Denise Perrier, Bay Area blues and jazz
vocalist who headlined around the world,
dies at 82
Sam Whiting, San Francisco Chronicle, Dec. 23, 2021 10:18 pm
Louis Armstrong heard her sing at an NAACP benefit in San Francisco in 1959.
When the show ended, Armstrong invited Perrier and her act to join him for a
six-week run in Las Vegas.
Perrier was on her way to a career as a blues and jazz headliner that took her to
Australia, Japan, Latin America, Europe and Cuba, where she was heralded as the
second coming of Billie Holiday.
Perrier released just two studio albums in America, “I Wanna Be Loved” in 1996
and “East Meets West” in 2002. But she had great urgency to record a third, in
2021, because her heart and
kidneys were failing
With saxophonist Howard Wiley as bandleader and producer, Perrier sang the
standards in three-hour sessions while her strength lasted. Halfway through the
project she was hospitalized for a week, but she made it back to finish her vocal
tracks in mid-October. By the end of that month she was in hospice at her home
of 40 years on Sutter Street in San Francisco.
Perrier would smile from her bed as Wiley played her the finished cuts. She
couldn’t speak or see, but she could still hear. She slipped into a coma after
hearing a playback of her rendition of “Body and Soul.” She died Dec. 8, said her
son, Eric Vann, of Pittsburg. She was 82. The cause of death was heart failure.
“Her singing was very honest. She did not use vocal gymnastics to try and
impress an audience,” said Tammy Hall, a pianist and musical director who
played with Perrier. “Her phrasing was impeccable, and she could always convey
the story of a song to her audience.”
Though Perrier spent up to eight months a year touring internationally, she was
also a headliner at all the great long gone San Francisco jazz joints — the
Blackhawk, Jimbo’s Bop City, and the Keystone Korner, where she headlined on closing night.
She recorded live albums at both Yoshi’s and Jazz at Pearl’s, and was known to
radio listeners as the longtime voice of KJAZ, providing the whispery sign-on,
“Ooh, yes, KJAZ.”
Perrier’s profile flourished overseas. Her picture hangs on the wall at her favorite
venue in Venice, and her death made national news in Havana, where she was
remembered as “Voz Con Corazon,” a translation of “Voice With a Heart,” a
description attributed to former San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle jazz critic
Perrier played in Russia about 20 times. On one flight to Moscow, the captain
sent an attendant to invite her from coach to first class. She also made several
trips to Vietnam during the war, determined that “the Black soldiers would see a
Black performer,” said her manager and caregiver, Catherine Cusic.
While Perrier was in hospice, San Francisco Mayor London Breed decreed Nov. 1
as Denise Perrier Day in the city. On Nov. 12, Hall organized an 82nd birthday
concert at the Church of Jazz and Justice in Oakland. Perrier was too sick to
attend, but she watched on Zoom as 25 musicians paid tribute to her.
“In a day and age when every jazz singer sounds like someone else, Denise never
imitated anybody,” said Kim Nalley, jazz singer and owner of the now-closed Jazz
at Pearl’s. “Her sound was original.”
Perrier was born Betty Jean Perrier on Nov. 12, 1939, in Baton Rouge, La. Her
parents divorced when she was young, and her mother, Rosa Emmanuel,
remarried a soldier based in Alameda. This brought Betty Jean west, where she
attended Prescott School in Oakland. They moved to Albany, where she sang in
the school choir.
As soon as she got her high school diploma, she dumped the name Betty Jean,
“which she hated until the day she died,” her son said. While working as a nurse’s
assistant at Kaiser in Oakland, she started singing the blues with a vocal trio
called the Intervals at an Oakland nightclub called Slim’s.
Along the way she got a helping hand from her older stepbrother, Paul Jackson
Jr., an internationally known bassist in Herbie Hancock’s band. The Intervals
became well known enough to serve as a warm-up act for Armstrong and Nat
King Cole at the Fairmont Hotel. The Intervals went to Vegas to perform
regularly, and Perrier quit her job as a nursing assistant.
In Vegas she met Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington, and she was a
professional singer from that point on. In the early 1960s she was recruited as a
solo act to tour Australia, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Vietnam, and she left
the Intervals behind.
Around 1990, Nalley, then an 18 -year-old-singer, caught Perrier’s act at the
Galleria Park Hotel. “She descended down the steps while singing songs ... in a
sparkling beaded dress (with) a headdress and fur wrap,” recalled Nalley. At
intermission, Nalley introduced herself.
“She said, ‘Where are you singing, honey? Do you have a flyer?” Nalley did, and
during that break, Perrier, whom Nalley had never before met, handed out the
flyers to people in the audience.
“If you pass out a flyer at somebody else’s gig, you would have gotten your head
bitten off and maybe your eyes scratched out too,” said Nalley, who went to
headline most of the rooms where Perrier also played. They later sang duets as
an act called “Ladies Sing the Blues.”
In 1993, Nalley reopened the dormant Jazz at Pearl’s at Broadway and Columbus
streets in San Francisco. Perrier had a date there whenever she wanted it. Nalley
and Perrier performed in San Jose right before the COVID-19 lockdown. It was
Perrier’s last live show. She had been in and out of the hospital, but she was still
delivering her vocals with as much soul as ever.
“It it wasn’t for COVID, she would have performed right up until the very end.”
But there was still the final CD to record. Nalley wrote a song for it called “Denise,
Carmen, Lavay, and Me,” to include two other vocalists, Carmen Getit and Lavay
Smith. They were planning to record it in November,
“Denise lived an amazing life,” Nalley said. “The last time I saw her she said, ‘I
might me old but I’m not cold. I’m going to live my life while I’m living.”
A memorial celebration is pending release of her legacy album, which has yet to
be titled. “If it weren’t for Frank Sinatra we’d call it ‘My Way,’” Cusic said.
“Because by God that’s how she died.”
The album’s release party will double as a memorial
tribute to Perrier,
Perrier was predeceased by her son Kevin Vann. She is survived by her husband,
John Choice of San Francisco, and son Eric Vann of
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter:@samwhitingsf
Though born in the cradle of jazz, New Orleans, Denise is also a child
READ OBIT IN JAZZ JOURNAL NY BRUCE CROWTHER. CLICK HERE
COMPREHENSIVE ARTICLE ON DENISE'S LIFE AND CAREER
Listen to the radio
DENISE SINGS BESSIE SMITH
2016 All Rights Reserved Chez Perrier