Rediscoveries: Center Stage Live, the Perrys

Today, a cd I bought off Adam Edwards on eBay arrived, the Perrys, Center Stage Live, from 1996.

This was the era of Mike Bowling and Nicole Watts, when the Perrys were still with Eddie Crook, and Crook’s fingerprints are all over the project stylistically: the driving country rhythms and often overbearing steel guitar; the unimaginative but satisfying endings that recycle variations on the same two or three basic patterns of resolution; and the uneven arrangements that strive for a sense of grandiosity but go strangely flaccid at key moments, as when the bridge of “God Sent Angels” borrows part of the chorus of “Angel Band” … the effect is clearly intended to be dramatic, the voices backing way off the dynamic level as if to listen for the rustle of angel wings, but the sotto voce rendering of the lines knocks a big sink hole in the emotional center of the song.

I mention this stuff primarily to note how mightily the album succeeds despite its somewhat primitive tendencies, and to mark the growth in the Perrys’ music over time. The Perrys’ sound has evolved so gradually during the past 15 years that one doesn’t think of them as has having changed as dramatically as they so noticeably have when one goes back and listens to an album like Center Stage.

And the evolution isn’t just musical: signing with Daywind has polished off a lot of the group’s rougher edges aesthetically, Tracy Stuffle’s continued use of the chainsaw schtick notwithstanding (and though I will admit that the memorial image of the Stuffles’ stillborn child printed on the cd’s inside cover brought me up short, I’m actually thinking mainly here about a certain lack of self-possession in the stage manner that is apparent even on a live album absent visauls: for instance, Tracy Stuffle’s emcee work is somewhat frenetic (as when he gets so busy trying to keep a barely funny bit of banter going during the piano player’s introduction, he forgets to actually tell us the pianist’s name), or Mike Bowling’s manic, machine-gun laughing at the ends of big tunes, which even Daywind’s unobtrusive A&R people would no doubt counsel Bowling to dial back (though in his defense, in at least one case – “God Sent Angels” – the laughter could be a nervous response to the screeching woman in the audience having herself a prolonged and disturbing spiritual fit at the first ending of the song and throughout the encore).

As for the changes to the music itself, I can’t really say I find one sound superior to another. They’re just differently good.

But listening to the album made me really wish that a mixed foursome of the Perrys’ style and quality today would adopt the female-male-female-male harmonic voicing that the Perrys had in the mid-nineties. One reason the formulaic endings don’t really hurt the album all that much is because when the parts are revoiced and Watts takes the highest harmonic position in the stack, the resonance created with Libbi Perry Stuffle’s alto against Bowling’s baritone-lead is transfixing. This happens, for instance, in the middle and at the end of the chorus on “Gonna Be Someday,” which – with just a handful of notes - Watts single-voicedly transforms from a ho-hum also-ran tune into a mid-tempo charmer.

Watts actually doesn’t prove herself much of a lyric soprano in her solo moments. She often experiences what one commenter in another context recently (and brilliantly) christened “pitch disorientation” (resulting in many cringe-inducing moments during “Marriage Supper of the Lamb”). And she rushes the front of her phrases when she’s got a tricky interval or a big note coming up (see “Marriage Supper” again).

But put her back in the ensemble and … dear Gawd. It’s positively incantatory. She quite literally brings down the angel choir to mingle among us on the ending of “God Sent Angels,” when the chorus modulates up a half step and she launches off on that ascendant final note, a fifth – a fifth – above the tonic. I admit that nine-tenths of the effect here may just be the sheer novelty; you simply don’t hear this much, at least not done well anyway.

Not the Hoppers (they’ve got all the upper-register power and range of Watts and then some in Kim Hopper, but Connie has none of Libbi Perry Stuffle’s vocal gravitas), not Karen Peck and her back-up singers, not Lauren Talley and her back-up singers, and not the Crabb Family, which I continue to insist was always actually two or three different trios recombined from among the various Crabbs on stage at any given time.

In fact, since the mid-nineties – not only the period from which the Perrys’ Center Stage configuration dates, but also Charlotte Penhollow Ritchie’s years with the Nelons - southern gospel has been without a mixed group presided over vocally by a commanding soprano, supported by a well-balanced ensemble beneath her.*

Except for the Lesters, which are (as is so sadly often the case) the overlooked exception. Indeed, they have all the right ingredients, assuming Brian’s son continues to get good vocal instruction, receives the right material for his voice, and doesn’t try to sing above his pay grade (and assuming in general the Lesters could somehow shake the perception that they’re a regional group that happens to tour nationally, a stigma that I suspect is part of the reason they are serially short shrifted). So, barring the Perrys sending Troy Peach back to the bus and hiring his wife to sing with them instead (sorry, Troy!), more Lesters please.

*An earlier rendering of this sentence didn’t really capture the point I was trying to make about the rarity of an evenly yoked ensemble sound built around a soprano, as reader JB notes in this complaint. My point isn’t that the Hoppers aren’t led by a strong soprano (Kim Hopper is, of course, one of the two strongest in the bidness, Taranda Greene being the other), as I point out in the paragraph above. Rather, it’s that the Hoppers aren’t as well matched throughout the rest of the ensemble as, say, Watts was in her days with the Perrys, or Ritchie (or Janet Paschal or Karen Peck) was with the Nelons. In the Hoppers’ case, it’s basically the Kim and Dean show, with Connie and Claude performing mostly non-musical roles that involve holding a mike through most tunes (though Connie does do often marvelous, subtle things harmonically within her range and abilities). Which is to say, these days, without backing stacks, the Hoppers couldn’t pull off the kind of live performance the Perrys deliver in Center Stage.

