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.
These lucky encounters, Leroy points out, were common. “His whole life was like that,” she says. “All the time.”
Moog Indigo further cemented Perrey’s talent for the new and unusual. Though the title may have played upon the jazz standard “Mood Indigo” the music contained in its grooves was at the very least contemporary and often hinted at the future. Funky organ and horn sounds populate “Soul City”, a crunch bit of fusion, “Gossipo Perpetuo” predicts sampling and even Frank Zappa’s Synclavier-laden album Jazz From Hell while “The Rose and The Cross” touches on the Anglican-inflected prog rock that Rick Wakeman would soar to the upper echelons of the charts with. It’s humorous, sophisticated and wide-reaching, the sound of a man intent on driving music forward, into exciting new territories but doing so with a gentle rather than forceful hand.
“It was the climax of his first career,” his daughter recalls, speaking from her home in Switzerland. “He had been accumulating experience in electronic music. He had been working with different styles and views. He was 41 years old, and it was probably the most productive time of his life.”
Though he’d found wider success during his time in America, he was not long for the continent. With his parents aging and a natural inclination to return to a more familiar environment, he left the United States in the early ’70s. “He missed his parents, he missed me,” Leroy says. “He wanted to go back to his native village in the countryside.” Back in France, he continued to write and record throughout the remainder of the decade and worked out some therapeutic applications for music, particularly as it applied to insomnia. By the early ’80s, though, interest in his work declined and, in 1983, Perrey entered a period of retirement.
“Although he was famous in the States he was close to unknown in France,” his daughter points out. “That was quite a shock. He was happy to be with his family again but was disappointed in the fact that his music had not really made it over the ocean.” He enjoyed a modest audience in France and a loyal one in Japan but, the first phase of his career had already begun to close as he left New York.
A man whose spirits and good humor is often evident in the music he wrote, Perrey became melancholic during his period of retirement. “He thought that he was finished and that nobody really cared,” Leroy offers. “He started to write and give lectures. It kept him occupied but he was visibly longing for music. He wouldn’t admit it. He didn’t want to make me sad and for me to know that he was unhappy.”
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Perrey’s music was only momentarily out of style. By the early ’90s the emergence of hip-hop bolstered renewed interest in his work as Gang Starr, House of Pain, and others sampled his compositions. In 1996 the Beastie Boys issued their own The In Sound from Way Out!, inspired by his work with Kingsley; by the following year, Perrey was once more recording and releasing new music. Though some of the records first came out on tiny labels, he was soon again a name to know in the world of underground music.
“He always said he’d been un-buried,” Leroy offers. “He was surprised because he didn’t realize that his music was so much appreciated in the U.S. and Great Britain. He was extremely happy to hear that people were sampling his music. He was honored that younger musicians would use his music. I saw his face as he began writing music again. It was obvious that he was a real musician.”
During the final decade of his life he recorded with lifelong fan Dana Countryman as well as Cosmic Pocket and David Chazam. When he died, at the end of 2016, in Switzerland, he was just a few years shy of 90 though he still possessed a deeply creative spirit and tireless imagination. “He was a man of sounds and creativity,” says Leroy. “He wanted to make people laugh and smile and when children would start to spontaneously dance to his music it made him happy.”
As much as he was a musician, an artist, he was also a person, Leroy adds, who loved happiness and who saw his work as a way to make the world better. “He loved to play jokes on people and laugh all the time. But, at the same time, he could be very pessimistic about the future of the planet. He was concerned about pollution and wars and destruction. He thought that by making people happy with music, he was somehow limiting the suffering and destruction in the world.”