Roy Perry: Musician and Organ Builder

Copyright © 2013 Neal Campbell

at 1173 old console

Background

Were it not for the East Texas Pipe Organ Festival Roy Perry’s name might be relegated to a footnote among students and enthusiasts of Aeolian-Skinner history and folklore.  But what an enduring footnote it would have been, all the same.

A happy confluence of events led to the appointment of Lorenz Maycher to Roy Perry’s former Kilgore post in 2010, and it was his inspiration and vision that established this festival, honoring the life and work of Roy Perry and the Williams family of organbuilders from New Orleans, featuring five organs which Perry finished and had a hand in designing, and which the Williams installed and maintained for approximately 30 years. For the first festival in November 2011 I was asked to present a talk about Roy’s life together with remarks about the music associated with Opus 1173, and that is largely what is given here in narrative form, using many of the same photographs I used in the live talk.

Introduction

Roy Perry’s association with G. Donald Harrison and his role and presence in the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company during the years just prior to and following Harrison’s death was significant, and there are several reasons for this:

First, his own larger than life personality and musicianship yielded an impressive list of sales for the company.  And, it must be said, at that time Aeolian-Skinner was the preferred organ of most organists, even of those couldn’t afford it or could not wait for the three-year backlog of orders. Roy often said that the organs sold themselves: once prospective customers heard his home organ at First Presbyterian Church, Aeolian-Skinner’s Opus 1173 or it’s sister organ in the First Baptist Church in Longview, one opus number younger, they were hooked.

By his own reckoning he was responsible for about 25% of the company’s sales during his time with the company. Part of this was because he shared the sales territory commissions, as well as the work of installing and finishing organs, with the Williams.  For a fuller account of this, see Nora Williams’ Interview.  And it’s really impossible to appreciate and assess these organs without understanding the family like association between Roy and the Williams family which, for most of his career, consisted of father and son, T. J. “Jack” and J. C. “Jim” and their wives Sally and Nora. It was a real family enterprise. By the time I came to know Roy in 1972 Jack and Sally had died, but Jim and Nora continued the family business in taking care of these organs and many others throughout Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana.

Left to right: Nora, Jim, Sally, and Jack Williams in the Kilgore organ ca. 1966.

Left to right: Nora, Jim, Sally, and Jack Williams in the Kilgore organ ca. 1966.

Second, the Perry sound. A few years ago a graduate student consulted with me about his proposed dissertation about Roy Perry; he wanted to see all of the organs with which Roy had been associated, taking measurements and obtaining empirical information in his attempt to identify the uniqueness of Roy’s organs (and I suppose to defend his findings before a panel of examiners)—a noble undertaking reminiscent of Donald Harrison’s first trip to Germany wielding calipers and other measuring tools in an attempt to gather definitive information which would enable him to replicate the sounds of Silberman et al.  But the real sign of GDH’s genius was in quickly giving that up in favor of just listening and absorbing the sound, ambiance, and ethos of these historic organs so that when he arrived back in America, he could incorporate what he had heard in creating his own instruments, which may have been informed by the past, but were uniquely modern.

Trying to quantify or define the uniqueness of Roy Perry’s organs presents a similar difficulty. In Donald Harrison’s own words, writing to Willis in England in 1955 about Roy Perry, he says

He is a top notch finisher and during my periodic visits to Texas I cannot remember a time when I have had to suggest that something might have been done a little differently. He just has that kind of organ sense.

Better than any other analysis, this explains how Roy’s organs bore the original stamp which is hard to miss by comparison with Aeolian-Skinner’s many other fine organs.

Lastly, his work as a practicing organist and church musician was well-known within the region of East Texas and was recorded for posterity in the Aeolian-Skinner King of Instruments series of recordings, many of which have been reissued in modern formats.  See Review of Aeolian-Skinner’s “King of Instruments” series of recordings, Volumes 1-3 remastered by VTOA | Neal Campbell–Words and Pictures.  These, and the few private recordings of Roy’s playing that exist, are tangible reminders of the color and personality which were imbued in his playing over his forty-plus years as a church organist. Also, Roy’s understanding of the physical attributes of the churches in this part of the country and his forthright dealings with his colleagues and clients also figured prominently in the effectiveness of his work.

Then, of course, there is the not inconsequential work he undertook with Jim Williams apart from the company in the later years of Aeolian-Skinner’s existence, most of which still exists.  His final statement and undoubtedly his most highly visible work was the renovation of the organ in Washington Cathedral from 1973-76.  This large-scale project was indigenously complicated and was a committee-driven project occasioned by the cathedral’s unique physical properties and its liturgical and logistical requirements, all of which was undertaken just as the Aeolian-Skinner company ceased operations.  Ostensibly designed by Joseph Whiteford, who oversaw the work from his home in California, he never made the trip to Washington to see either the work in progress or the final outcome. Roy’s official title was supervising architect and finisher, but in practical matters, he was the boss of the job.

