Phil Perry is a soul survivor. From his time with The Montclairs in the early to mid 1970s, through his duet work with Perry and Sanlin, through the years that Perry worked as a much sought after backing vocalist and jingle singer in the 1980s, to his emergence as a lead singer starting in the early 1990s, Perry has pretty much done it all and seen it all. He’s experienced the highs and the lows that come with being in the music business, and yet maintained his sanity, remained true to his principles, kept the right people in his inner circle and is one of the most approachable and down to earth people in an industry with an abundance of prima donnas.
All of this only partially explain why Perry has as large and passionate a fan base as any artist in the indie soul world. The main reason why that fan base stays so passionate and loyal is that Perry makes the kind of high quality, mature soul that plenty of people say that they crave, even as they return to the heavily regimented play lists and youth oriented songs played on terrestrial R&B radio.
Meanwhile, Perry and his longtime producer Chris “Big Dog” Davis drop another solid effort with A Better Man, which is a smooth and well-paced collection of 10 originals, cover tunes and a Montclairs’ remake that finds Perry sharing time with guests such as Howard Hewett, Kim Waters and Rick Braun. Perry is a romance singer and a balladeer, and longtime fans won’t be disappointed because nearly every track on A Better Man deals with some aspect of the love – ranging from the regret of love lost (“Sorry I Let You Go), to the love of a father for his children (“Beautiful Girls”).
However, Perry is also a citizen of the world and a consumer of news who obviously has opinions about current events both foreign and domestic, and on “Stand Up,” his duet with Hewett, Perry makes his statement through his preferred method of expression – music. In doing so, the vocalist harkens back to something that was a regular feature of soul music during his youth in East St. Louis and his time with The Montclairs: Then, artists such as Curtis Mayfield were quite willing to use the platform provided by their status as entertainers to make social commentary via song. These days, R&B artists have largely ceded musical commentary to hip-hop artists, so the entry or re-entry of artists such as Perry is a welcome development. It also helps that “Stand Up” stands on its own as a good tune. The number is actually a mid-tempo funk number – another way that Perry steps out of his comfort zone – that features a percussive bass line and tight backing harmonies. In that way “Stand Up” combines the best of 1970s era funk with the smooth vocal harmonies that were the stock and trade of The Montclairs.
Mayfield’s influence on Perry can also be seen in the inclusion of cover version of two Impressions songs – “Gypsy Woman” and “I’m So Proud,” with the latter featuring Waters on tenor sax. Perry possesses the vocal range that goes from baritone to high tenor and even falsetto, so he can bring the kind of feathery vocals to “I’m So Proud” that Mayfield gave the track, even as Waters’ sax play endows the track with a jazzier feel.
While the cover songs are solid, most of the 10 tunes are originals written by Perry and Davis, meaning A Better Man rises or falls on the strength of these new songs. While most of them find Perry returning to his roots as a balladeer, the singer is able to endow each with a unique voice, viewpoint and pace. The title track is a contemporary, adult oriented mid-tempo song that tells the story of self-aware man who wants his lady to know that he is willing to make the kind of moves that will improve (or maybe save) their relationship.
Perry’s vocal and Braun’s lush horn work turn up the sensuality on “Feelin’ U,” a R&B cut with heavy jazz influence that has a narrative of Perry sweeping his lady away from the daily grind to an undisclosed but very intimate location. “Let It Rain,” sports a sparse and intimate arrangement that merges well with the story it tells of a sensual encounter where rain serves as a natural soundtrack. “Dreaming Out Of Season” is the Montclairs remake that has Perry returning to the terrain of tight harmonies, lush orchestration and romance filled lyrics that his old group occupied in the early and mid-1970s.
The last few years have been both busy and perilous ones for Perry. He continues to release music and tour at a pace that would challenge any performer. Perry had a much publicized health crisis during a 2009 concert, and he took some time off to rest and take care of his body. The jacket art of A Better Man shows the result of those efforts. Perry (who recently celebrated a birthday) looks to be in a better place physically. The music? Well, let’s just say that’s only gotten better as well. Strongly Recommended.
By Howard Dukes