'Joy Perrin finds her niche playing for senior citizens ' Marin Independent Journal Carla Bova, Feb. 18. 2007
Guitarist and singer Joy Perrin tours on a regular circuit.
" Hers is a variety show - riddled with jokes, trivia and stories - that the 70-
to 100-year-olds who packed the audience during a recent performance at a San
Rafael retirement community couldn't resist. "Perrin encourages
banter and audience participation because it means "they are getting involved,
they are active, their juices get flowing." Several call her "unique" in
her desire to reach out and connect with people. "
Perrin's devoted audiences do not jump and jive or body slam in a mosh pit, but when she performs there is no denying the action.
Her groupies toe-tap in their seats, shimmy in their wheelchairs, or clap from their hospital beds. Almost everyone sings along.
"I like to engage seniors," says Perrin of Muir Beach. "Senior citizens don't necessarily want to be soothed, as some people think! They want to be interested. They want to be captivated. They want something that is going to perk them up and make them say, 'Oh I haven't heard that song in 50 years. Oh, I want to sing along. Oh, you make me feel so good.'"
The old favorites Perrin plays evoke memories for seniors in retirement communities and adult day programs and spread cheer to recovering hospital patients.
As a "strolling minstrel," her visits help people with dementia light up and captivate the developmentally disabled.
"I go to their rooms, ask them if they would like some music and I try to engage them and lift their spirits. I document their responses, which shows they have had a meaningful activity for the day," Perrin says. "I have had people who haven't spoken for years perk up and they actually start singing with me. ... I am not a music therapist, but I am a very therapeutic musician."
A full-time professional musician for more than three decades, Perrin, 55, has racked up a long and varied playlist that spans from the 1920s through the 1970s in genres from swing, jazz, blues and folk to country, rock, gospel and children's tunes.
The extensive songlist makes Perrin popular entertainment for private parties, birthdays, weddings, corporate events, fundraisers. She loves themes, selecting songs to create a Hawaiian luau, '50s sock hop, patriotic Fourth of July.
"Because of my experience of 30 years, being in so many different kinds of bands and playing so many different kinds of music, I have got a humungous repertoire that will appeal to so many," Perrin says. "I usually have something for everybody. I am kind of a musical chameleon."
To stroll, she straps on her acoustic guitar. For a group audience, she is a one-woman show complete with her own sound system - speaker, drum machine, electric guitar.
"The guitar is plugged in, voice is plugged in, drums are plugged in and we are off to the races," Perrin says. "I sound like a little band all by myself."
Hers is a variety show - riddled with jokes, trivia and stories - that the 70- to 100-year-olds who packed the audience during a recent performance at San Rafael's Drake Terrace retirement community couldn't resist.
"She makes us all laugh and sing and happy, and that is important," says 90-year-old resident Reidon Young.
"She never talks down to you. She is genuine and it comes through," says 84-year-old Doris Freidman. "She does not go down Memory Lane and make you feel sad. She sings it uplifting and it makes me feel damn good."
Perrin opened with "I Don't Know Why I Love You Like I Do." Everyone sang along. Someone called out a request for Patti Page's "Tennessee Waltz." Everyone sang along.
"It is a sad story, the 'Tennessee Waltz,' but there is a moral to the story," Perrin told the crowd. "The moral is don't introduce your sweetie to your best friend."
After singing "Bei Mir Bist du Shon" in English she proclaimed, "It was written in Yiddish and translated for the Andrew Sisters. Wanna hear it in Yiddish?"
Perrin sings in nine languages including Spanish, Italian, Russian and some Chinese.
"When our Russian client sees her pull up, it is automatic," says Kuzuri Jackson of Potrero Hill Neighborhood House in San Francisco where Perrin performs for those with physical or mental disabilities. "He starts clapping his hands and stomping his feet because he knows she is coming to sing."
Smith Ranch Care Center in San Rafael once had a woman, born in the Pacific Islands, who could not speak as a result of a stroke, according to activity director Connie Hirschmugl.
"Joy played Polynesian music, and this woman had tears come down her face. She totally related and came out of herself," Hirschmugl says. "I have seen some who seem not to respond to anything come alive when they hear her play."
Perrin encourages banter and audience participation because it means "they are getting involved, they are active, their juices get flowing." Several call her unique in her desire to reach out and connect with people.
Such is the case for 89-year-old resident Stan Winston who performed alongside Perrin at Drake Terrace, playing the tambourine and doumbek drum.
"She got me interested in playing the doumbek and in the last six months since then I have gone doumbek crazy," Winston says. "I decided I can't check out now because the drum is my future. ... She is a real person and treats us as real people."
Liza Grime, activities director at Drake Terrace, noticed Perrin is more of a friend to the senior residents.
"Residents feel like they know her and are comfortable with her," Grime says. "They like her because of her down-to-earth, lighthearted personality. She is funny, engaging, sincere. Her heart and soul is into it and they pick up on that."
It is a different gig for the self-taught guitarist who seems to have played them all. She toured the Midwest and the South in the '70s, playing every venue from ritzy clubs to divey roadhouses, and learned to play bass at a time when few women did. She sang back up for Tracy Nelson, was on a double bill with John Lee Hooker and performed for nearly two decades in New York nightclubs.
Since moving to Marin in 2002, Perrin has carved out a career as a music specialist for seniors and built her business from nothing.