Early Life  

The details of Roy’s early life are sketchy, at best.  He was born on September, 27, 1906 in Indian Bayou, Vermillion Parish, Louisiana, near Lake Charles. Most of what we know comes from an autobiographical piece Roy wrote himself as a mature adult titled Poor Bob’s Boy, the title of which refers to the fact that his father (Bob) died some time before Roy was born. He had an unstable home life. I’ve not been able to find out the circumstances of either his father’s death, or any biographical material about his mother or step father, except anecdotal suggestions that the step father drank too much and was abusive. It seems that as a boy Roy was passed around to be reared by assorted women of his extended family, notably his grandmother and particularly his Aunt Jenny, his father’s sister, who first recognized his ability. It was she who provided anything resembling a continuing family presence and he kept in touch with her and even visited her in July 1964. He did have a half-sister who lived in California whom he visited at least once as an adult.

In elementary school Roy had a music teacher, Mrs. Ora M. Reams, who came to his school once a week, teaching the elementary principles of solfège.  Roy was naturally bright,  possessed a keen intellect, absorbed everything around him, and grasped information quickly. In his mid-teens he was already self-sufficient and had jobs playing in a Jewish temple and a movie theatre near Lake Charles. At this point he did take some formal lessons with Mrs. Reames.  By the time he came to the attention of anyone in Kilgore, he was the organist of St. Cyprian’s Church and The Pines Theatre, each in Lufkin, some thirty miles south of Kilgore. And at some point he was confirmed in the Episcopal Church.

Oil Boom, the Crim Legacy, and the First Presbyterian Church in Kilgore

Roy’s coming to Kilgore in 1932 at age 26 was simultaneous with the East Texas oil boom and his own life was quickly intertwined, inextricably so, with the Crim family, the owners and beneficiaries of the largest tract of oil-producing acreage in what came to be known as the East Texas Oil Field.

In the organ chamber, 1939

In the organ chamber, 1939

Lou Della Crim, also known as Moma Della, was the matriarch of the family.  Her husband, William Robert Crim, had long since died by the time of the boom. The local history books tell of how Moma Della’s father, Captain John Martin Thompson, amassed a large lumbering enterprise in East Texas and it was his intent to bequeath the land to his sons. As John T. Crim tells the story:

When my grandfather decided to give his children their portion of his assets, he called them together and offered them gold dollars or the land. The boys decided they would take the gold dollars. Miss Lou Della, trying  to be helpful and please her father said ‘Oh, Papa, just give me the land for my part.’[1]

And it was on this land that oil was found, and in a big way!

A4.Lou Della Crim on her front porch 2

W. R. and Moma Della had four children: J. Malcolm, Pauline Florence (later, after her first husband died, Pauline MacIntosh) John Thompson Crim (later, John T., Sr. after the birth of his son; Roy, who had a nickname for everyone, called him Santa Claus), and Liggett, the youngest, who was always interested in things theatrical.

LN Crim and Knox LambEach of the Crim children was in various ways devoted to the newly incorporated town and their family church, the First Presbyterian Church. In 1931 Malcolm became the first mayor of Kilgore, and Liggett owned a chain of movie theaters in Kilgore and the surrounding area. Managing this chain of theatres was a man named Knox Lamb, who—in various ways as time went on—also made his living in and around the theatre, including a long period on the technical staff of Kilgore College.

The First Presbyterian Church of Kilgore had its beginnings in the mid-19th century in a settlement just south of present-day Kilgore called New Danville and was known as the Gum Spring Presbyterian Church. A circuitous series of events having to do with the expanding railroad and property belonging to Constantine Buckley (Buck) Kilgore led to the founding of a new town. At a meeting of the church congregation in 1874 it was voted to move the church four miles into the new town, using the name New Danville Presbyterian Church, commemorating its original location. By the end of 1885 they had built a new church at the corner of South and Rusk Streets in Kilgore. The Crims were devoted members of the church.

The Crim family.

Lou Della Crim, center, Malcolm Crim to her right, John T. Crim to her left, Leggett Crim to his left (in sun glasses), the Rev. Shirley Guthrie, far right.

In 1930 rumors began to surface about the possible presence of oil in the area. The speculative wells drilled on the Crim farm were not the first to come in, but when they did, in late 1931, they produced the largest share of what became known as the East Texas Oil field.  Moma Della was in church on the Sunday the wells on her property came in.

