Whilst amassing widespread fame with his debut alongside soulful a cappella group Talk of the Town on NBC’s The Sing-Off in 2011—providing a firm opposition against even the immaculate Pentatonix—longtime fans of the soul scene will regard Jerry Lawson as one of the founders of a cappella in popular music, period. While never quite becoming as acclaimed as other R&B groups of the 1970s, Lawson’s work with vocal ensemble the Persuasions is, in its own right, legendary. Defined by an altogether smooth and husky baritone at the lead in Lawson, the band gained a cult following with their unique a cappella twists on a catalog as vibrant as Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan, Bill Withers, and the Grateful Dead. Almost 40 years later, Lawson is still alive and as kickin’ as ever, now having gone solo with Just a Mortal Man.
For certain frontmen and women throughout music’s lush history, releasing a solo project has led to mixed results, panned by critics, fans, and sometimes even the artists themselves, in the end, for its inadequacies. In Lawson’s case, however, just as in the case of his now being 71 years young and still in the music game, he is as much of a commanding presence of a vocalist to admire as he ever was fronting both the Persuasions and Talk of the Town. Though it is undeniably in large part due to his participation in both vocal bands throughout the decades that Lawson has developed such a range of vocal talent for himself, it is still something to behold hearing the man’s voice working just as well fronting actual instruments as he would surrounded by a group of backing harmonics and beats. Lawson, here, encapsulates more than ever that the voice itself is just as much of an instrument as any other, transcending beyond the blasé to offer something nonpareil.
The great thing about Lawson to show off here, too, is that despite his naturally soulful stylings and vocal leanings, he still has an ability to adapt himself to songs that had initially belonged to artists that one might come to believe would be out of his immediate range of comfort. The first track on Just a Mortal Man, for instance, is a cover of Paul Simon’s “Peace Like a River”. Backed by subtle guitar licks and a steady percussion, Lawson commands a listener’s attention instantaneously with his infectious presence, leading the composition with a tenderness that could only come from a true relatability and admiration of the autochthonous work itself. At times, Lawson takes the time to speak to his audience between verses, offering a relaxed, conversational brush of authenticity to the soulfulness and ease at which he powerfully delivers his performances.
It isn’t all slow rolling, however, with Lawson notably taking on the fast-paced blues and rock of Martin Billie Ray’s “Never Been to Memphis” just as professionally as he would a gradual burner. Elsewhere, he takes on country with a cover of his friend Peter Cooper’s “Wine”, and in doing so, unintentionally brings forth the traditional saying that brings the record full circle: “Like fine wine, it just gets better with age.” In this case, Lawson’s experience in the industry has only blessed him with a greater step to his clyde. He may be Just a Mortal Man, but he’s a mortal man with a voice and a presence as impassioned and as cool as Sam Cooke or Otis Redding ever had, with an identity and a style that are all his own.
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