Jean-Jacques Perrey's Passport to the Future
Jean-Jacques Perrey inspired the Beastie Boys, Gang Starr and many more and returned to life as a performer and recording artist during his final decades of life.
Jean-Jacques Perrey stood on fertile creative ground in 1970. He'd been recording under his name for more than a decade by that point and collaborating with Gershon Kingsley on albums such as The In Sound From Way Out! (1966) and Kaleidoscopic Vibrations: Electronic Pop Music from Way Out (1967). His introduction to Robert Moog and the synthesizer named after him were now firmly part of his life's story. They were also part of a theme that repeatedly reemerged during that life. Perrey, his daughter Patricia Leroy explains, may have been one of the luckiest men ever to set foot on our planet.
"He always met the right people at the right time," she says.
There was no way to predict what would become of him when he was born in a small French village in the space between two world wars. Though he'd played music in his youth and even made an attempt to study at a conservatory, it was medical studies that drew him to Paris. One might say that science would never fully supplant his love of music or, rather, that through his interest in technology he was able to integrate the two. He was an early adapter of the Ondioline, a precursor to the synthesizer and invention of Georges Jenny. Still, the abandonment of the medical arts for something seemingly more frivolous didn't immediately sit well with the family.
"His parents were disappointed," his daughter recalls. "He was a brilliant student, but he, was four years into his studies when he heard the Ondioline on the radio. It made his heart jump, and he immediately ran to Georges Jenny and begged him to lend him an Ondioline. He absolutely fell in love with this instrument."
Leroy points out that her father was no late convert to music. He was playing accordion by three and by seven had become a major source of entertainment in his village. He later learned the piano and even attended a local conservatory but was dismissed after he and some friends formed a jazz group. "They were very successful in the area around the conservatory," Leroy says, "but if you were at the conservatory, it was forbidden for you to play music in public." The headmaster issued a final warning: continue playing jazz or continue your studies. Soon, the young musician was packing.
School, it would become clear, would never be a comfortable home for Perrey, though, he would become a teacher through his craft. For a period, he traveled across Europe, demonstrating the wonders of the Ondioline to all who would listen. His prowess on the instrument afforded him the chance to record two albums, Prélude au Sommeil (1957) and Cadmus, Le Robot de l'Espace (1959) that issued only within his homeland.
His ambition, though, remained larger than that. Urged by a friend to make a demo recording of the Ondioline's capabilities and send it to New Yorker Carroll Bratman, Perrey did just that. Bratman primarily leased percussion instruments in and around the city, but his enthusiasm for and knowledge of innovative music made him a perfect patron of Perrey and other forward-thinking composers of the time.
"Someone told my father that, with his capacity for music he needed to go to the United States," Leroy recalls. "He wanted to go but couldn't afford it. When Carroll Bratman heard those recordings he immediately invited my father to come over." Bratman sponsored Perrey's journey and eventually developed a workspace for his new friend. There, Perrey experimented with tape loops, creating exciting musique concrete pieces that would sound capture the ear of other important figures in the city.
Among the fellow innovators and composers he met during that time was Moog, whose innovative mind was surely a point of seduction for Perrey. When he and Kingsley teamed up for Kaleidoscopic Vibrations: Electronic Pop Music from Way Out, they became among the first artists to release music created on the Moog synthesizer.
Perrey was making other new friends, including Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks) and Walt Disney, who took a particular shine to Perrey's work. There was, by the close of the decade, a modicum of celebrity following the composer. He appeared on a variety of television shows during the time and "Baroque Hoedown" from Kaleidoscopic Vibrations became central to Disney's Main Street Electrical Parade. If you didn't know Perrey's name (or Kingsley's for that matter), you had probably heard their work at some time during the late 1960s and beyond.