At this time the area surrounding Kilgore consisted largely of rural cotton-producing farms, all of which were caught in the grips of a devastating drought. No sooner had the oil wells come in than Malcolm Crim, owner-operator of a his family’s local general store, with whom everyone in town did business, declared that all debts were forgiven, and he invited his customers down to the store where he tore up their IOU papers into scraps and burned them saying “we’re wiping the slate clean, we’re even with everybody.” He knew what conditions were like for his fellow citizens and he knew immediately how the discovery of oil would change all of their situations for the better.  It was also an early example of the many similar charitable acts for the good of the community that the Crims performed in the following years.

The story of life in Kilgore in the earliest days of the oil boom is a fascinating tale beyond the scope of this article, but it is integral to the church story to recall that in May 1931 the East Texas Railroad Commission tried to control oil production and to ration amounts to be produced. Chaos ensued resulting in what was later known as the Great Oilfield War, which caused the governor to declare martial law. Oil which had been priced at $1.15 per barrel before the discovery, fluctuated afterward to as low as $.02 per barrel!

Downtown Kilgore at the height of the oil boom.

Downtown Kilgore at the height of the oil boom.

In the midst of this frenzy of events, an incendiary fire broke out in Kilgore—probably arson, though never proven—which destroyed the Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches. The rumor that circulated was that it was disgruntled oilfield workers who had started the fire because they were angry that they had lost their jobs because of the ration order which shut down too many wells.

B4.one derrick

The new First Presbyterian Church, with one lone derrick in view, shortly after it was built at South and Rusk Streets.

In short order a new church in a modest Gothic style was built on the same site, which came to be known as the First Presbyterian Church. It was outfitted with a six stop organ built by Pilcher. It was to this church and this organ that Roy Perry came to Kilgore to be the organist and choirmaster in 1932.  The new church had no organist, and the story is told that Liggett Crim mentioned this casually to Knox Lamb, the manager of his chain of theaters, and it was Lamb who suggested to Crim that he consider the organist of his theater in Lufkin. Nora Williams tells the engaging story of waking Roy up in the middle of the night, more or less commanding him to go over to the Pines Theatre to “audition” for Liggett, only to find that the building was locked. So, Lamb just kicked the door in and then went in and we assume the audition was successful. Nora Williams Interview  So it was that Roy Perry moved to Kilgore, initially living with Liggett Crim and his wife Tincy Elder.  Beginning then and there, Roy’s life was closely linked to those of the extended Crim family for the rest of his life, and he ultimately was even buried in the family cemetery, Thompson Cemetery at Laird Hill, just outside of Kilgore. Roy immediately set out to make improvements and additions to the modest Pilcher organ, enlisting the assistance of Jack Williams whom he had known in Lufkin. Williams was an independent service man, but he did a lot of work for Möller, and he installed the new organ which Möller built around the small Pilcher. This was during the time the noted English voicer Richard Whitelegg was associated with the company, although it is uncertain that he had any influence on this relatively obscure job.

B9.McAmis at Kilgore flyerIn 1935 Roy established a recital series at the church on the new organ and brought noted organists to town, including Hugh McAmis, the civic organist of San Antonio, and a youthful Virgil Fox, then 23 years old. Virgil and Roy remained friends and Fox played and visited several times in Kilgore over the years.  Roy composed a piece titled Lamento for Fox’s 1936 debut in Carnegie Hall in New York, although the piece was not listed on the program.

Study in New York

The Crims financed Roy’s education in sending him to New York for two extended periods of time, where he went to study with Hugh McAmis, by then relocated to New York. I’ve not been able to ascertain precisely what connection led him to seek out McAmis, other than their previous association in Kilgore.  McAmis at the time would have been 36 years old, and tragically died in 1942 shortly after being drafted into the Army and reporting for basic training duty.

Notations in the printed music Roy used in his New York study indicate that he got a good overview of the basic repertoire of Bach, Widor, etc.  Roy’s handwritten notation also show his address as 160 West 73rd Street, the same building as McAmis’ apartment and studio.  Hugh McAmis Studio

Two other events of great significance also occurred during this New York interlude: Roy heard his first Aeolian-Skinner organ and he met David McK. Williams.  The organ in the Anglo-Catholic Church of St. Mary’s the Virgin was Aeolian-Skinner’s Opus 891. http://www.nycago.org/Organs/NYC/html/StMaryVirgin.html Even though the organ was unfinished as it stood, it was uniquely positioned to exemplify the organ building revolution in America at the time. Combined with the spacious acoustic environment, its sophisticated music program (many of the organ works of Messiaen had the first performances in America at SMV), and its location in the heart of New York City, it seems natural that Roy would have visited it on his rounds through the city. He was known to have said “That’s the sound I want!”

