In 1961 I graduated from high school in Apopka, Florida. I really had no idea what to do so I decided to go to New York where I figured there had to be more opportunities.One of my favorite uncles, Peter Callahan Hickson, lived in Brooklyn.
He had no idea I was coming and was completely shocked when he saw me standing at his door at 4 in the morning. Well as they say one thing led to another and it turned out that my buddy Leroy Massey who had left Apopka earlier was now living in Brooklyn and he offered me a room in his apartment.
One night Leroy and I went out to The 521 Club for a drink. The band was smokin’ and Leroy said I should go up and sing. So I did. I sang “Your Precious Love” by Jerry Butler one of my idols. Boy was I surprised by the audience reaction. I mean, they went wild. The club owner offered me a job singing on weekends. But that same night a guy in the audience named Beatrice Best asked if I would sing with his group The Shufflers. I told him “No right now I’m looking for a job.” He said “I’ll get you a job where I work.” So I didn’t take the job singing at the 521 Club ’cause I figured it wouldn’t be no real money. Believe it or not he worked at a company that printed album covers. My first job was running the printing press, a Davidson 222. It printed out the album covers of all the big stars like Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Judy Garland, and on and on and on……Oh how I would dream about seeing myself on an album cover some day! Boy do dreams really come true.
Meanwhile Best entered The Shufflers into the Wednesday night amateur hour at The Apollo Theater. I shared the lead on “Guess Who” by Jesse Belvin. I arranged it with my friend Julius who was the group’s lead singer. We won 7 weeks straight. Twenty five dollars a week! Five dollars a man. I moved into the Ritz and bought a brand new Cadillac! Well not really, but I did move on up. Right across town with my new girlfriend to our own 3 room apartment at 58 Green Avenue. A spiral staircase led up to my 3rd floor apartment.
At some point my gal & I got into a tiff and when it was over there was a guy outside who had observed the whole thing (he lived at 68 Green Ave) and said “Seem to be having girl trouble man.” I couldn’t believe that this little guy had such a big deep voice. That was the beginning of my friendship with Jimmy Hayes.
I quit my job at the printing press and decided to live alone and moved 4 blocks away to Cambridge Place. Jimmy was the elevator operator at Abraham & Strauss on Fulton Street. So I went across the street to Goodwin’s department store and also got a job as an elevator operator and later became their store detective.
Jimmy & I would go to work together and wait for each other after work. At some point Jimmy told me that he’d heard me singing. Well at that time I did sing wherever I’d go. It turned out that we knew a lot of the same songs and we’d just sing to amuse ourselves ’cause we sounded so good together. In fact at one point we thought we could be a duet. We harmonized so well together.
One day Jimmy told me he had been asked to sing with a group called The Parisians. He had asked the group if he could bring me along to their rehearsal. We went to this fella’s apartment in Brooklyn. They had a little piano. There were about five other guys and one of them was Joe Russell. After they went through a few songs Jimmy asked them to let me sing a song. I asked them if they knew “Up On The Roof” and they did. We sang it. It was smokin’. Then their lead singer Bob Samuels angrily asked me to leave. He said I was interrupting their practice. So me & Jimmy left. We just laughed all the way home.
A few days later Joe came to us and said he had quit the group. He said “What about us puttin’ a group together?” We said that sounded good but we need a baritone. Joe said he knew a guy. So that’s when we met Toubo. We started practicing every day at Joe’s house or wherever we went. We played basketball every evening and after the games the 4 of us would sing and the rest of the guys would join in.
Our friend Jimmy Docket said we needed a tenor and that he knew someone. That’s when we met Jay Otis Washington. We went to Jay’s house and he sang Stardust and we backed him up on it. He had his own unique sound that blended really well with us. That’s when it hit us! Wow what a sound we got here.
Next we decided to get a guitar player. God works in mysterious ways. The guitar player never showed up when we had a show to do. We would apologize to the audience for the guitar player not showing up. And the audience would say “You don’t need no band.” I guess they were right because after 40 years we still ain’t got no band.
After a year of practicing in places such as Joe’s kitchen, Jimmy’s living room, and our favorite subway station, Lafayette & Fulton St, better known as Seven Corners, it was about time to let the public see what we were all about..
We used to stop in a little place for drinks now &amp; then called The Clairmount Lounge. Lady Grace was the manager. She told us we ought to come and sing in her lounge on a Sunday. So we did. There was no stage, no microphones. We just stood in the center of the room and sang. Everyone enjoyed us and people suggested that when we finish there, we should go on to such & such a lounge next. In that one day we had sung in 5 lounges! Like the Pied Piper, pickin’ up fans along the way. By the end of the day we had a packed house! We Ended up at the Tar Hill Lounge, where the North Carolina folk hung out.
All of this time we were just the boys from the avenue. One night, while singing on our favorite street corner under Miss Pearly Mae Simpson’s window, she screamed out “If you come back tomorrow I’m gonna pour some hot water on ya’ll. Ya need to get yourself a name and go try to make some money!”