"It was pretty scary to start from scratch. Absolute scratch," Perrin says. "Nobody knew who I was."
Nowadays she has about 50 regular clients, including hospitals and retirement homes, from San Jose to Healdsburg and averages about 60 engagements a month, making a living in an industry she says in expanding. Sometimes she books three to five performances a day. Her prices vary depending on location and date. Visit joyperrin.com or call 717-6731 for details.
"People are getting older and they are living longer and they are healthier," Perrin says. "There are advances in medicine. Retirement communities are booming up everywhere. It is a growing business and I am blessed to have edged myself into what I consider a really wonderful niche."
Born in Iowa in 1951, Perrin is the oldest of three children. The family was raised in St. Joseph, Mo. At 8 years old, Perrin started playing the ukulele and believes she inherited her vocal chords from her mother, Cleo Hansen, who as a teenager sang with big bands.
"She sang with the Sweet Adelines and they would let me as a kid come and sing with them too," Perrin says. "I was 12 or 13."
By then she had been taking piano lessons for about four years. She also taught herself how to play the guitar.
At age 14, she was in a folk and pop duo called Carmen and Joy, performing at concerts and social clubs around St. Joseph. As a high school teen Perrin spent three summers studying art at the University of Kansas Midwestern Music and Art Camp. "I studied art eight hours a day," she says.
Likes to paint
Today Perrin, who calls watercolor painting her "first love," is a member of the Marin County Watercolor Society and is looking for a gallery to host her solo art show in the spring. She has taken a watercolor class taught by Nancy Johnson at the College of Marin
"She is kind of a natural. She has a lot of talent," Johnson says. "It just seems to flow out of her."
At age 18, Perrin said her life took a turn when her father, Cal Perrin, lost his job as vice president at an animal health products company. His new job meant moving the family to Muskogee, Okla.
"I was not going to go to Muskogee, Okla.," Perrin says. "I left home with my guitar and my footlocker and my typewriter and $300 in my pocket. I have been on my own ever since."
She headed for Columbia, Mo., and lived with friends in a hippie commune, playing folk music and doing artwork.
Her musical path began to take shape in 1970 when she auditioned in St. Louis for a band called Cliff Fredericksen and the Fabulous Generators that played the Ramada Inn hotel circuit. Band leader Fredericksen taught her how to play the bass. At 19 she traveled with the band for about a year playing jazz and pop standards.
Toured in Midwest
For much of her 20s, Perrin played with several showbands throughout the Midwest, including Eastern Standardtime and an all-girl power-trio band called Evergreen. As part of Moore and Perrin, she played bass and sang the blues at venues throughout the South.
"I was somewhat of a trailblazer myself because it wasn't the usual thing to see a woman in a band on the road in a roadhouse or in a club playing the bass," she says.
She recorded the blues album "Should Be Me" in Charlotte, N.C., and headed for New York in 1984 looking to make it big in the music business.
"In order to make a living there ... you have to be in many different bands at the same time because there is a limited number of clubs and a gigantic number of people trying to work there," she says.
In the competitive New York City scene, Perrin played in up to five or six bands at a time - sometimes as bandleaders, sometimes as sideman - in nightclubs and bars, bar mitzvahs and society parties.
"I would be backing up a cabaret singer over here and working for one wedding agency this week and another the next 0week," Perrin says. "I would have my own blues band and would play in someone else's. É I was in New York for 18 years and probably played in 50 bands."
Over the years she performed as either as sideman for or on a double bill with performers, including Bo Diddley, Tracy Nelson, Mary Wells, Southside Johnny, John Lee Hooker, Johnny Clyde Copeland and the Ink Spots.
She produced an album called "Cruisin' for a Bluesin,'" released in 1999. That year a reviewer in Blues Magazine wrote, "She is an icon in everyday disguise."
By the early 1990s, Perrin found the nightclub scene was dwindling and began to transition away from it. She worked for Hospital Audiences Inc. that booked her daytime performances at health-care facilities. Then she hooked up with another agency, Lee Perry Gross Music, which specialized in booking engagements for senior facilities.
"I was put in a lot of retirement homes so I started really studying up and learning all this wonderful old music," Perrin says. "That is when I really applied myself and became a student of the genre from the '20s, '30s and '40s, the Swing Era."
Hirschmugl says Perrin goes out of her way to please the audience.
"If a resident likes a song, she will teach herself it and sing it for them," Hirschmugl says. "She really cares about people and builds a relationship with them."
Perrin is concerned about their welfare, making notes of their responses to her musical room visits.
"I have page after page of her notes. I kept them all," Hirschmugl said. "Her notes help me because I am on the clinical side, thinking about whether they are depressed, is their family visiting, are they in pain. (She) is a non-drug intervention that is healthy with no side effects, no prescriptions. It is just something I know is wonderful. It gets incredible response. It lightens their load a bit."
Perrin says she reinvented herself, in part, by reteaching herself to play the guitar.
The hard part was building her business. "I was leaving a sure thing where I was just handed all my bookings," Perrin says. "That was so utterly terrifying - to come out here and start from scratch."
She pitched clients around Marin - giving free demonstrations, creating promotional materials and touting her experience with seniors and therapeutic services.
"I found that I am a businesswoman," Perrin says. "I learned how to create my own work then keep re-creating it. I found as I progressed into this career that it is great fun relating to these people. The most fulfilling part for me is when I see them light up."
Carla Bova can be reached at cbova @marinij.com.