David McK. Williams, the legendary organist of St. Bartholomew’s Church on Park Avenue, was at the height of his powers and was very popular and influential among organists in New York. Hugh McAmis was very proud of his friendship with David and the two of them and Roy socialized often. Roy’s accounts of some of their frolics are more reminiscent of the Jazz Age than of the lingering depression which gripped most of the country. But the one thing that David said which made a lasting impression on Roy was something to the effect of “how nice that you’ve come to New York to study with Hugh. But don’t stay here. Go back to your people and thrill them with your music, and one day I’ll come visit you.”  True to his word, David McK. Williams did come to Kilgore for a memorable visit.

David McK. Williams

David McK. Williams

McAmis was the organist of All Saints Church in Great Neck, a suburb of New York on the north shore of Long Island.  F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is set in the fictional villages of East Egg and West Egg, and it is in this part of the so-called “gold coast” of Long Island where Great Neck is located.

McAmis composed a new piece titled Dreams and dedicated it to David McK. Williams.  Roy told the story of going out to Great Neck with David for the recital which included the new piece, which includes some very prominent single notes from the chimes of the organ.  David must have known the new piece, because just prior to its being played on the program he said in his well-known, inimitable, not-so-discrete stage whisper “This piece will have chimes!”  He then pantomimed the chimer pulling the ropes of the chimes at the appropriate places during McAmis’ performance, which apparently caused something of a scene.  Dreams continued to be popular in general and always held pride of place in Roy’s repertoire and on programs in Kilgore.

Hugh McAmis at the console of the Aeolian-Skinner organ in All Saints' Church, Great Neck, Long Island

Hugh McAmis at the console of the Aeolian-Skinner organ in All Saints’ Church, Great Neck, Long Island

Meanwhile, back in Kilgore, almost no plot of ground in town was left without an oil derrick pumping away at all hours of the day or night. The footprint of the new church was not immune from the boom and no fewer than five producing wells occupied the same earth as the church which weakened its foundations. Finally, the church proper was torn down, leaving the education building standing alone, where it functioned as an adjunct church facility and, later, a youth center well into the 1950s. Dave Garroway’s television program “Wide, Wide, World” even did a segment on the church in Texas that had been torn apart to make room for the rig in search of oil under its foundation.B11

And so it was that in October 1938 a portion of the congregation gathered at Main and Lawrence streets to break ground for yet another church building. In spite of the fact that the old church was but six or seven years old, it was not a particularly difficult decision to raze it and build anew, given the concentration of producing wells in the confines of downtown Kilgore.

A humorous story survives about the initial fundraising which gives us a clue to the slightly twisted humor of the minister, the Reverend Cecil Lang, and of Leggett Crim. Knowing that a gathering of men was scheduled for the purpose of raising what we would today call “leadership gifts” for the new church, Lang and Leggett had surreptitiously entered the room and wired a chair with electricity. As men gathered for the meeting, Leggett made sure that his oldest brother, Malcolm, was seated in that chair. As the Reverend Mr. Lang solemnly asked “Who’ll give the first ten thousand dollars for the building of the new church?” Leggett pushed the button releasing current to Malcolm’s chair. Malcolm, literally shocked, bolted straight up out of his chair. Lang thanked him graciously for his enthusiastic and generous contribution, and the meeting continued!

The Present Church 1939-1949

Proposal for the new church at Main and Lawrence Streets. The tower was not built.

Proposal for the new church. The tower was not built.

John T. Crim was the chairman of the committee which oversaw the design and construction of the new church, which is a fine representation of the Gothic spirit; there is even a rather elaborate rood screen separating the choir from the pulpit rostrum, a fairly unusual attribute of any protestant church, especially in this part of the country at that time. And its proportions and lack of artificial sound-absorbing materials, are perfect for organ and choral music, also something of a rarity for this time and place. It seems obvious that Roy Perry had a firm hand in this outcome, and as he told me the story in his typical hyperbole, you’d think that he had actually designed it! I imagine he was forceful and demanding in his requirements and he probably did show the committee and architect the historical precedents upon which construction was founded.  And as construction proceeded, it must have been an incongruous sight in boom town Kilgore.

C3.1939 Church under construction

Roy was drafted into the Army, but soon received a medical discharge. He was even listed in the honor roll of the men of First Presbyterian Church who were in the service of their country. Never in what would be described as robust health, Roy evidenced problems with his sight fairly early in his Kilgore days. He once had an automobile accident while borrowing Liggett Crim’s car: he said he simply didn’t see the other car and he never drove again. His eyesight was always a difficult issue.  He also developed in the mid-1950s the tremor that was to plague his playing and handwriting for the rest of his life, presumably from Parkinson’s disease, although that diagnosis has been disputed by some, so it’s hard to confirm just what was the cause of the tremor.

