Saturday, July 21, 2007

Bill Perry 1957-2007

Bill Perry was the greatest guitar player who ever walked the face of the earth. He was better than Jimi Hendrix. He was better than Eric Clapton. He was better than George Harrison and Pete Townshend combined. He could play circles around the likes of Keith Richards, Brian Jones and Mick Taylor. I'm going to go out on a limb here: He was better than Robert Johnson! Everyone who knew him (with the curious exception of Bill Perry himself) would agree with that assessment. Those of you who never saw or heard him perform might find those statements to be wild exaggerations. But those of you who saw him play with any degree of regularity - or even if you only caught his act once at some obscure club twenty-five years ago - you know exactly what I'm talking about. The man was without peer. Case closed.
It was with deep sadness and sorrow that I learned of the passing of this gifted artist and friend of over thirty years on Tuesday, July 17, at the age of forty-nine. Bill had been swimming at the home of a friend in Sugar Loaf, NY when his great heart stopped beating. As is always the case when someone that young departs this vale of tears so unexpectedly, the mind instantly refuses to come to terms with it. And only when one gets to the point of half-hearted acceptance of the fact, do the memories come pouring back. In the case of Bill Perry, the memories come back in torrents
Bill was born on Christmas Day 1957 in Goshen, NY. It was obvious from a very early age that he had a great future in music ahead of him. In the Autumn of 1974, I had been playing the guitar for a little more than a year and I honestly believed that I was going to be the next John Lennon - until the night I saw Billy, all of sixteen years old, plug in his amp in the backyard of his home in Chester, the small town in upstate New York in which he lived. Come to think of it, I should have been the next John Lennon - someone should have just shot me right then and there! Up until that moment, the guitar had been an all-consuming devotion with me. That night, Bill Perry transformed it into what it remains to this very day: just another one of my many hobbies. Aw, heck, I thought after listening to his flawless performance, Why bother?
The single greatest thing that struck everyone who knew Bill was his gentleness and the almost saint-like humility with which he conducted himself - a humility that seemed to fly in the face of his jaw-dropping, otherworldly talent. He loved people - and people had no trouble reciprocating the feeling. In fact, it was impossible not to love the man! I'm sure that I would be writing these words had he gone into the insurance business or become a lawyer or the manager of a gas station somewhere. He was a beautiful guy - that's all there is to it. To paraphrase legendary jazz drummer Gene Krupa, referring to the late Bix Beiderbecke, another trail-blazing musician from a long time ago, bygone era, "If you couldn't get along with Bill Perry, you couldn't get along".
That he had a serious fan base, there is no denying. He was immensely popular particularly in Europe and Japan. And yet had he wanted it, he would have been an international superstar and household name. I once brought this subject up with him and I'll never forget his reply: "Nah, Tom, I love playing the clubs." He preferred the intimacy of a small room or performing as a warm up act for the legendary Richie Havens - which he did for many years. As mesmerizing as it is to listen to one of his recordings, to see him in action was an experience that is almost indescribable. He had a stage presence that can only be described as iconic. Knowing Bill Perry, he probably would have laughed himself silly at that description but - so help me - it is the truth! I am sure his many admirers will wholeheartedly agree with me. I can't stress this enough: the guy was brilliant. If you don't believe me, pick up one of his albums - they're all still in print.
My favorite Bill Perry track was from his first solo LP, Love Scars. The song, titled "Smoky Joe", was a homage to a small barbecue grill which is sold in most American hardware stores. I have kept a Smokey Joe under my kitchen sink for years now. It is in its original box and has never been opened. My plan was to walk up to Bill onstage some night and have him autograph it as a joke. He would have gotten a big kick out of that! I can just see the expression on his face. Alas, it was not meant to be.
Exactly seventy years and six days before Bill passed from this life, on July 11, 1937, the writer John O'Hara learned of the passing of his old and cherished friend, the composer George Gershwin. What O'Hara wrote that day about Gershwin may be said (with only slight rewording) for Bill:
Bill Perry died on July 17, 2007. But I don't have to believe it if I don't want to.
Tom Degan
Goshen, NY
Love Scars (1996)
Greycourt Lightning (1998)
High Octane: Live At Manny's Carwash (1999)
Fire It Up (2001)
Crazy Kind Of Life (2002)
Don't Know Nothin' About Love (2006)

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At 10:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


A beautiful eulogy...sorry I never knew him...a life well lived.I hope his family, if he has any, sees what you've written.

At 9:51 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Thank you Fearless Flower,
In fact, I pesented Bill's family with a print out of the piece yesterday at his wake. As in life, his final appearance was a Standing Room Only Performance.


At 6:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Though I didn't know him, he brought joy to your life.
And probably to those that had the good fortune to experience his gift. At least his music lives!
What better is to be done within our limited time here?
Thank you for sharing your words about your friend. The sorrow is thereby shared.
May he rest in peace and his family find comfort during their time of need.

At 8:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had the opportunity to share several evenings with Bill & his band and I am SO SORRY to hear this news. It IS a great loss and you did eulogize it beautifully.

At 9:20 PM, Blogger Don said...

Hi Tom, sorry to read about your friend..He sounds like an incredible artist - and one that I'd like to have heard.. I wil lsurely check out some of his music,


At 10:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's "Townshend", not "Townshend".

"Vale" of tears, not "veil" of tears.

Never heard of I'm sorry I never heard him play. Condolences.

At 8:48 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Hey Tom,
Its your old friend Paul. I am deeply saddened by the loss of Billy Perry. I have many fond memories of traveling around Up-State NY following Billy around. I know you were there many times, with Sean, Butchy, Brian, Tad and many others. I never forget the first time I saw Billy play. It was 1973 at the "Glitter Dance" in the Goshen High Gym. He rocked then and was only 15 or 16! I don't remember if you were there?
Like you I love the guitar, hell we jammed at your house and freaked your Mom out on a regular basis. I also had the pleasure of jamming with and learning from Billy at his house on Greycourt many times. He was an awesome friend and teacher. Like you said, he was a great guy friendly,caring, quiet natured and had the patience of a saint because I wanted to play what he was playing and he actually took the time to try to teach me. Of course, I did not have anywhere near the awesome talent he had but he kept trying. I have been playing many years now and because of Billy, years ago I concentrated on Hendrix tunes and can play many to the note. But I will never be able to play like Billy, never! He had a God given talent. It is sad that he never recieved the recognition that players with a fraction of the talent he pocessed have. You were right, he made people like Kieth Richards, Ron Wood and others you mentioned look like amateurs. Give my best to his family, How is Alex? Billy will be missed by many, he is in my prayers. Why is it that the most talented are taken from us so young? Take care, I'll be in touch.

At 10:20 AM, Anonymous Jen Bijeaux said...

It has been years since Bill passed, but he still truly lives on. I remember being just a child and meeting him. My dad, Spider, was a beloved fan and friend. He still sits around talking about the times he use to sneak away to watch Bill play at Manny's. Even tho Orange County isn't home anymore, each year Dad and I get together, We'll plug in one of Bill's CDs, kick back and just "remember when?". Now having children of my own, I sit here watching my son play air guitar as we listen to Bill on youtube, and all I can think about is how his legacy will go on.

At 10:23 AM, Blogger Tom Degan said...

Yes, it is hard to believe that it's been over four years, Jen. I was just listening to Bill the other day. Such a great talent - and one of the sweetest, gentlest guys you would ever want to meet. I miss him.


Tom Degan

PS - Where do you live now?


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