Well we decided to do just that. We planned to get together the next night and all of us were to bring 5 names that they thought would fit us. I can’t remember the crazy names we came up with. A lot of the group names at that time ended in “tions”(shons), Temptations, Vibrations, Impressions, Dalmations, Cremations…..That’s when Jimmy said I got a name for us and I got it from the Bible. We should call ourselves The Persuasions. Everyone asked why The Persuasions? He said Christ had to persuade people to follow his teachings, what better name for us if we’re gonna try to persuade people to listen to us without a band.Thus, The Persuasions were born.
We really got serious. I asked The Persuasions to let me be the lead singer. Because I really didn’t know how to sing background. That was an art I learned later on. Being the lead singer was a great challenge.
One of the first things I said to the guys is that we have to sing everything. From gospel to country, to rock n’ roll, opera and everything in-between. I would come to the group with something new every night. From The Temptations, to Elvis,The Mills Brothers, to The Ink Spots, The Four Lads, The Kingston Trio and many more. This thing was really gettin’ exciting. We couldn’t wait to get off work so we could get started. We even had crowds at our practices. We had to hold secret practices because too many people were showing up.
Mind ya now we all had day jobs. Joe was a butcher, Jay was a plumber, Jimmy was an elevator operator, Toubo was a shoe salesman and I was a store detective. One day Jimmy said “I’m sick of this. I ain’t goin’ to work today, in fact I quit.” I said “Well if you quit I quit.” Toubo who didn’t care too much about workin’ anyway said “Sound like music to me.”
Boy was that statement true. Sound like music to me. There we were walking down Fulton Street jobless and without a care in the world. A man came out of a storefront and said “You guys lookin’ for work?” “Doin’ what?” we asked. He said “surveying”. Wow! Surveying! From the jive jobs we had workin’ downtown now we’ll be looking through a scope mapping out street blocks! To our surprise and disappointment it wasn’t that kind of surveying. It was askin’ people how they felt about the conditions and needs of their neighborhood. First we were sent through 6 weeks of very interesting classes taught by professors from all over the world. Then it was time to hit the pavement. Walking, walking, walking, talking and asking questions. Too much walking and talking.
I told Jimmy there had to be a better way. So I got me a telephone book. We’ll pick names and addresses from the phone book and ask each other questions and make sure we have different answers. We were rated the best surveyors in the class. Our supervisor Miss Grandville wanted to show the class how the three of us were so good at surveying. So the entire class including the teachers were going out with us to see how we worked our wonders. The three of us broke down and confessed. To our surprise she was already on to us and really wanted to make an example out of us by showing the class how not to do the job. Were we embarrassed! So we gave it our best and went back out to complete the surveys.
We were actually very good at communicating with folks and we got to meet so many interesting people in Bedford Stuyvestant those last 6 weeks of the job. Turns out that this survey was being conducted by an organization called Restoration Corporation which was being funded by the Kennedy’s and the Astor Foundation. Their fundamental mission is to build community leadership and empower low-income people to take charge of their neighborhoods and their future. When the surveying was completed this organization offered me, Jimmy and Toubo positions within the organization.
I became a community organizer and later on, the director of the youth development center. Toubo was my assistant and Jimmy became a community organizer at another center. Eventually I got Jay and Joe jobs too. So there we were the five of us working and singing together.
Because the corporation was working with the NYC Parks department, The Persuasions soon found themselves performing throughout the five boroughs at all the summer events. These events were great opportunities to improve our showmanship and hone our craft.
Mr. Frank Thomas the president of Restoration really took The Persuasions under his wings. It was Mr. Thomas that arranged for us to perform for The Kennedys on many occasions. There was also Miss Ruth Logan, a talent coordinator for Restoration. Miss Logan groomed us and arranged for our first professional performance which was opening for Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach at Lincoln Center Philharmonic Hall. The corporation really went all out with the advertising. Just imagine one minute you’re a store detective or an elevator operator and now posters of you are plastered all over New York City. Buses, subways and even in some taxicabs.
This was the show of our life! This was beyond big! I remember we spent weeks rehearsing and trying to figure out how to dress for it. We ended up buying red ruffled shirts, black suits, black bowties, and shiny patent leather shoes. I told The Persuasions, well if we don’t sing good, we sure look good. The moment of truth. The master of ceremonies, Mr. Alan King, with his cigar, told a few jokes. While he began introducing The Persuasions we were back stage nervous excited and scared. We placed our hands on top of each other’s and we said a prayer.
As we walked out onto the stage I don’t know what happened but a light hit me in the eyes. To this day I have no recollection of that performance. All I know is that when we finished the audience was standing up and applauding. As I came off stage Donny Hathaway and Dionne Warwick were saying “They love you, they love you! Go back go back!” I was so scared to go back. My knees were weak. I felt like collapsing. Someone kept saying encore, encore. I didn’t even know what an encore was. Jimmy said they want us to do another song. A voice in my head said do The Lord’s Prayer. Boy was that voice right. Perfect song, perfect time. The way I was brought up, you’re not supposed to applaud after The Lord’s Prayer but it was another standing ovation. When we came off stage I never will forget Donny Hathaway’s words. “You guys are gonna go down in the history books.” That’s what he said.