Denise Perrier

by Bob Hershon, June 1992

I arrived early so as to be in position to take some photos of Denise Perrier's performance at Bentley's, a classy little seafood and bar in downtown San Francisco. Even with the band squeezed in against the staircase, there was hardly enough room for the waitresses to slip in between the tables and stage. A singer would appear to be frozen between the bass and the piano. Then, as the band gave her a cue, Denise broke into a sultry version of "What Is This Thing Called Love" as she descended the marble staircase. The applause came up and the merciless clinking of glasses and forks, which are usually tough competition for any chanteuse, died down to a whisper. With the aid of a cordless mic, she danced her way through the audience that contained a surprising amount of fellow musicians sprinkled in among her friends and public. She used the confining aspects of the room to generate intimacy. The club was transformed right before my eyes. Talking to her, I found she learned this magic trick from countless hours of performances and public appearances here and in the farthest reaches of the globe. Her early training, however, started a little closer to her home in Albany, California.

Denise recalled, "There were a lot of musicians in my family. Since we lived right around the corner from a 'press' shop and a juke joint, there was a steady stream of people coming through the house like my dad's friends Slim Gaillard, Roger Glenn, (a relative with whom I recently recorded), and his father Tyree Glenn. Even though I was a kid, I learned all the jive words. I always admired the classy way the performers of the day dressed and conducted themselves. Although they must have had their problems, they seemed to be having too much fun and, at that time the music was 'pure'. I couldn't help but thinking I wanted to do that too."

Oakland was in the midst of a musical renaissance in the late forties. You could literally walk from one great performance to another. Perrier had the advantage of having Robert Porter, (see JN, Dec. '91) one the main figures in the "scene", escort her to jam sessions. Porter remembers, "Denise was not only a gorgeous young woman, but she had a regal sort of bearing that was paired with her natural warmth. I was sort of like a big brother, taking her around town to the many jam sessions that were going on at the time. Although she didn't sing professionally at the time, I knew she had potential. She listened to all the great performers that came into town. She loved Dinah Washington, so I taught her "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," which was her first Jazz tune."

Perrier recalls, "The most important part of my formal training began with my choir teacher, Dr. Lehmer, at Albany High. His work ethic and his talent as an arranger turned the choir into a perennial favorite. Dr. Lehmer was a no-nonsense person. He'd be walking by, scrutinizing his students. He'd put his hand on your stomach and if you weren't breathing right you were out. He taught us to dissect the lyric of a song and find out what the person was trying to say to you. That respect for the lyric content was one of the best things that a singer can have. Singing is not about vocal gymnastics. Billie Holiday had limited range. It's all about taking what someone has written and breathing life into those words."

In the late fifties, Perrier found herself performing with a vocal group called The Intervals, led by Cleve O'Dear, who had worked in Andy Kirk's big band. The quartet, impeccable in both their harmony and dress, worked clubs like the Jack Tar in San Francisco, as well as the Embers, and the Hawaiian Gardens located in a section of Palo Alto called Little Las Vegas (It received its nickname from hosting many of the same personalities as Vegas, such as Jack Jones, Steve Lawrence, etc.). It was in this Little Las Vegas that Perrier's career really started to take off. During a benefit for The NAACP at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, The Intervals caught the attention of a legendary figure in the world of jazz, Louis Armstrong.

Denise told me, "After Louis Armstrong heard us. We got picked up and literally swept away. Second bananas but in a very good direction. It gave me a chance to be in Vegas and be around Frances Fay, Johnny Mathis, Della Reese, and Dinah Washington. It was a different scene then, with everybody staying in trailers near their gig. It was much more intimate. I sat in awe of Dinah. I learned a lot from watching her work her audience. The way she'd hold each and every person in the palm of her hand."

Though she valued her time with the group, Perrier wanted to expand her range as a performer and she wanted to travel. She left the group in 1964 for Australia, which at that time was thought of by most people as the end of the earth. She spent some time in the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Her talent and genuine fondness for people crossed the language barriers to the extent that she recorded an album in Tagalog (chief native language of the Philippine Islands).

"While I was in Hong Kong, I learned the skill of booking and managing talent. As a result of this I found myself in Vietnam, which was a lucky circumstance for me because I learned to love the people, the food and atmosphere. I took lots of helicopter rides. I was even there for the Tet Offensive," Perrier explained.

Through her friendship with Etta Jones and later Houston Person, Perrier recorded a tape that caught the attention of the people over at Concord Records. (See Groove Merchant, JN, March '92.) In November they called her in to record a couple of tunes which eventually led to a session for a monster album with a galaxy of stars to be released in July of this year. For her part on the album she recorded with Brother Jack McDuff and Red Holloway.

"I went to see Etta and Houston at Jack's in San Francisco." Perrier said. "Etta and I knew we were going to be friends as soon as we met. It wasn't until Houston, who is a very private person, actually heard me play that we formed a bond. He said he wanted to produce a record for me. So when he called and told me he had the free time, I jumped at the chance. I mean just take a look at his track record! He included a couple of tunes on the set I hadn't sung before like "If," by David Gates and a standard called "Again." He wanted to give an edge to my voice and provide variety so it could be played on a wider range of stations. It was funny how it all turned out that I spent money I didn't have for the session with Houston Person and had no pattern or plan for distribution. Now hopefully with the notice my present album gets, it will make the earlier session a viable commodity. Even if it doesn't, it's already more than served its purpose."

On the very day we did this interview, Denise got a call that they were casting the role of Bessie Smith for a major motion picture. Denise received rave reviews for her portrayal of Bessie in a production at the Lorraine Hansberry Theater and later for a reprisal of the role at Kimball's. Phil Elwood of The San Francisco Examiner said, "Perrier has long been my nomination to play the role of Bessie Smith in the film. Her voice is strong and firm and particularly rich in the contralto range as was Bessie's." Jessie Hamlin of the The San Francisco Chronicle agreed, "Miss Perrier captures the essence of Bessie Smith to an eerie degree." I found proof positive that she would be perfect for the role. While perusing her press kit, I came across two photos. I asked Perrier which one was Bessie and which one was her. "I'll never tell," she said. And of course there were the reviews of her performance. It is puzzling, considering all that Denise has done, that she isn't more of a household name and is only now recording her first album.

"I never set out to become a recording star. For that matter I never was interested in pushing my way into 'stardom'. I just wanted to enjoy the people and opportunities that came my way in life and be a good person," Denise said. "I feel I've matured as an artist. I like what I hear now. As far as Bessie Smith, I'm very Bessie. She was a very theatrical person, not just a singer. She was also a comedian, a stepper - a lady of many colors. I even have the wardrobe to match hers. My task now is to see if I can find the casting agent and make my pitch."

by Bob Hershon

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