An Interview with New York blueswoman Roxy Perry: Truth and life experience are essential in Blues

"The Blues saves me a lot of money on therapy."

Roxy Perry: "Big Apple" Blues Queen

A child prodigy, Roxy started out fronting swing bands at the famous Glen Island Casino in New Rochelle, New York and performed her first major concert at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California at age 9. By her late teens, she was working with soul band at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City. It was there that she was discovered and did her first studio recording as a back-up vocalist. This led to her going on tour for four years with the pop-rock band, Dawn, representing their hits of the time. The band headlined concert tours with Kenny Rogers, Rare Earth, Gladys Knight & The Pips, Iron Butterfly, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and many others.

Roxy launched her blues career in the late ‘80’s, when she quickly became known for her exciting live performances at clubs, concert halls and festivals throughout the U.S. and abroad and won her reputation as “the real deal” through her riveting live performances and highly acclaimed CDs in blues and jazz circles worldwide. In recent years Roxy has appeared on the concert bill with Rod Piazza, Shamekia Copeland, Leon Russell, Marcia Ball, John Mayall, Hubert Sumlin, Gatemouth Brown, Koko Taylor, Taj Mahal, Neville Brothers, Popa Chubby, Derek Trucks, Black Crowes, Susan Tedeschi, Duke Robillard and a host of others.As a recording artist, Roxy has performed, produced and written the material for four highly acclaimed CDs that have been added to classic female Blues artist lists on radio stations throughout the world. They are titled HI HEEL BLUES, ROXY PERRY, NEW YORK BLUES QUEEN, BACK IN BLUESVILLE , and IN MY SWEET TIME. In 2006, BACK IN BLUESVILLE was awarded BEST SELF-PRODUCED CD at the IBC in Memphis, TN. Blues legend Roscoe Gordon chose Roxy to sing three part harmonies on his entire last release that aired worldwide.


Interview by Michael Limnios

Photos by Roxy Perry's Archive / All rights reserved 

What do you learn about yourself from the blues, what does the blues mean to you?
It saves me a lot of money on therapy.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past?

There were more paying festival opportunities, airplay opportunities, Blues venues, reviews and interviews for independent artists in the past. There were more avid Blues fans, too. I see many fine, accomplished Blues bands struggling, that wouldn't have been, in the past. Pro players are working far less, as Blues-relevant venues diminish. There seems to be less interest, and less booking of Blues, in general. Blues music is rarely played on mainstream radio.

"Blues is the 'root' of most popular music. I was lucky to be born in 1950 and evolve with American music. If you have Blues inside of you, you can relate to any form of American mainstream music."

What are your hopes and fears of the future?

I am hoping more young people will listen to Blues and become interested in playing it. There needs to be a new revival of the genre. Messages conveyed through Blues are not so unlike those of the lyric-based rap and hip-hop. It would be great if young audiences could pick up on that point. There have been some very successful marriages of the genres. Each new wave or new age of music grows on elements of the past, and it would be nice to see young artists infuse popular music with the deep soul, feel and authenticity of Blues.

My fear is that the industry will continue in its current direction.  Few independent artists are able to break even from the cost of creating, releasing and distributing product. Today, it is harder than ever to earn a living as a musician or performing artist.

What does to be a female artist in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in Blues?

It unfortunately is, still, “A Man’s World”. While there are opportunities, women artists are generally offered lower pay, and fewer female-fronted bands gain top billing in festivals. The old frustrations continue today; lack of respect, both artistically, as well as personally, and an expectation that you remain compliant and submissive in business matters, lest you be labeled a bitch. The double-standard still exists.

 

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD BLUESWOMAN and SONGWRITER?
One would only have to listen to my recordings to hear my history. I've had a roller coaster life full of extreme ups and downs to draw my stories from. My music is a reflection of my true life experiences.
I'm not afraid to genuinely bare my soul on stage or on recordings. Doing this gives the listener an opportunity to connect and perhaps realize that they are not alone in this world. In my opinion, truth and life experience are essential in Blues.
I write like a painter paints a picture, choosing the right words, sounds, musicians, production, like colors, to set the scene vividly. I want the listener to “be there” and feel what I feel. Each song and album is designed to take the listener on a journey with me.

 

How do you describe ROXY PERRY sound and progress, what is your music philosophy?
When I was young, I was known as the white chick that sang like a black chick. I started singing professionally in 1960. I nailed Aretha Franklin, Chaka Kahn, even JANIS JOPLIN...to the breath. I sang covers throughout the mid 70's. That was fine. I made a lot of money and did loads of backup vocals on other people's records.
In the late 70's I decided to sing my own story and take a chance. It was at that juncture that people began to recognize my sound on the radio and call me ''the real deal''. Four successful albums later, I'm really glad I took that leap.
I have had a long, diversified musical evolution. I include all of it in my writing. If I do a cover tune...it has to believable. I make it my own. To me, a true Blues singer can sing any song and it will be Blues. I see no musical boundaries in the music I write or arrange anymore. Many consider me a renegade for this, but I feel I'm a traditionalist and am continuing the original thread, mind set, our Blues forefathers intended.. Had our forefathers lived in this era, the content of their stories, as well as the style of music they put behind these stories, would be contemporary.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I wish the industry would go back to a level playing field. Thanks in large part to free sharing and streaming over the Internet, consumers have developed an attitude of entitlement.  This has led to the devaluation of creative work – lyrics, music, performance.  Artists are expected to share their work online and perform for free, all for “the benefit of exposure”.