C2.1939 church building during construction

RP conducting the Kilgore Civic Chorus

RP conducting the Kilgore Civic Chorus

In 1945 following his discharge from the army, at the age of 39, he earned his Bachelor of Music degree at North Texas State university in a highly unusual arrangement for which the dean of the school of music, Wilfred Bain, was responsible.  Having completed a requisite amount of class work (mainly in summer sessions and transfer credits from Kilgore College), he completed credit for four years of applied organ study by examination in one afternoon! He later taught at North Texas State, at Evergreen—the summer music conference in Colorado sponsored by the Episcopal Church, and at local Presbyterian church and seminary conferences and American Guild of Organists classes. His surviving notes give an indication of a solid learning coupled with practical parochial advice, and a few hints at his outrageous humor. They also indicate something of Roy’s mature faith. A few excerpts follow:

Thus church music, like all music, is a matter of taste—and taste is simply a matter of experience.  For that reason we cannot approach the subject of church music objectively nor apply the standards which we know to be good until we have educated the taste, that is, widened the experience of our congregations; and to this slow and difficult process they offer the most strenuous and highly articulate objection.

***

I am not arguing that great music will make people religious; nor do I think that a performance of the B Minor Mass will deter a man from stealing chickens.  Music is an art, not an ethic.  But it is strangely true that the church’s contribution to the art of music has been greatest in those periods where the religious life of the church was at its highest vitality.  We shall not bring on the great return to religion by replacing a Palestrina motet for Pull for the Shore.  But we can strive when we offer up music before God’s altar (In the Old Testament sense, if you will) to make the offering the best it is humanly possible for us to get.

***

Have some positive ideal about your profession. Do not forget that you are working in a field that J. S. Bach and César Franck lifted to the pinnacle of greatness. Be constantly sharpening your tools and raising your sights. Keep in touch with the big people in your profession. When you get a vacation in New York, spend your Sundays in church instead of in bed with a hangover.

***

Now from the layman’s point of view, the most satisfactory definitions of religion are those which emphasize those elements which no wisdom can explain:

the mystery of the Godhead,

the divine ordering of the universe,

life after death,

and other queries before which reason and experience are helpless.

These things are in the realm of faith, and are felt rather than taught.  And it is exactly here, where the logic of human speech is helpless, that the imaginative factor in art and ritual and music is most eloquent.

***

Develop your sense of humor–and by a sense of humor, I do not mean a ready guffaw for parlor stories. I mean the ability to tell a big thing from a little one. Remember that the world is not bounded by the walls of your choirloft. Other people–your choir–have other things for the centers of their lives. Laugh a lot, and always hold out an ideal you cannot quite reach, work hard at your job, and you will be a perennially young institution in your church and community.

***

Special music services, if they are services should be planned with the same attention to unity and dignity as other services of the church.  The principal difference would be that in place of the sermon there is some important musical work around which all the other items center.  The minister should lead in such services, and certainly should be consulted about scriptures and prayers.

But if there is an out and out concert in your church—say a concert by a visiting choir, or an organ recitalist, place your minister in a comfortable pew and have him keep his seat.  The business of opening a concert performance with a word of prayer and closing it with a benediction is out of character, and in questionable taste.  People come to a concert to enjoy music, not to worship.  Casual and thoughtless invoking of God’s blessing on purely secular pleasures is essentially flippant and unwarranted.

***

Never, without an excellent excuse, turn down an invitation to the houses of your congregation or choir.  Choose your close friends to your own liking . . .  but do not forget that

a few flowers to a sick person,

a few minutes of your time spent in visiting a shut in old lady,

an inquiry about a new baby,

postcards to your choir while on vacation—

all these things will pay big dividends in your church’s acceptance of the program you are trying to put across.  A little thoughtfulness is a capital investment.

***

Introduction to a talk 8th District Texas Federation of Music Clubs in 1950:

I have been a Church Musician for 25 years.  I had rather live by this work than any other way I know.  I love the Church—although it is uphill work to love some of the people in it—and I believe that a musician can have no higher calling than to serve the Church, and through it, serve God and his fellow-man.

