The very accomplished Phil Perry reflects on his great career (40223)

In the span of minutes, the standard Q & A interview had subsided and it felt like two brothers just kickin’ it. After a myriad of topics, the subject of boxing was brought up and it was then that I had my light bulb moment. When trying to find someone that was comparable to Phil Perry, maybe I needed to look to the sweet science instead of music.

There I found it in Bernard Hopkins. In Hopkins you have an individual who has performed at a championship level for years but has escaped the plaudits that his talent deserves. He devises a plan, prepares well and then, when it’s time, with surgical, pinpoint precision executes it to near perfection. At the end of each performance, he wows the aficionados, further earns the respect of his peers and converts casual observers into devout followers. Yeah, that’s a fitting parallel.

When asked how cat just out of East St Louis goes on to record in four different languages and be considered on the A list of studio musicians and singers, Perry responded, “There’s no such thing as a creative person that isn’t a dreamer. The dream fuels the creative process.”

It began humbly in Catholic school, where Perry was asked to replace a soloist in his school choir stricken with strep throat for Midnight Mass. At the song’s completion, he received a standing ovation from an audience that included his parents and grandmother. From there, images of a professional career were conjured and put into motion.

A few years later, Perry was a member of quintet called the Montclairs. “In 1969, I wrote a song called ‘Hey You,’ and that composition was my first musician, background singing, lead vocal introduction into the professional ranks,” Perry says.

During his career he’s had the privilege to work sessions with the likes of George Duke, Anita Baker, Rod Stewart, Barbra Streisand, Bobby Womack and Peabo Bryson, to name a few. He’s written songs for Aretha Franklin, Bobby Caldwell, Najee, Noel Pointer and Patti Austin and recorded three group albums-one with the Montclairs and two as part of a duo with another member of the Montclairs, Kevin Sanlin, under the name Perry & Sanlin (these will be remastered and reissued later this year in a two-CD set-and nine solo albums.

Perry reflected on his career so far, “It’s been a wonderful journey. Although the selfish me would say there are things that I would change, the me that I’m trying to become says that if I changed anything, I wouldn’t be here. A lot of people don’t know how long I’ve been in the industry. My wife posts songs onto my website and when people respond, they’ll ask questions as though they’re brand new. Some of the music that they’re listening to is over 25 years old.”

Aside from the obvious attributes of talent and hard work, he revealed his X-factor. “I didn’t get into the industry thinking that everyone would like what I did. I’m a human being and I readily accept my flaws, because if God didn’t want them there, he wouldn’t have put them there. So I just tried to be faithful, because singing has always been there with me. I never had a phobia about taking a chance. I viewed each chance as an opportunity and every opportunity as a blessing. I knew I was covered. I didn’t deserve to be covered by any means, but I was covered.”

The experiences Perry has amassed in music, combined with his personal mores and values, have brought about keen observations in life with relation to music. Said Perry, “I’ve had to encompass everything that I was doing to meet the technological advances, and I realized that the sonic value has gotten more abrasive as we get further into the digital age.” He continued, “Musicians today don’t groove like they used to. They just don’t.

“Here’s why: There’s no education. Music has been out of schools for 25, in some cases 30 years. So there’s no sensitivity to harmonies. There’s no relativity to melodies. Computers are used more as a crutch than a tool. When you take the people out of it, how can people relate to and feel it?

“Yet while this fact is undeniable, the product gets rewarded in terms of exposure. Radio has become a marketing clone to whoever the target market is. In other words, radio is formatted with the hopes of creating zombies who will move to anything rhythmic, but their musical horizons aren’t broadened on any level.

“At some point, we need to stop pointing fingers and start taking responsibility to make sure that our youth are exposed. Not just to music, but to other arts, cultures and philosophies. Once you know how another man thinks, it’s easier to deal with him.”

Perry concluded, “Coming from where I came from, doing what I had to do and working my behind off thinking that I would one day be able to enjoy the benefit of having made music to change people’s attitudes-just to see things haven’t changed; in fact, they’ve gotten worse. The economy is easy to fault, but it’s not just that. I’m talking spirituality, the thing that kept the Black communities together, belief in God and family. This isn’t a popular sentiment, but people are more concerned with being politically correct than telling the truth.”

Having a spiritual base has served as a safety net for Perry throughout his life that was reinforced by two profound moments.

“I performed at Southern Connecticut State University last week and the last time I played there [at the John Lyman Center for the Performing Arts] I had a heart attack. I was out before I hit the floor. The paramedic that was with was telling me you had a lot of prayers. Then he said, ‘You’re going to be ok, but you might be a little old to be doing what you’re trying to do.’

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Don’t go there. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but you don’t know what I’m trying to do. You don’t order my steps.’ I don’t know what I’m trying to do, but I know who orders my steps. I know I wasn’t afraid. Faith can’t be tested when everything is cool. The only time someone knows you have faith is when you have nothing and act like you have everything.”

The other moment of consequence was felt by us all on Sept. 11, 2001. “I had three gigs that day. At night I was going to do the Hudson River Cruise and during the day I was set to do the Kiss FM concert series. If you remember, those took place right in the center of the towers. It was surreal. For a few years, I couldn’t work. My spirit was hurt. I had played there for, like, six years in a row and gotten familiar with some of the people that attended-I would be less then truthful if I didn’t say this, but every once in a while I see some of those faces, and sometimes those faces are encouraging.”

Perry, along with Alex Bugnon, will close out the 14th annual Smooth Cruise season on Friday, Oct. 7 at 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. on the Spirit of New York, departing from Pier 61 at Chelsea Piers. Tickets may be purchased at or ordered by phone at (866) 211-3812.

Hope to see you there. I’m out. Holla next week. ‘Til then, enjoy the night life.