"I am hoping more young people will listen to Blues and become interested in playing it. There needs to be a new revival of the genre. Messages conveyed through Blues are not so unlike those of the lyric-based rap and hip-hop. It would be great if young audiences could pick up on that point."  

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the blues music?
I gravitated to Blues music since birth. We were poor, but I was fortunate to have my parent's record collection to support my interest. I didn't play ''dolls'' I played records, the radio and watched variety shows on TV that often featured great Blues artists like Ray Charles, Etta James, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong and many others that led me down my path and educated me. The most important thing I learned was to sing from my truth, heart and soul.

 

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
The best was headlining the Blues Cruise on Lake Geneva at the MONTREUX JAZZ FEST 2007. I was amazed that people from all over the world packed the ship and knew my music as well as I did. I got a standing ovation from Quincy Jones at the world jam session there....that alone made it an unforgettable experience.
The worst experience was losing my voice completely before a major concert in Florida.

 

What do you miss nowadays from your soul band at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City?
I don't miss any of it, because it's still an element of my show. I still have a 10 piece band available for booking as well as a core 5 piece band. All the styles of music I've done in the 52 years I've been employed are part of the fabric of my show now. I've played with great musicians throughout my career. Some have passed on, but some still work with me.
My husband, for instance, has been playing bass with me for 40 years.

"It unfortunately is, still, 'A Man’s World'. While there are opportunities, women artists are generally offered lower pay, and fewer female-fronted bands gain top billing in festivals. The old frustrations continue today; lack of respect, both artistically, as well as personally, and an expectation that you remain compliant and submissive in business matters, lest you be labeled a bitch. The double-standard still exists."

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?

Well,,,since I haven't sat still for the 52 years that I've been employed in this business, I'd have to say it's all been interesting in every era and phase of the decades. It's been a roller coaster ride for sure. I like where my music is at presently, but I don't like the path the recording industry has taken.

Are there any memories from Kenny Rogers, Rare Earth, Iron Butterfly, and many others, which you’d like to share with us?

It was 4 years of solid touring. We played at every major arena in the US and Canada several times over. We were in a new city every day. We were most friendly with Kenny Rogers’ band and crew. Kenny and his brother were both very tall, big guys. They often greeted me with bear hugs and swept me off my feet for fun. I was the ''kid'' at age 19-22, and the youngest.
Most times I was the only woman on the bill. I got a lot of teasing and embarrassment when we went through customs. They would bring all the bands in a private room and go through their luggage… Get the picture?
One person I hung out with a few times was MIKE NESMITH. I clearly remember talking to him about combining art with music a number of times during lengthy sound checks. I wasn't surprised that in later years he was involved in creating MTV. He was a very smart guy. We had some great conversations.
Most of the time, we had little time to socialize. When we did, it was mostly back stage or during sound check. In those days, the concerts were massive shows with all the top bands on the same bill, all done in huge theaters and stadiums.
The band partied all night after the shows...but I slept. If we had a day layover I'd get up in the morning and hire a cab to show me the sights. We played in every State and major city in the US and Canada, (except Hawaii), several times over. We have a great country with vastly diverse scenes and people from coast to coast. I'm really glad I had the opportunity to explore it.

 

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES
Blues is the ''root'' of most popular music. I was lucky to be born in 1950 and evolve with American music. If you have Blues inside of you, you can relate to any form of American mainstream music. You can look at the Stones, Cream, and so many other bands music and interviews and see that they were rooted in Blues.
I wish more young people would explore Blues.

 

From the musical point of view is there any difference between the NY blues and the others blues scenes?
NY is really a Jazz town. NY has a lot of Jazz and R&B in its Blues and has a very distinctive sound.
Each region of our country has its own distinctive style.

 

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage and what compliment do you appreciate the most after a gig?
I'm friendly and down to earth on and off stage. I don't have it in me to play the Diva or be anyone but myself. I connect with people immediately. My music takes them on a journey of emotions which always leaves people feeling good. I have a good sense of humor and my band, who are top notch players, do too. We have fun and the audience has fun. Entertaining people and make them happy is my job description. Being a female harp player is fairly unusual. People see it as a bonus feature.
We get many compliments at every show, but the ones I treasure are the ones where people tell me they related to the lyrics my original songs....and had a great time.
The sweetest compliment I ever got was from a Japanese woman who didn't speak English at all, but her son told me that she was moved to tears by the expression of my voice on one of my ballads that night.