During World War II, beginning on June 27, 1942, it was the custom of the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Dr. Shirley Guthrie, to send at two-week intervals a newsletter to the soldiers from the church, which included words of inspiration and encouragement, as well as news from the church. In this day of instant email communication this doesn’t seem too daunting—perhaps even a lazy interval, but this Dr. Guthrie continued to do in hard copy format until August 22, 1945.  Roy and the music of the church were sometimes mentioned in his reports, two of which follow:

Roy Perry gave us some mighty fine music last Sunday afternoon at his first organ recital since returning from the Service. He played a group of request numbers that were simply beautiful.  January 2, 1943

I suppose that the big news as far as I am concerned is the fact that our Church is now paid for and dedicated. I wish each one of you could have been present on October 22 at our dedication service. The week before that we had gotten together enough money to pay off our indebtedness, and we all came together with grateful hearts for the blessings of God and for our beautiful church. You cannot have any idea . . . what a truly beautiful service we had. Roy and the choir brought us music such as they were not capable of bringing.   November 1, 1944[2]


Aeolian-Skinner Opus 1173 and G. Donald Harrison 1949-1956

D1When Aeolian-Skinner installed its Opus 912-A in the First Presbyterian Church in Houston, Roy had the occasion to meet G. Donald Harrison and to tell him about his desire to make some changes to the existing Möller organ in Kilgore.  But he was firm in his request that he have Jack Williams and his family install it. Harrison agreed to this as it was A-S’s practice to have local firms known to them install their organs throughout the country.  This was the beginning of Roy Perry’s relationship with Aeolian-Skinner which would last until the company ceased operations in 1972.

The organ was immediately successful, in spite of (or maybe because of!) the fact that considerable portions of the pipework and mechanical and structural portions of the Möller organ remained. However, the core of the organ bore all of the hallmarks of the inimitable Aeolian-Skinner sound: bold, yet cohesive, choruses and mixtures rich in harmonic development, and fiery chorus reeds, together with evocative imitative solo reeds and a variety of celestes and quiet foundation stops ranging from an impressive forte to a mere whisper.

Crowning the tonal development was the Trompette-en-Chamade under the chancel window.  In reality, the stop is one of the standard Aeolian-Skinner Trompette Harmonïque designs, just mounted horizontally and winded on moderate pressure. Even visually it is not particularly impressive out in the church, as it is somewhat obscured by the rood screen. But pictured close up against the stained glass window, it was an impressive icon of Aeolian-Skinner’s latest work, which they billed as the first example of a horizontal reed in America, predating their famous State Trumpet at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York by several years. It was featured prominently in the company’s sales materials and with articles in the trade journals.

D7

Perry's review of William Watkins' Kilgore recital.

Roy immediately began to showcase the organ in recitals, as he had done in the organ’s previous incarnations. Two of the first recitalists to play on the new organ were Catherine Crozier and the 28-year-old William Watkins. Watkins had recently won the first prize in a competition sponsored by the National Federation of Music Clubs which had been held in Dallas in 1949. At the time before any of the AGO competitions this was the most prestigious music competition an organist could enter; it was open to all instrumentalists and Watkins was the first organist to win. For his Kilgore recital the church was full and Roy Perry himself wrote the review that appeared in the Kilgore News Herald; it caused something of a rift in Perry’s friendship with Virgil Fox, who had played in Kilgore several times previously. Watkins’ use of it in his publicity also strained his friendship with Fox, his former teacher.

For more information on Watkins, see  https://nealfcampbell.wordpress.com/2012/04/10/obituary-william-watkins/

The King of Instruments Series of Recordings

In the early 1950s, shortly after the Kilgore organ was installed, Joseph S. Whiteford launched the “King of Instruments” series of recordings issued by Aeolian-Skinner, which were not only advertising tools for the company, but were an artistic undertaking of serious proportions, capturing the playing of the leading organists of the era on the company’s new instruments.  The Kilgore organ was featured prominently in the first two volumes, together with other recent new organs.

Volume I consisted of Harrison discussing the various stops of the modern organ together with several musical examples. Harrison sent a copy to Henry Willis III in England together with the following note dated October 19, 1955

Glad that you had another opportunity to try out the record.  The instruments used are as follows:

Symphony Hall, Boston, Mass., St. Paul’s Cathedral, Boston, Mass., Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York, First Presbyterian Church, Kilgore, Texas; First Unitarian Church, Boston, Mass. (This is Bill Zeuch’s job.)

The latter organ was used to demonstrate the romantic instrument in the second rendition of the last part of the St. Anne Fugue. There were several players used—Thomas Dunn did the examples played at Symphony Hall, Boston.  George Faxon, who was then organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Boston, did a major part of the examples played on that instrument and also the Trio Sonata which concludes the second side of the record.  Roy Perry played the examples at Kilgore.  There were just two of them: the opening to the reed section of the record where he used his Trompette-en-Chamade.  There is also an excerpt of the Flute Celeste played by him on the same organ.

[ed. also French Horn and English Horn in samples from Nuages of Debussy that never made it to the LP, but are restored on the VTOA CD remastering.]

