In every town, there are a few musicians who, instead of lunging for the elusive brass ring, have instead stayed home and contented themselves with the opportunities at home. There they await discovery by the outside world, and the history of the blues is full of such delightful finds - Mance Lipscomb comes to mind, as does Houstonian Sam “Lightning” Hopkins. Hopkins’ hometown is today full of such musicians, many of whom have re-releases out on Edsel records. A sterling example of this process is bandleader, songwriter, arranger, guitarist, and singer extraordinaire Oscar Perry. ~ Demon Music Group
Few artists have covered all the bases in the Black Music Field as completely as the dynamic Oscar Perry. Raised in cut’n’shoot juke joints across Texas, his professional career kicked off in grand fashion in 1968 when he started recording for Don Robey’s internationally famous Backbeat label. But recognition as a performer wasn’t enough to satisfy this man of many talents. While he continued to perform and record after hooking up with the Gulf Coast’s leading producer Huey P. Meaux, in 1971, Oscar began to develop his writing and arranging skills even though he had no formal music education. He sure didn’t need a college professor to tell his material was on target. Instead he took songs like “Cold Day In Hell”, “This Time I’m Gone For Good”, “The End Of The Road”, and “The Blues Is All I Was Left With”, to Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, who promptly made them into hits of his own.
Now Oscar brings it all together for himself on this album, singing, writing and arranging everything from mournful ballads and sweet soul, even all the way to hard kicking country and western. Though there are many moods contained in the grooves of this record, they all come form the soul of one man ready to let them loose - Oscar Perry.
Joe Nick Patoski
Notes on the Recordings
Perry was born in 1943, 30 miles due south of Houston in what was then a farming community, Lake Jackson, Texas. Perry recalls that while his was only one of “about four black families” in the area, there was nevertheless a night-spot nearby. There the underage Perry would peer in and watch the musicians, which most often consisted of acoustic guitar and washboard. In his early teens his mother died, and he told me that “me, my brother, and my dog” moved to Houston’s Sunnyside community, a quasi-rural neighborhood near which the Astrodome was soon to rise like a mushroom after a rain. Musical even at that early age, Perry told Living Blues in 1998 that “(he) used to beat on a barrel and sing.” Of an early composition from this barrel-beating period, Perry can now only recall this line: “I feel so bad, like a ball-game on a rainy day”.
After winning several high school talent shows, Perry signed with two small labels in rapid succession, waxing three 45’s each for the Lee Jay and Ferenberg labels. While some of these songs met with small regional success, Perry chose to earn a steady income at a paint company.
He didn’t completely abandon his musical dreams, as each lunch hour found him at the Duke/Peacock studios writing songs. This was not a source of significant financial remuneration, as Don Robey’s standard practice was to purchase unfinished tunes upfront for tiny sums, and Perry, who at the time was not into the blues, simply gave many of his blues tunes away. “Me being young, I didn’t want to sing the blues, “ he told Living Blues. “So I gave the blues songs to Bobby Bland.”
Many Houston musicians have called Don Robey a song thief (and worse), but Perry today casts the label head in a kinder light. “I personally liked Don Robey, and I think he liked me. A lot of people say he cheated them out of money, but that’s not the truth. What would happen is these guys would write songs and they would try to sell the songs to Robey, so he would tell them they ain’t nothing but some words, and they would sell it. After he’d buy it, sometimes he would give the words to me and tell me to make a melody to it, and we’d record it with Bobby Bland or somebody. Then they’d say it had been stolen, but I don’t think he did because they didn’t have to sell it, they could have put it on contract. They wanted quick money.”
Another aspect of working for Robey that Perry recalls fondly is the opportunity it gave him to work with the man behind Bobby Bland’s throne, the trumpeter/bandleader/ arranger Joe Scott. “He showed me how to write for strings”, he told LB. “When he had an arrangement and needed somebody to do a melody, sometimes he would get me. We had a pretty close relationship.”
By the early seventies, Duke’s run of luck was winding down. Junior Parker’s tragic death of a brain tumor and Joe Scott’s disassociation with the label, as well as changing tastes, led Robey to sell out to ABC in 1974. Perry went to work for Robey’s erstwhile rival, the Crazy Cajun, Huey Meaux. There Perry filled much the same role Scott had at Duke, with added duties as a performer in his own right. In addition, Perry ran his own Perrytone label and played bass for several of Meaux’s artists, including his most commercially successful, Freddy Fender.
He has since written songs that have been recorded by Denise LaSalle (“If You Can’t Handle It, I’ll Get You Some Help”) and his good friend Johnny Copeland (“Every Dog Gotta Have His Day”). He currently has two bluesy albums out on his own TSOT label, “Brand New Man” and “Still Blue”, and is a fixture on Houston’s stellar night club circuit, playing his trademark “smooth blues”. Asked by LB to describe his sound, Perry answered as follows: “I think the blues is the way life is, however you’re living, if it ain’t good. You know a baby is crying and they can’t get their bottle, that’s the blues. It comes from way down deep inside. I think it comes from the spiritual. That’s the foundation of it, that sound way back from Lightnin’ Hopkins and before. What I try to do lately is sing songs that might be blues but have positive lyrics. I don’t really like to do the ones saying ‘Baby you’re gone, I don’t want you no more.’ I like to say if the relationship went wrong, I was the reason. That’s where I think they classify me as a positive blues singer.”
Perry today is active on a Houston blues scene that is one of the world’s liveliest. He has two albums of new material on release, with another slated to come out in the summer of ’99. I can think of few musicians today who combine the talents of singer, songwriter, and arranger so ably as Oscar Perry, and just one spin of this silver disc should be enough for many a listener to come to the same conclusion.
~John Nova Lomax, April 1999