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This article by Richard J. Skelly was published
in U.S. 1 Newspaper on June 10, 1998. All rights reserved.
A Bluesman on the Move
Guitarist, singer, and songwriter Bill Perry realizes
if blues music is going to continue to flourish, new approaches to
the form are required. The 36-year-old musician, signed recently to
a multi-album deal with Pointblank, a Virgin Records subsidiary, has
his work cut out for him. His debut album "Love Scars,"
and released on the independent Rave-On label, helped get him noticed.
Then, after hearing him live at Manny’s Car Wash, a New York City
blues club, Pointblank signed the little-known Perry to the major
label that promises worldwide distribution. It’s clear they believe
strongly in Perry’s abilities to take the blues to a new level.
For a year, Perry ran the Sunday night jam sessions at Manny’s Car
Wash, a hub for blues activity on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Before
that, in the 1980s, he worked with folk singer Richie Havens, who
knew of Perry and his stellar guitar playing from his performances
at Greenwich Village clubs.
"I worked with Richie Havens for four years, from about 1988 to
1992," says Perry, speaking from his home in Upstate New York.
"I knew Richie because when I was younger, I used to do a lot
of Hendrix songs, and he’d come see me. One day he called me up out
of the blue and asked if I wanted to do a gig with him. I asked,
the gig?’ And he says, `Japan.’ So I did the gig with him. I’d never
flown before on a jet. That was in 1988."
Asked about his major label success at such a relatively young age,
Perry says it was just a matter of being in the right place at the
right time. Getting his break working as part of Havens’ band in the
1980s, good timing is something Perry seems to have developed a knack
for, over the years.
Born and raised in the Hudson River town of Chester,
New York, he began playing guitar when he was five. Right away, he
says, "I could play the theme from `Batman.’ There was a local
guy there named John Scheeling, who’s now in Orlando, Florida, and
he taught me a little bit. And also my cousin was very helpful in
the early days."
"My father used to listen to [organist] Jimmy Smith and B.B. King,
and my grandmother played organ in church," says Perry, "so
I was always around this kind of music. My grandmother would get mad
at my father for playing blues on Sunday, when he should have been
Given his attention to classic blues masters like Albert King and
B.B. King, as well as more recent blues-rock guitar stylists like
Jimi Hendrix, it’s easy to trace the roots of Perry’s guitar style.
However, it’s not so easy to see how he writes such consistently good
This comes from years of studying recordings made by all sorts of
blues stylists, he says, including Hendrix, whom he credits as one
of his primary songwriting influences.
"It sounds really weird for a blues musician to say, but as a
songwriter I really like Joni Mitchell. In the blues, a lot of people
do other people’s music all the time. What I’m trying to do is come
up with different formats, instead of just 1-4-5, and make it still
be blues — modern blues, if you will," says Perry.
"When I write now, I write songs on the road," says Perry,
who spends upwards of 200 nights a year on the road. "When I get
home, for the most part I just want to relax."
As a teenager in the 1970s, Perry spent most of his time honing his
chops in small blues clubs like Dan Lynch’s on Manhattan’s Lower East
Side. "I had a fake ID, and I’d go into the clubs and play. There
wasn’t much happening in the 1970s, blues-wise, in New York,"
he recalls. "I never really played at any clubs up in Harlem.
I pretty much stuck with Dan Lynch’s, because I knew they had blues
there all the time, and I used to know all the guys there." It
was there that Havens first came out to see Perry.
What Perry does so well on "Love Scars" and "Greycourt
Lightning" (1998), his first two albums for Pointblank, is combine
a few familiar guitar riffs with his own guitar playing ideas and
lyrics for the 1990s. Several tracks on both albums are rendered on
acoustic guitar. In concerts, he mixes it up as well, giving his band
a break while he sits alone on stage with an acoustic/electric guitar.
"To play the really classic old blues stuff wouldn’t be natural
for me, because I don’t come from that," says Perry. "I come
from Jimi Hendrix and all of those ’60s people. I liked Johnny Winter
and Eric Clapton, and they turned blues around in their own way and
made it popular. That’s what I’m trying to do," he says.
"I mean, I love traditional blues and I listen to it at home a
lot. But to me, Albert Collins was one of the best of the contemporary
blues players who had this really distinctive style. You could listen
to 10 or 12 guitar players and you’d know, within three notes, `Oh,
that’s Albert Collins.’"
Perry took his cues from Collins and the Kings, B.B., Freddie and
Albert, and always sought to develop his own technique. "I began
to realize I was developing my own style when I wrote `Fade To Blue.’
It’s a blues song, but it’s not a standard format blues song, I use
different chord changes on it," he explains.
Even though he’s not what some in the blues mafia would consider a
straight-ahead blues player, that’s perfectly fine. Some call Perry’s
"I think it’s the right thing to do," he says, "to do
something different with the blues, to keep the music evolving."
"What I want," he explains, taking a pause to think, "is
for people to eventually recognize my style as my own. So that when
they hear me on the radio, they’ll go, `Oh, that’s Bill Perry!’"
— Richard J. Skelly
New Brunswick, 732-246-3111. $5. Saturday, June 13, 9:30 p.m.
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