Waits and Keith Richards.
Unlike Waits and Richards, the Persuasions soon realized that they needed to ease off on their vocal chords.
“So, do you guys play blues or something?” said the Dawson teenagers to Washington.
“We sing a cappella; just voices,” he replied, meeting blank stares.
“Anybody can do it. You ever sing in the shower?—that’s a cappella,” he continued.
“Now you know what you’re doing when you sing in the shower.”
Contact Tristin Hopper at