It's a shame the new El Palacio Cafe and Club didn't open its doors a few weeks earlier. Oscar Perry's deep, smooth voice and penchant for singing about love's ups and downs would have made him an ideal grand-opening headliner for Valentine's Day. Despite his impeccable blues credentials, the Houston native's voice makes comparisons to soul love-meisters such as Isaac Hayes and Mighty Sam McLain inevitable.
Perry's most recent CDs, Still Blue from a few years ago and I'm a Brand New Man from a few months ago, both showcase his tender but powerful bass vocals, as well as guitar skills that have been honed over decades of working with some truly remarkable talents. Perry was still in junior high at Wortham Middle School in 1958 when he made his first recording. (If you happen to have a copy of "True Confession" on the Leejay label, Perry would probably swap you a new CD for that old 45.) Then came years of what he calls "those $8 gigs," playing bass behind Third Ward lap-steel virtuoso "Papa Hop" Wilson at clubs such as the Big Tree and the Oak Grove. Perry then toured East Texas with Johnny Copeland's Soul Agents ("Every Dog's Got His Day" on Copeland's Catch Up with the Blues is a Perry creation from that era) before settling down as a session player, A&R man and songwriter for Houston's Duke/Peacock records, where he worked on a daily basis with Joe Scott, the classically trained conductor and arranger who shaped Peacock's full, urban sound. Several of Perry's songs were recorded by Duke superstar Bobby "Blue" Bland, while many of the Joe Medwick-penned tunes that made Bland famous were actually first recorded by Perry. "Bobby didn't like Joe Medwick, at all," remembers Perry. "He wouldn't even record a song if he had heard Joe sing it, so when Don Robey bought a song from Joe, I'd cut a demo on it for Bobby to listen to while he was learning the tune."
Perry then took his various talents to Sugar Hill studio, where he worked as A&R director for Huey Meaux. Meaux leased several of Perry's soulful ballads to Mercury Records in the early 1970s; "Mother, Can Your Child Come Home?" was listed by Billboard as "New Record of the Week" when it was released, and "You Can't Mend a Broken Heart" proved the best seller -- at least so far -- of Perry's career. His recent self-produced CDs, and his live shows, display Perry as an impressive, mature and polished artist who has learned well a lifetime's worth of lessons. It's frankly baffling that we still have plenty of opportunities to see the large man with the large voice up close and personal around town -- this is a talent that, in a fair world, would be coming home infrequently to play much larger stages. But life, as we all know, isn't fair; as Perry puts it when describing his approach to songwriting, "If you tell the truth about life you'll get the blues." Go check Perry out, and go with someone you'd like to love. The man's voice is a stiff aphrodisiac. -- Jim Sherman
Oscar Perry performs at 9 p.m. Saturday, March 9, at El Palacio Cafe and Club, 3512 Main. Tickets are $3. For info, call 522-5041.
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Guitar Summit -- The promoters would have you believe that this is a real sit-down meeting of the masters: guitarists Stanley Jordan, Jorma Kaukonen, Manuel Barrueco and Kenny Burrell -- each renowned for his respective style -- coming together in intimate surroundings for a communal display of virtuoso technique. Be careful not to get your hopes up too high, though; there's only a brief on-stage union planned for Tuesday's show at Rockefeller's. Aside from a "surprise" encore at the end of the night, each artist will do his set alone and depart in an orderly fashion, which may be a disappointment to those who took the "summit" tag literally.
It should be an illuminating show anyway, given the unarguable appeal of its participants. Jordan's commercial peak came in the mid-'80s with Magic Touch, a debut that exposed his revolutionary string-tapping, two-handed technique to a massive legion of listeners. With that number-one jazz CD as an auspicious starting point, Jordan has gone on to earn three Grammy nominations and expand into electronic and computer-generated music, though with nowhere near the success of his more straightforward jazz outings. Jorma Kaukonen, on the other hand, began his career in coffeehouses around San Francisco before going on to be an integral part of Jefferson Airplane and, later, Hot Tuna. A folkie at heart, Kaukonen over the years developed an affinity for the finger-picking Piedmont style of blues, which -- along with his strong ties to folk and rock -- is the cornerstone of his decades-old acoustic vision.
Manuel Barrueco is a classical guitarist who's as trailblazing as he is tradition-minded. Barrueco is accustomed to playing symphony halls; seeing his artistry on a small stage should be a rare treat. Kenny Burrell, an accomplished and feeling practitioner of styles ranging from funk to Latin to bebop, has recorded with a long list of jazz legends. His accomplished grace on-stage is a testament to three decades as a beacon of both innovation and consistency in the jazz idiom.
So while the lineup alone warrants the Guitar Summit's rather steep ticket price, seeing everyone together for more than a single song -- say an hour or so of Jordan, finger-man extraordinaire, trading licks with former Airplane kingpin Kaukonen, as 30-year jazz veteran Burrell strums along and Barrueco awaits periodic opportunities to lay into an aching classical run up and down the strings -- would be worth double that. Ah well, it never hurts to dream. At Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue, Tuesday, March 12, at 7 and 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $20, $32 and $37.50. 869-8427. (Hobart Rowland)