Monday, March 28, 2011

Bishop Perry Tillis

Perry Tillis was born July 29, 1919, in Elba , Alabama , and began playing his brand of rambling blues at a very early age.Perry Tillis was a professional musician who traveled extensively back in the ‘40s. “He went everywhere. He literally traveled from Florida to California.” Along the way Tillis met and played with Muddy Waters, with Pops Staples when he still was in Mississippi, and with John Lee Hooker before he went up north. Like a great many blues musicians of the day, from Charley Patton and Bukka White to the Reverend Gary Davis and Fred McDowell, he played blues with both sacred and profane content. Some of the biggest and best early blues singers sang only spiritual-type tunes, so-called guitar evangelists like Ed Clayborn and the great Blind Willie Johnson (who allegedly sought out Tillis in the ’40s to play with him). In the ‘60s, Tillis was converted and devoted himself to his music and his ministry via the Church of God in Christ. He became an itinerant preacher, eventually starting his own church and calling himself a reverend; years later, he made himself a bishop.We got to Elba, Alabama, and asked around about possible local musicians,” Olsson relates. “People immediately mentioned a man named ‘Blind Perry’ and when we found the place we hardly knew we’d found it. The driveway was covered in weeds, the house itself looked abandoned. Dogs were running around. It was not a romantic kind of thing, it was real sad. There he was living all by himself, blind since not too many years back, pieces missing in the wooden floor. He was living in a condition of total despair. Then when he played, the music was so intense, so beautiful! It was like hearing Charley Patton for the first time; it shook me in the same way, musically and emotionally. It was all I could do not to cry.” Too Close is superlative, one of those releases that not only redresses historical wrongs, but one that you find yourself listening to on repeat without even realizing it. The recordings on Too Close were made by Olsson in ’69 and ’71 and later by a close friend of Olsson’s in ’72, after Terry had gotten an electric guitar. It’s astonishing stuff. The music consists solely of Tillis’ voice and guitar, with occasional percussion caused by his feet stomping the loose floorboards in his house. From the first song, his take on “God Don’t Like It,” a song that advises against the drinking of moonshine, to “Kennedy Moan,” a stirring political number, it is all stirring stuff. Asked about this music’s rarity, Olsson says “I think sanctified blues as a tradition lived on as long as [‘regular’] blues,” but surmises that maybe “sanctified people didn’t buy the records as much, plus you didn’t have sanctified records on jukeboxes except for maybe Sister Rosetta Tharpe.”

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