Jimmy Hayes’ knowledge of Dawson City comes from a John Wayne movie—North to Alaska—and a brief internet search performed by a friend.
“As long as you got indoor plumbing and TV, we’re cool with that,” says The Persuasions bass singer from his home in Brooklyn.
“It can’t be worse than when we started out,” he continues, with a deep, rattling voice, like an unmuffled motor bike.
“Down in West Virginia, this hotel we checked into, the door wouldn’t even open up all the way.”
His tone suggests he’d just be happy to find out northerners express appreciation with applause and not beer bottles thrown at the chicken-wire fencing protecting the stage.
Hayes will undoubtedly be surprised on July 16, when his five-man a cappella group performs at the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson City.
The Persuasions are the uncontested champions of the a cappella art form. They’ve been making music for the past 47 years, ever since the group had a Hollywood beginning Hayes believes was the result of “divine intervention.”
The five original members—each from a different state—arrived in Brooklyn at the same time, settled in the same neighbourhood and played basketball at the same place each day—Washington Avenue Park.
“After the game, people would just start singing,” says Hayes. “Actually, it was a whole lot of noise. But among that noise, I could hear there were a few guys who were singing.”
Those few voices eventually formed The Persuasions in 1962, and soon the group’s signature doo-wop sound reverberated around Bedford Stuyvesant—a Brooklyn neighbourhood and nucleus of African-American culture.
“Every corner there were guys standing, singing,” says Hayes. “We used to have battles to see who could draw the biggest crowd.”
The Persuasions became popular in the area and sought after for musical collaborations by other performers, including Bill Lee, father of future filmmaker Spike Lee.
Hayes remembers meeting the young Spike during a rehearsal at the Lee home.
“At that time I used to wear Stacy Adams shoes with the biscuit toe,” Hayes recalls. “This little boy stepped on my shoe and crushed my toe. Once you crush the toe, the shoe ain’t no more good. So I popped Spike Lee upside his head.”
The Persuasions got their first recording contract thanks to another serendipitous encounter at a New Jersey record store, where David Dashev, who would eventually become the group’s first manager, overheard the young men singing.
Dashev phoned his friend Frank Zappa in Los Angeles and held up the receiver for an impromptu cross-country concert.
“Two weeks later, Zappa had sent us a recording contract and five round-trip tickets,” says Hayes.
The Persuasions carved out a diverse 22-album career—including tribute recordings to Frank Zappa and the Beatles—and performed with an impressive list of musicians, including Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder and the Grateful Dead.
“We were their opening act,” Hayes says of the latter. “We started singing and people started throwing things on the stage. We said if they kept throwing, we’d walk off. Little did we know, what they were throwing was joints and hashish.
“When they do that, it means that they like you,” he adds, chuckling.
Three of the original bandmates still perform in the band (one member has pursued new opportunities and another died several years ago), and Hayes says they’ll keep playing and touring until they can’t any more.
“Our ladies tell us that the only time we’re really happy is when we’re working and on stage,” he says. “They tell us, ‘When you got a gig you perk up.’”
The Persuasions still live in the community that adopted them nearly five decades ago.
They still perform at local gatherings and their work has blazed a path for other Bed-Stuy artists, including Jay-Z, the Notorius B.I.G. and Mos Def.
“These kids weren’t even born then,” says Hayes. “Their parents would come to the shows that we were doing, or they would come on the street corner and listen to us.
“I’ve met a few of those kids and they say, my mom, my dad got quite a few of your CDs,” he adds.
Recently, The Persuasions received a lifetime achievement award and were inducted into the Doo Wop Hall of Fame, joining The Platters, The Drifters and Little Anthony & The Imperials.
Their name has also been mentioned for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“I think it’s going to be soon,” says Hayes. “We’re looking forward to being there.”
They’re also, he continues, looking forward to their first trip north since a tour took them nearby many years ago.
“We were up that way, man,” Hayes says, “up in Calgary, Saskatoon, Edmonton, just a whole bunch of places.”
Yep. They’re in for the shock of their lives.
The Persuasions appear at the Palace Grand Theatre July 16, the Thursday before the Dawson City Music Festival, with local band Three Chords and the Truth. Tickets are available through TicketPro at dcmf.com or by calling 1-888-655-9090.
Wayne Potoroka is a freelance
writer based in Dawson City.