Joe Whiteford played some of the examples, particularly those made at Saint John the Divine.  This included the last part of the B Minor Chorale of César Franck.[1]


[1] Callahan, Charles. The American Classic Organ: A History in Letters. Richmond: Organ Historical Society, 1990. 414.1173 King of Instruments

Volume 10, made several years later, featured Roy’s choir and organ of the First Presbyterian Church in Kilgore, together with the choir of Austin College, in an album of church music which, though fairly standard fare today, was largely unfamiliar at the time. Roy did all of the playing for the recording and generally directed the project, although the combined choirs were directed by college choir director, Robert Bedford.

The one solo organ work on the album, Bruce Simonds’ Prelude on Iam sol recedit igneous, which was particularly effective in presenting the quiet and imitative stops of the organ, and Roy was largely responsible for introducing this work to the American organ-playing public, in spite of the fact that it was written in 1928 and had previously been recorded by Catherine Crozier at the First Baptist Church in Longview. In my own listening to the individual recordings it is not clear to me who introduced the work to whom, but if I had to guess I’d say that Roy introduced the work to Crozier. Her performance on the Longview organ is similar in many ways to Roy’s recording at Kilgore, and is warmer and more luxuriantly paced than is typical of her playing, at least later in her career. On the other had, we know that Crozier was always passionate about new music and she certainly traveled a lot more than Roy, and in somewhat more exalted academic circles, so it is entirely possible that it was she who initially showed it to Roy.

1173 A-S vol XIn an example of ever-evolving tastes, David McK. Williams’ anthem In the Year that King Uzziah Died was at the time a very popular anthem which was in the music library (if not the active repertoire) of most church choirs in the country, but has passed out of fashion in recent years.  Its descriptive account of the text from Isaiah 6 and the orchestral accompaniment on the Kilgore organ made for a memorable performance, notably in the quasi-timpani effects of the 32’ Bombarde clusters under expression, which were quite a cause of wonderment. What the LP liner notes do not tell is that 32′ sound was courtesy of the Longview organ; Roy borrowed the lowest 12 pipes from it and temporarily set them up for the recording. Kilgore didn’t get its own 32′ reed until 1966.

Trip to England and France

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In 1955 Roy made a trip to England and France, his only trip abroad. On his passport for this trip he lists his occupation as Musician and Organ Builder, the occupation from which this article derives its title.  It’s a good overall description of how Roy viewed himself. Donald Harrison wrote on his behalf to Henry Willis III in England, saying

May 10, 1955

Dear Henry:

During this summer our representative in Texas, Mr. Roy Perry, will be visiting England with a friend of his and would naturally very much like to meet you and see some of your organs.  Also he would like some advice as to those instruments he should see generally in the middle and southern part of the country.

Roy Perry, or Perriola, as he is affectionately referred to in our organization, has supervised, with the aid of Jack Williams and his son, most of our important installations in Texas.  He is an accomplished organist and has a wonderful ear.  He is a top notch finisher and during my periodic visits to Texas I cannot remember a time when I have had to suggest that something might have been done a little differently.  He just has that kind of organ sense.

I think you will also enjoy him as a personality.  He knows some good southern stories and, by the way, he is an expert at southern hospitality.  I always look forward to my trips down to his neck of the woods as we have a glorious time just waiting for sundown to start on a little nourishment.

I would be particularly grateful for any courtesy you can show Perriola and with many thanks in advance.

As ever,

Don[1]

_______________

[1] Callahan, 398.

Donald Harrison also wrote a general letter of introduction for Roy to present to various local celebrities as he traveled through England and France–a typical courtesy of the era. Roy told the story of calling upon William McKie at Westminster Abbey and, as he was pulling GDH’s letter from his jacket pocket, Sir William gently pushed it away saying, “I know who you are; if it weren’t for our English policies, I would have one of your organs here in the Abbey.”  Whether he actually would have or not is open to conjecture, but the fact is known that McKie was kindly affectioned to American organists of that era, and certainly knew of Aeolian-Skinner’s work.

Post G. Donald Harrison: 1956-1972

Diapason obitThe death of G. Donald Harrison from a heart attack on the evening of  June 14, 1956 came as a shock, not only to the Aeolian-Skinner family of workers, but to the organ world in general, so greatly loved and respected was he. He was finishing his work on the new organ at St. Thomas Church in New York just weeks before the American Guild of Organists’ national convention and had to walk home in intense heat because he couldn’t find a taxi during a subway strike.  Harrison was heard to say that he considered the St. Thomas organ to be his masterpiece. Ernest Skinner, who was older than GDH by 23 years and outlived him by four years, was by this time openly hostile and vitriolic to the younger Harrison, especially so in the advertising of his own separate company and his letters to the editor in the trade journals.  Ever since being forced out of the company bearing his name, it had been a bitter pill for the older man to see his early successes one by one fall prey to advancing tonal ideals which were now favored by the leading organists of the day. St. Thomas Church, in particular, was one of Ernest Skinner’s favorite and most celebrated organs. For many years the Skinner company had an office and showroom across Fifth Avenue and Skinner and his friend T. Tertius Noble often entertained customers using the St. Thomas organ as a demonstration instrument. Harrison saw his new organ at St. Thomas to be his response to the verbal abuse which Skinner had dished out through the years, to which Harrison had never replied in print. For all of these reasons, the mystique surrounding Harrison’s death and his role as the figurehead of Aeolian-Skinner has been perpetuated, even to this day, quite apart from the organs he wrought.