 

Tell me about the radio show NEW YORK BLUES-BIRD, broadcast on KCOR, and Roxy’s jams how did come about?
Both the TRAVELING ROADHOUSE JAM series and the radio shows happened by accident.
The radio shows started because a DJ friend got very ill and asked me and my friend to construct and host his 4 hour show. We got a recording of it and sent it to another DJ friend in Chicago...just for laughs. He insisted I do a weekly show on his network. That was 5 years ago. I'm still at it and enjoying it. But I never had a notion or dream to be a DJ. It just happened. I have hundreds of shows under my belt now and plan to continue into my old age. I play vintage, rare and independent Blues exclusively. My record collection is vast. I love turning people on to music they never heard or forgot about as well as helping new indie artists get heard.
ROXY'S TRAVELING ROADHOUSE JAM (RTRJ) started from an accident as well. I had a bad fall and bruised my sternum, ribs and lungs towards the end of last concert season. I still had a number of bookings contracted. But singing was excruciating pain. As always, I think on my feet.
My musician friends often come to my gigs and are invited to sit in. So I figured I'd just turn my gigs into jams. It worked out very well. Our jam has two weekly locations now, more being added for this coming fall. We offer a ''featured guest band spot'' that has helped a lot of up and coming bands, recording artists and touring bands get exposure. We have a great supportive crowd too.
We also do video events where several bands are videotaped in one night at the jam. This has been a great service to bands from 3 states.
The RTRJ has also evolved into an ''all-star'' revue which major venues are now booking. It's comprised of noted pros, famous sidemen and band leaders. The music is spectacular!
We are getting offers to bring the core jam and revue to near and far venues. I'm looking forward to jamming with musicians from all over the world.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the music circuits?

The response of the children at outdoor concerts is always a joy to see. They dance and roll around on the grass in front of the stage and it makes us all laugh.  I often invite them onto the stage to participate, when I can.  Of course, it is always rewarding when the audience, in general, is supportive and engaged. Positive comments following a show, being referred to as ''the real deal'' …knowing I and the band have made a connection with the audience, makes the tough journey that life in the music business is, all worthwhile.

"In a word, graciousness. Each of them made me feel comfortable and supported. For me to hear in passing, that Etta James mentioned me to others in conversation as an artist she liked made me feel really good!"

How has the music business changed over the years since you first started in music?
I could write a book on that subject. It's nothing like it was when I started out or even what it was only 6 years ago. The rules change constantly. It's very hard for a new band to get anywhere and stay afloat these days.

 

What advice would you give to aspiring musicians thinking of pursuing a career in the craft?
Play and write from your life experience. Be yourself. Don't go with the trends because they will be over before your record is released. Learn the business end of things. Get a financial backer and a good attorney.

What is the best advice ever given you? Which things do you prefer to do in your free time? Happiness is...

The best advice I have ever been given is to be myself in music and all things. What free time??! …I'm just happy to get a good night's sleep now and then! I'd love it if a good agent or manager took a few hats off my head... (and hitting the lottery, so I can do my last CD would be a bonus too). 

Which memory from Hubert Sumlin, Gatemouth Brown, Koko Taylor, and Taj Mahal makes you smile?

In a word, graciousness. Each of them made me feel comfortable and supported. For me to hear in passing, that Etta James mentioned me to others in conversation as an artist she liked made me feel really good!

"My fear is that the industry will continue in its current direction. Few independent artists are able to break even from the cost of creating, releasing and distributing product. Today, it is harder than ever to earn a living as a musician or performing artist."

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I'd like to go back to many points in time…These are just a few…I would love to revisit the jam at Dan Lynch in NYC, which was run by my close friend, Frankie Paris. Frankie discovered me when I was 18. Back then, he and I were playing 6 nights a week in Times Square at adjacent clubs. Frankie ran his jam on Saturday and Sunday afternoons and many noted players attended regularly, like The Holmes Brothers, Popa Chubby, Bill Perry, Honeyboy Edwards, Michael Hill and many others. The music and friendship was astounding. More...Another highlight was the day I heard my first CD on the radio while driving in my car…

There are so many fun times, in general, I’ve shared with my band…  It would be sweet to revisit all the various, wonderful gigs we’ve played… Headlining Festiblues International in Quebec, playing at the Gathering of the Vibes in Connecticut, and the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland – One of the most beautiful places we ever played. Our headline spot was on the Lake Geneva Blues Cruise (which BB King played the year prior). The ship was sold-out and I was amazed then, and during our romps around Geneva, that I was recognized by people from all over the world! It was an awakening.

In closing…These days I'm not playing many bar gigs, but am still doing concerts and festivals. I have the greatest band and show ever and will continue as long as I can. I'll also continue to feature Indies and vintage Blues exclusively on my 4 radio shows each week. I've been gainfully employed in the music industry for 55 years. I'm seeing my 65th birthday in April and retirement is in my near future. But I'm not done with music, yet! I was recently hired as songwriter and music director for a new children's show for PBS called POSSIBILITIES PLACE. The creators selected Blues and Roots for the music format, and I'm very happy about it! This new project will enable me to do my part in keeping Blues alive via a global forum to a new generation! So, really, this new venture couldn't have happened at a better time in my life. We are constructing the pilot now, and I am honored to be on the staff with a group of renowned artists, illustrators, authors, designers and members of the film industry. It's an exciting opportunity! It's been a long journey. I have no regrets in spending my life in music.

Roxy Perry's official website

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