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  1. Daniel J. Mount wrote:

    Perrys - Please keep Troy! (sorry, Avery!)

    (Even if you ever go to a quintet sound.)

  2. NonInsider wrote:

    Good post Avery… I couldn’t agree more!

  3. JulieBelle wrote:

    “southern gospel has been without a mixed group presided over vocally by a commanding soprano.”

    The Hoppers are not presided over vocally by a commanding soprano in Kim Hopper….seriously?

  4. judi wrote:

    And the Lesters sure are on the road a lot. Midweek, The Bus usually is In on their corner at 39th Street. Weekends, it’s always gone. On a vacation last summer in Oklahoma, we found ourselves driving behind them on an Interstate. I think they have been IN maybe one Sunday all this past year.

  5. quartet-man wrote:

    Perrys - please keep Troy (NOT sorry, Avery. :D)

  6. gina wrote:

    Agree wholeheartedly with this post. No offense to the current lineup, but the Perrys as a mixed group (2/2) just seemed right and I was definitely a big fan in those days. Miss them.

  7. A Friend of A Friend wrote:

    I, too, liked the 2/2 mixed quartet format of The Perrys.

    I always loved the Randy/Deborah/Libbi/Tracy combo, but when Denise came along, she even took it up another notch, vocally. Then, after the big break-up, Nicole & Barry helped hold it all together, until Mike came on board. The Perrys never sounded better!!

    Now, if they decided to go back to that group format, I’d love to see Joe & Linz & her Mom start their own little ministry thing, and Troy & his lady Katy sing with Libbi & Tracy. I know, it might be somewhat awkward from a business stand point, but the sound would be unbelievable.

    I know it ain’t likely, but, Hey! Let me dream on, OK?? I’d love to hear BOTH groups!

  8. Extra Ink wrote:

    Really liked the Perrys of the Bowling-Watt-Libbi-Tracy era (the live cut of “Thank God, It’s Settled, I’m Save” is one of the best live cuts I’ve EVER heard). However, I love today’s lineup as much as any they’ve had. I actually prefer the 3 Men & a Lady set-up they have now. Reminds me of the Goodmans. But the Perrys definitely stand on their own. No one in SG today can match their charisma & excellence.

  9. Scot Eaves (volscot) wrote:

    So you’re the person I was bidding against for Alan’s CD’s? I ended up winning only 2 auctions and one of the CD’s doesn’t have the group members I thought it did (small eBay pictures, you know).

    Let me know when/if you get ready to sell them.

  10. JulieBelle wrote:

    I will go one step further than you, Ave…I will say the Hoppers can’t pull off (or at least aren’t pulling off) a well-balanced ensemble (including piano player) as the Perrys are doing at present.

  11. A Friend Of A Friend wrote:

    Extra Ink?? The Perrys remind you of The Goodmans?? Surely not !! You must’ve gotten The Perrys confused with The Diplomats …

  12. Tom wrote:

    Polishing off the aesthetic rough edges has been a steady evolutionary process for the Perrys. It was a big leap from Randy Perry through Barry Scott to Mike Bowling.

    Check out Randy Perry in this old video from the late 1980s:

  13. J. C. and Dale Sherw wrote:

    Have been reading material on this site for a few years now and like the constructive criticism given to groups.

    We are die-hard Southern Gospel fans, even though we are Canadians. Our favourite groups are: The Perrys, now one of the classiest groups in Southern Gospel and Libbi Perry Stuffle is the best female vocalist, as well as the best alto singer. Libbi is one of the most unassuming artists in the business and we love her. The other two groups on our “best groups” list are Greater Vision and the Booth Brothers — there are no better trios in Southen Gospel than these two groups.

  14. natesings wrote:

    #8- That song was not recorded with Mike Bowling. That was from David Hill’s first and only recording with them. David added a great sound to the group and began the progression away from the country style.

  15. Extra Ink wrote:

    #14, thanks for clearing that up. I thought it was Bowling on that song. It’s a great one….for some reason I’m thinking the YouTube version of it I watched recently had Bowling on it.

  16. natesings wrote:

    Here is the first recording of it with David:

    Also here is a version with Loren Harris which is pretty special since there isn’t much out there when Nicole and Loren were singing together. I would loved to have heard a recording with that lineup!

  17. scope wrote:

    Anything that gets Katy Peach back on a stage would be a good thing!

  18. Tjeerd wrote:

    Perry’s a few years back new years eve at the Happy Gospel centre.
    I thought Tracy did a great job MC.
    He did the chainsaw, EXCELLENT!!!!
    He had our family in stitches. He was his usual self depreciating shtick.
    “I needed a cheese burger to chase down my slim fast shake”
    The concert host Bill Baily also cracked jokes about weight. Something about not being able to resist his mothers strawberry shortcake.
    Jokes about weight resonate well in SG circles. Its because we all struggle and need some humor to get us through.

  19. Tom wrote:

    I’m pretty sure that the “manic, machine-gun laughing at the ends of big tunes” is coming from Tracy, not from Mike.

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