The Fairy Tale Life of French Composer Jean-Jacques Perrey

Storied electronic musician Jean-Jacques Perrey recently passed away at the age of 87. In honor of his life and career, RBMA Daily presents a condensed version of Perrey’s autobiography, first published in 1993, in which the whimsical Frenchman takes a look back at his unpredictable career

Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

When I think about the movie of my life, I realize it was when I turned 30 that things became like a real fairy tale. In this tale, my fairy godmother was Edith Piaf, the great French singer; the magicians were Charles Trenet and Jean Cocteau; the wizard Merlin was Walt Disney and my magic coach was the SS France cruise ship.

I was born January 20, 1929 in a little village in the north of France. On Christmas Eve, 1933, Santa Claus brought me an accordion and I became possessed by a “little demon of music.” From an early age, I had a great thirst for learning and knowledge. During school and later at university, I had the good fortune to have exceptional teachers who awakened in me the urge to research and the drive to create. I began reading science fiction and devoured everything I could find by Isaac Asimov, H.P. Lovecraft, Aldous Huxley, A.E. van Vogt, and especially Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury, both of whom I later met in the United States. In 1939, World War II broke out. When the liberation finally happened in 1944, like all French people I felt a profound gratitude toward the Americans who had freed us from Nazi occupation. I could not know that 15 years later the Americans would play a key role in my professional career.

After graduating from Lycée d’Amiens (Somme), I attended medical school in Paris for four years. Even though I aspired to devote myself to scientific research, the little demon of music kept needling me. In 1952, while attending medical school, I met a genial inventor, one of the French pioneers of electronic music, Georges Jenny. He had invented the “Ondioline,” which may be considered an ancestor of the modern synthesizer. I already knew Maurice Martenot, the inventor of the Ondes Martenot, a musical instrument which could produce only very limited sounds. I preferred the Ondioline, which on its small keyboard allowed one to produce new and original sounds as well as sounds from existing instruments such as the violin or flute. I was fascinated by the Ondioline and felt it had a great future. At this point I did not know a lot about music, never having studied music seriously. The exception was a two month stay at the conservatory at Amiens, where I was kicked out because of a rule forbidding students to perform in public. I had been playing accordion at small local events and the director gave me an ultimatum: cease these performances, or leave the conservatory.

The little demon convinced me to quit medical school in 1953. I decided I would become not a doctor, but rather a musician and composer, a creator. Within a few months I learned, on my own, without a teacher or sheet music, to play the piano by ear. I managed to get hired by Georges Jenny, who was looking for someone to demonstrate his invention. As a sales representative for the Ondioline, I began traveling a lot – first in France, then abroad to international music fairs. In a few years, I became acquainted with all the great cities of Europe. But my little demon whispered in my ear: “You have proved yourself to be gifted in music and to have imagination, but you must develop this talent further. You must get yourself noticed. You haven’t achieved enough!” Once more, I took its advice. To supplement my salary as a sales representative, I began a new type of cabaret act using the Ondioline and the piano. Called “Around the World in 80 Ways,” the act was a huge success in Paris. I started out as an opening act at theaters, but since I spoke English I went on to bigger European stages in Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, England, etc..., and thus began an international career.

Charles Trenet – L'âme des poètes

In 1956 in Paris, I had the good fortune of meeting with the great singer/composer Charles Trenet, who was very impressed by the magical new sounds of the Ondioline and suggested I accompany him onstage. I also recorded some records with him, including one song which became an international hit, “The Soul of the Poets” (“L’ame Des Poetes”). My collaboration with him lasted a year, during which I was able to meet other great artists and singers such as Yves Montand and Jacques Brel. I made my debut on radio and French television, not only as an accompanist of great singing stars, but also performing my own musical act. At the same time, I was investigating the influence of sound on the human body, and the idea of music as therapy. In 1957, I recorded an “auditory prescription” for insomniacs titled Prelude to Sleep. The fruit of several years of research, it was the first such recording, and helped many insomniacs regain natural rest. It was tremendously successful in Europe.

Jean-Jacques Perrey – Prélude au Sommeil

In 1958, chance – if chance can truly be said to exist – brought me a meeting with an extraordinary individual who said, “You are a pioneer. You must continue. But like all innovators you will have difficulties, and in France you will often feel yourself misunderstood. You should try to become well-known across the ocean. You have a mission on this earth, because you were born to create. Thirty years after you’re dead, you’ll be able to retire rich!” This person – this giant of the arts that I profoundly admired – was Jean Cocteau. The encounter with Cocteau profoundly changed me, and our brief meeting was a transformative moment in my career.

