Bill "Howl-N-Madd" Perry is one of the North Mississippi hill country's best-kept secrets--or at least he was, until he and saxophonist Alphonso Sanders took second place in the solo/duo category in this year's International Blues Challenge in Memphis. Hailing from Abbeville, Mississippi, only a few miles down the road from Foxfire Ranch, he knows how to rock the juke with nothing more than his guitar, his foot, and his voice. What is it with that voice? His vocal stylings are haunting, compelling--a broad, choked vibrato that owes something to Howlin' Wolf and something to the diddley-bow, with a gravelly, bourbon-soaked edge. Some of us think he's the best blues singer in Mississippi. Maybe that's because he's lived a remarkable, wide-ranging life that has taken him far beyond the Magnolia State.
Perry was born in rural Lafayette County; his father was a cotton sharecropper and moonshiner--"a country hustler," according to his son--and young Bill Perry spent his share of time in the fields. He moved to Chicago as a young man and spent time in the clubs listening to Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Mighty Joe Young, but gospel is where he got his first break. By his late 'teens he'd recorded gospel for Chess Records, toured the country with various groups and, played bass and guitar behind the Five Blind Boys and Shirley Ceaser.
In 1966, after a 12-day stint at Harlem's Apollo Theater, he found himself in Memphis, broke. He put on his good clothes, went out to a club, and ended up hooking up with Little Milton, his Chess label-mate. Touring with Milton, he began to sing, and he backed up T. Bone Walker, Freddie King, and other blues stars. His odyssey took him back to Chicago, where he worked at Chess as producer and session player until the label shut down in 1975. Later Perry ended up on the West Coast--backing up Little Richard and Johnnie Taylor, writing and producing two albums for Cash McCall.
By the late 70s he was burnt out. He retired from music for eight years. Then, in 1987, he moved back to Mississippi and got back to work. During the 1990s his family band, The Perrys--with daughter Shy on bass and Billy, Jr. on keyboards--played weddings and frat parties and made occasional overseas trips. Over the last decade, Perry has begun to play and record more of his own music, including, for the first time, some solo work in the classic Mississippi-bluesman groove. He moonlights as a DJ on WROX in Clarksdale. He's also started to teach local kids at the Delta Blues Museum as part of the Arts and Education Program.
"I'm not your typical bluesman," Perry told an interviewer. "I'm stable and in a stable marriage for many years, so I don't sing about love lost and things. I look around me and see what I see and write about it and sing about it. The sounds that Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Charlie Patton and all that stuff that they was playing, I have tried to take and borrow from that and add in my own special blend of experience over the years."
Perry and his band will be backing up Billy Branch, entertaining us in their own right, and giving the rest of us a chance to jam with one of the living masters of Mississippi blues.
Bill Perry (and others) at Ground Zero (2008)
Bill Perry speaking about his life and the blues (2009)