By Jacob Katel
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Aisles are peopled to seamsplit by a gamut of ages, colors, accents; beat-boxers rub elbows with blues purists. You begin to sweat, fingers slipping off a mutating cache of collectibles, almost all desirable. Loudspeakers limn the scene - a polyglot of Sixties, Beiderbecke, James Brown, you're now caught in the whorl. For the first-timer it's a cultural TKO: Blue Note Records and its resident president, Bob Perry, definer and distributor of sonic treasures.
Perry, a Miamian since 1969 (except for a promotional job that sent him to Boston in the late Seventies), was born in Maine 43 years ago. His eclectic musical tastes (mostly rootsy folk blues and jazz) were family shared. An Acadian in Portland, Maine, young Perry was weaned on 78s of Kern, Gershwin, Hibbler, and Louis Jordan. TV existed only as an advertisement, leaving the family to create their own living-room entertainment. With mother on piano and son on harmonica and spoons, everyone grabbed something instrumental to fill Saturdays with risque French folk songs.
His brother discovered Fifties pop R&B, the Victrola scratched out endless waves of Little Richard, the Drifters. FM radio added its influence. "It was WBZ in Boston, the DJ was Dick Sumner, the Subway Show, the most progressive music in the Northeast," Perry recalls fondly. "From 9:00 p.m. to midnight, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Dizzy Gillespie, Tom Paxton, Skip James, tunes like `Devil Got My Woman,' and the Library of Congress recordings of Woody Guthrie could be heard in the same set. It was the greatest time for radio. There were no restrictions."
The Newport Jazz Festival, 1965, Dylan again, now electric (with Bob Perry as first convert) and Bloomfield-backed, Muddy Waters, Junior Wells, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Claude Jeeter (his gorgeous falsetto an aching soundtrack to the whole event), and the Swan Silvertones all stoked Perry. He began searching out the burgeoning alternative music scene in Boston. Otis Span, James Cotton. Club 47, the folk cornerstone of the Northeast. Bukka White, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf. Radio was fueling listeners with up-and-comers as well as locals, and alternative music had never been so well promoted. "The best DJs were out of Boston," Perry asserts. "Radio is terrible now. Music is incidental. It's all appearance, Clearasil, Pepsi."
In the mid-Sixties Perry toiled in a lumber mill for six months, quit when Newport came up, then took a retail job in Portland at a store that was one half appliances, the other an ocean of vinyl. "I became a buyer," Perry remembers. "This store dealt in returns. I've still got stacks of Elvis EPs worth $500 to $600."
On vacation in late 1968, Perry and a girlfriend went to Thee Image in Miami Beach, with Blues Image as backing band to John Lee Hooker. That was it. Perry packed the '64 Galaxy XL, landed in sunshine, rented a trailer, and sold shoes at JC Penney. "It was April '69, I needed a job to live, get my bearings," he says. "I called in sick one day and went up to Tone Distributors in Hialeah. Walking in, there was commotion, confusion, and energy everywhere. I was home." Passing up a promotion at JC Penney, Perry joined Tone instead. "The place was incredible. Tone was the biggest distributor in the Southeast, especially blues," he notes. "Chess, Checker, ABC, Bluesway, London, Sun, Atlantic, Warner Bros., Elektra, Cotillion. People like Henry Stone, Milt Oshins, Dave Benjamin, Jerry Wexler of Atlantic were on the premises, in the warehouse all the time."
Perry entered promotion in the early Seventies and by 1975 was working for Chris Blackwell's Island Records. "It was a real class label," he says. "There you have the whole Joe Boyd Witchseason productions - Fairport, Sandy Denny, Nick Drake, and the great John Martyn. His albums, especially Bless the Weather and Inside Out, were whole new roads of sound, jazz, and folk, with Martyn's blues. I also met Bob Marley then."
Next came a stint at Arista - the Kinks, Patti Smith, Gil-Scott Heron. "I started to get into the independents then, people who were really pro, AM-FM radio-oriented people," Perry recalls. "I left Arista for Ariola. I doubled my salary and my contacts." Striving for more personal control, he formed Bob Perry Productions, and motivated self and family back to Florida around 1978.
The pace was furious, but two events transcend, and fix, that time period.
"In 1980 I spent a weekend with Bob Marley and his family," Perry says. "Can you imagine Ziggy as a child? Warners/ Island had a deal concerning a twelve-inch remix of `Could You Be Loved?' and Marley was extremely upset when he saw the first cover [art]. He called Chris Blackwell from my house. The cover featured a scantily clad woman. This clashed with Bob Marley's beliefs. Chris pulled it. Marley then went on the air, 96X [now Power 96]. Here was this Top 40 station with Bob Marley at the phones, the switchboard like Christmas, his voice out to the whole Rasta and Jamaican community, family, and friends. Midnight, Marley, and a 100,000-watt station. He was like a deity. When I took him to the airport, I didn't realize it was the last time I'd see him. He was dying and I didn't know it."
The other development was no less memorable, albeit for utterly different reasons. The end of the Seventies also marked the Great Payola Scandal, which shocked the public and rocked the music industry. Although Perry was untouched professionally, the fallout contributed to his departure from the fast lane. "People were offering great amounts of money to get their product on the air," he says. "It was, `Man, get it on this week!' Everything got out of control."
Enter Blue Note. The collector come home.
As proprietors go, Perry is extremely personable, gregarious on all points musical. The majors still call him, Luke Records recently set up a promo at Blue Note, members of NRBQ recently dropped by. As Perry tells his life story, he skips right over the self-aggrandizement. There is something of import to relate, chew on, relive. He is in his glory extending his vitality to the eclectic peoples and titles claiming one another at Blue Note. Arturo Gomez, a DJ on WDNA-FM for the Saturday Night Funk Box, sums it up nicely by saying that Blue Note is like "the St. Peter's of Miami. This is hallowed ground."
From Perry's office then, a mother's nightmare of clutter but a collector's wet dream, with its Marley weekend photos, haphazardly hung gold and platinum discs, an autographed, burlap-wrapped Rastaman Vibration signed "One Love" by Rasta Bob himself, a signed John Fogerty Centerfield poster. It's back to the fray. Perry extends ear and voice to the novice, the atavist surging with each phrase. The first-timer has entered the Perry Universe. He'll be back.