It must have brought me some luck, because the next year I appeared at the Olympia Theater (the greatest musical hall in Paris) with Edith Piaf. Edith herself was very impressed by the immense possibilities of the Ondioline. From her, I learned many “tricks of the trade” having to do with show business and song arrangement. She gave me money to buy studio time, which allowed me to record a few pieces on magnetic tape which were a showcase for the Ondioline. She even decided herself which pieces I should record to obtain maximum effect. She was impeccable – very demanding. When she had decided that the tape was “almost perfect,” she told me, “Now you must mail this to a person I’m going to give you the name and address for in New York. I will write him as well, to let him know of your forthcoming correspondence. You’ll see; he will answer you.” It was impossible to debate with Edith; one always had to do as she decreed! Three weeks later, I received an envelope from America. There was no note enclosed – only a round-trip plane ticket with an open return date, plus one word written in big felt-tip pen on the envelope: “COME!” Thus began the fairy tale.

In March 1960, I arrived in New York with a little traveling suitcase in one hand and my faithful Ondioline in the other. My sponsor met me at the airport. I will never forget this man – he was also one of the magicians presiding over my career. He was the first to offer me such an opportunity to express myself, and his financial support gave me a chance to survive. His name was Carroll Bratman and he directed Carroll Music Service, which rented musical instruments to recording studios, theaters, music halls and TV studios. He had a lot of business contacts and influence in the music world, all of which he shared with me. I feel an immense gratitude for his generosity and his heart.

New York – this was a dream come true for me, an unknown Frenchman! At the risk of failure, I had to conquer this new continent, this land of opportunity. I had faith in myself, feeling rash (or foolhardy), because I felt protected by the good fairies and magicians I had met in France. And when one is 30, one still has the soul of an adventurer – one needs to take chances. I was fascinated by New York, this great metropolis through which sooner or later all the giants of music and show business passed. I spoke English, but I had a lot of difficulty understanding what people were trying to say to me. I admit, humbly, that I was often afraid. But the warmth and kindness of Carroll and his staff reassured me, and soon I managed to find a niche. Apparently, people liked the “Frenchie,” with his accent and his European sense of humor.

Jean-Jacques Perrey on I’ve Got A Secret, 1960

My first appearance on American TV was on The Jack Parr Show. Thanks to my accent, a little humor and the novelty of the Ondioline, I managed to surprise the audience and make them laugh – the show was a hit! Then followed radio appearances and more TV appearances, on The Garry Moore Show, I’ve Got a Secret, Captain Kangaroo, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show and others. When I left France, I had intended to stay in New York for only a few weeks, but it took six months to obtain a resident alien card, so I stayed. During this time, Carroll sponsored me completely, paying for my living expenses at the Bristol Hotel on West 48th Street and giving me a salary as a sales rep for the Ondioline. But he did even more. In his building, he had set up an experimental recording studio completely equipped with everything I had ever dreamed of: tape recorders, various musical instruments, all the electronic keyboards existing at the time (Allen, RMI, Hammond, Martin, etc...). I felt like I was living in a dream – a real fairy tale. On top of my own experimental research, I was doing demonstrations of the Ondioline, and they were selling well; Georges Jenny was ecstatic and I was, too. Little by little, I was becoming accustomed to the American way of life, and getting better and better at American slang. In my research studio, I worked hard – sometimes 36 hours in a row. I especially liked to work nights (the night is more propitious to research; one often finds inspiration on the doorstep of sleep).

In 1961, my little demon of music imposed himself once again, saying, “You must go even further. You must create a style which is particular to yourself – very personal – and which will make you known beyond that which you have already achieved.” Once again, I followed his advice. One night, in my alchemical laboratoratory of sounds, I invented a new process for generating rhythms, utilizing musique concréte sounds from the noises of machines, animal cries, insects buzzing and more. Once the sounds were recorded I would knead them, chop them, run them through filters backward at twice the speed (or half the speed), and in this way they would become practically unidentifiable. Little by little, I created a “library” of sounds. I would isolate each of those sounds according to various parameters (frequency, attack, envelope, tonality), and then arrange these sounds rhythmically according to calculated patterns using repetitive loops and sequences. The result was astonishing. I had discovered an incredible, heretofore unexplored goldmine.

As a source of inspiration, the artist must take chance into account but learn how to master it, and consider it as a wink of the eye from destiny.

I would spend hours, days and nights gluing these little bits of magic magnetic tape, which were sometimes no bigger than a centimeter. Thus I was able to create a new style of rhythmic sequences. Finally, I had found an original niche – my own style, humorous and unusual. I want to say that I never had any preconceived notions as to selection – that is, preferring one sound over another. It was as if I was suffering from bulimia of sound. I was recording everything I possibly could, accumulating more than 3,000 basic sounds, heteroclite and varied, knowing that one day or another I could incorporate them into a rhythmic sequence.

