Despite extensive tours and residencies internationally, including Europe, South America, Japan, Russia and Australia, Denise Perrier remained best known in the Bay Area of northern California where she resided for most of her adult life.
She was born 12 November 1939 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and moved with her family to California in 1945. Living in Albany, which is close to Oakland on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay, she took an early interest in singing, studying formally at Albany High School. With relatives and friends who were musically inclined, among them stepbrother Paul Jackson (bassist and founder member of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters) and stepsister Joyce Jackson (flautist and songwriter), she was guided toward popular music of the day, the late 1940s, and to jazz in particular.
When she was in her early 20s, Perrier became a member of The Intervals, a vocal quartet led by Cleve O’Dear. The group played clubs, mainly in Northern California, attracting such favourable attention that they were booked to appear in a Las Vegas show headlined by Louis Armstrong. In the early 1960s, Perrier left the group and began a solo career with engagements that took her to Australia, the Philippines and also Hong Kong, which is where she remained for a few years. From there, and despite the ongoing conflict, she visited military bases in Vietnam.
Back in the USA, she lived and worked for a while in New York before moving to the San Francisco Bay area where she was thereafter based. Among her live musical theatre appearances are In The House Of The Blues, in which she appeared as Bessie Smith, One Mo’ Time, a vaudeville revue set in New Orleans in the 1920s, as well as shows paying tribute to Dinah Washington, George Gershwin and Duke Ellington. In the early 1990s she appeared on Brother Jack McDuff’s Concord Records album, Color Me Blue. In the mid-1990s, having become friendly with Etta Jones and Houston Person, she recorded I Wanna Be Loved with Person, which was released on her own label, Chez Perrier Records.
She made several festival appearances, including New Orleans Jazz and Heritage and Monterey, and continued recording, including Live At Yoshi’s (2003), The Second Time Around (2008 – again teamed with Person) and East Meets West (2009), all on Chez Perrier. During a trip to Russia she recorded Denise Perrier And The Novosibirsk Philharmonic Orchestra (2009), released on CD Baby.
In 2002, Jerry Brown, Mayor of Oakland, awarded Perrier a Key to Creativity during the city’s 150th anniversary celebrations, declaring: “You have been chosen to receive this award in recognition of your outstanding achievements in the performing arts.”
Singing in a rich contralto, Perrier was an exceptionally gifted interpreter of the lyrics of the songs she sang and was always concerned that she should convey to her audience the lyricist’s thoughts and emotions. As she said in an interview on Jake Feinberg’s radio show: “It’s all about taking what someone has written and breathing life into those words.” She certainly achieved this, always living up to the promise of her billing as The Voice With A Heart.
Perrier continued working despite the onset of grave sickness, and in early 2021 confided to close friends that doctors had given her only months to live. She also informed these friends that she intended using that time to record a final album. Sadly, the medical prognosis proved to be correct and Denise Perrier died 8 December 2021 at home in San Francisco. However sad this may be, it is possible to sound a happier note because she bravely fulfilled her final promise to complete that last recording, the result of which is soon to be released.
For more information see Denise Perrier’s website.