While visiting a beehive in Switzerland, I recorded miles of magnetic tape on my Nagra recorder. When I returned to New York, I was able to produce the melody of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” using my recordings of the live bees. It took a titanic amount of labor: 46 hours of cutting and gluing itsy-bitsy pieces of magnetic tape (1.03 centimeters long) together for the final result: two minutes of music. I think I was a little crazy back then, but the result was so gratifying. At that time, only 4-track tape recorders existed, so to complete this piece Carroll obtained for me a Scully 4-track machine. I recorded the melody (made from the bees) on one track, and the accompaniment on the remaining three. What a job!

As far as random chance goes, in my musical creations it never played a predominant role. Surely, chance exists at a certain level of inspiration in artistic creation, but a true creator must know how to use it without being dominated by it. It’s the job of the creator to master chance. An artistic creation, whatever it is, is too important to be left entirely to pure randomness. As a source of inspiration, the artist must take chance into account but learn how to master it, and consider it as a wink of the eye from destiny.

Jean-Jacques Perrey performs “Baroque Hoedown”, 2006

In 1964, I met a musician and composer of great talent, Gershon Kingsley, and we became associates. Together, using my new process of rhythmic sequences of musique concréte, we elaborated the material necessary for the realization of an LP of 12 original pieces for the Vanguard record company, The In Sound from Way Out. This was followed by a second album, Kaleidoscopic Vibrations, using both the Ondioline and the Moog synthesizer. These two albums were reissued in 1988 on one compact disc called The Essential Perrey and Kingsley. One of the songs on this second album, “Baroque Hoedown,” is still used at Disneyland in the Main Street Electrical Parade.

I would return to France, sometimes twice a year. The fairy tale was continuing thanks in part to my stage act. As a performer, I could travel for free and in first class on the magnificent SS France cruise liner, in exchange for doing three shows per cruise. I was living the life of a billionaire without being one. From 1962-1970, I did 18 round trips on the SS France and met great personalities such as Alfred Hitchcock, who was a fascinating man – unusual and unpredictable. One never knew if he were joking or talking seriously. He was very impressed by the Ondioline and interested in my research; he encouraged me to continue. I met many other interesting personalities, but the list would be too long.

The human soul has lost its sense of magic; people have lost their sense of humor and everything is now banalized. Instead of “joie de vivre,” people feel “mal de vivre.”

Each time I went to Europe, after only a few weeks I would return to New York, which attracted me like a magnet. I was always possessed by an intense desire to create, by an unquenchable thirst to accomplish more. I felt like I was living a hundred miles an hour. I was literally treating each day as if it were “the first day of the rest of my life.” In 1968, I began working with Laurie Productions in New York, with a great team of professionals including my friend John Mack and composer Dave Mullaney. We did TV commericals together, and at this time I recorded my fourth album on the Vanguard label, Moog Indigo. I was at the apogee of my American career – this was “the good life.” I cherish vivid memories of the ’60s, not only because it was a time of great personal success, but because it was a prolific period for music in general. There have been other great “golden ages”: Mozart, Johann Strauss and Offenbach have marked their eras by infusing humor into music. But in the ’60s, humor sparkled in the music like champagne.

Jean-Jacques Perrey - Passport to the Future

If we look at what has been happening during the past few years, we see humanity at a transition period. The era of Pisces is ending; little by little we are tilting into the Age of Aquarius – and this does not happen without risk or inconvenience. Human beings are faced with numerous stresses: the eternal spectre of world war; the dangers of increasing pollution and vandalism; political scandals; recession; unemployment; anxiety at the coming of the Year 2000 and much more. Technology has developed faster than the general consciousness: spiritual and moral values have not been preserved. Like Dr. Frankenstein, man has been surpassed by his own creation and technology. People feel a crippling desensitization.

The human soul has lost its sense of magic; people have lost their sense of humor and everything is now banalized. Instead of “joie de vivre,” people feel “mal de vivre.” So the future is not what it was, because humanity did not correctly manage its inheritance: Planet Earth. We are increasingly worried, anxiety-ridden, preoccupied and under pressure, and this generates sadness, intolerance and violence. This can be felt in contemporary music productions, which always reflect not only the present but also what lies ahead.

This is why I always deliberately introduced humor into my creations: I sincerely think that humor will help save humanity from the swamp into which it is sinking. Today, we can’t afford to be pessimistic – we must try to keep a sense of humor bolted onto our hearts, soul and spirit. Let’s shove pessimism aside for better days, when we will be in better shape to handle it.

By Jean-Jacques Perrey on November 14, 2016

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