Inevitably, Harrison’s death paved the way for Roy Perry to gain further prominence as he placed his own personal stamp on the body of work for which he was responsible. Upon Harrison’s death Joseph S. Whiteford was immediately appointed tonal director and chairman of the board of Aeolian-Skinner, so there was no crisis of leadership within the company, except for the fact that Whiteford was young, rich, and was seen by many of the older company employees (many of whom had been with the company for many years) as something of a Johnny-come-lately on  the scene. The work that came out of the factory at this time was of uniform quality, but varied greatly in their final tonal attributes, depending upon the local installation crew and finisher. This was particularly so in the case of the large four-manual organ in the new St. Mark’s Church (now Cathedral) in Shreveport, Louisiana, where Roy and the Williams took it upon themselves to make significant changes on the job. William Teague said in his talk at the 2011 East Texas Festival that Whiteford quipped, not entirely in jest, “it’s a Perry organ, not a Whiteford organ.” Nora Williams, in her interview referenced above, likewise tells of serious disagreements between Roy and Donald Gillett, Whiteford’s successor several years later. Roy, for his part, however, always gave credit to both men and their gifts and, while not afraid to offer suggestions and criticism boldly, he yielded to their authority, at least in principle.

Apart from the Kilgore and Longview organs, Roy Perry’s most compelling work was undertaken in the post-Harrison years of Aeolian-Skinner: Church of the Heavenly Rest, Abilene, Texas; Caruth Auditorium of Southern Methodist University (now in Saint Luke’s Church in Dallas); Temple Emanu-El, Dallas; First United Methodist Church in Houston; St. Mark’s, Beaumont, Texas; First Presbyterian Church (now Trinity-First Presbyterian), Laurel, Mississippi; and First Baptist Church, Chattanooga, Tennessee; and, of course, the Shreveport organ. Occasionally his work took him outside of his normal territory and it is known that he worked on company jobs at Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, and Trinity Church in Upperville, Virginia.

In Kilgore he made some additions to the organ in First Presbyterian Church in 1966, notably the low 12 pipes of the 32′ Bombarde, his personal memorial to G. Donald Harrison. Also the exposed pipework flanking the chancel window and Trompette-en-Chamade, consisting of a mounted cornet with separate draws for the 8′ and 2′ ranks, and a third mixture in the Great division called Plein Jeu, which was designed to cap the full organ with sound from the flue chorus, contrasting to the Trompette-en-Chamade in the reed chorus.  This was one of his signature goals when he could accomplish it in larger organs: the choruses of either the reeds or the flues/mixtures could dominate the organ as desired, or they could each contribute to a thrilling full organ sound.  He also added a high pitched tierce mixture in the Swell which he called Carillon, for use as a special effect, particularly in episodic contrapuntal music. He also added in the Choir division a new and unusual celeste stop of tapered harmonic flutes called Harmonic Spitzflöte II.

At this time the console was updated with drawknobs and a new combination action, but still within the original Möller console. These additions were made possible through the contributions of the Crim family who had given and enhanced the organ from its humble beginnings to this point. The Crim’s had also given the chancel window when the church was built in 1939 which, together with the Trompette-en-Chamde, became an icon in the printed literature of both Aeolian-Skinner and of the church.

Frederick Swann and Roy Perry, 1967.

Frederick Swann and Roy Perry, 1966.

In 1967 Roy was feted on his 35th anniversary as Organist and Choirmaster of the First Presbyterian Church, including a recital by Frederick Swann, a testimonial dinner with gifts, and a commemorative plaque in the chancel presented by the Aeolian-Skinner company. In retrospect, for want of a story with a happy ending, once could wish that he had retired then at the top of his game, but he was only 61 years old.

RP with the Rev. Dr. Shirley C. Guthrie, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, at his 35th anniversary celebration.

RP with the Rev. Dr. Shirley C. Guthrie, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, at his 35th anniversary celebration.

Post First Presbyterian Church and Post Aeolian-Skinner: 1972-1978

The demise of the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company may have caused Roy and the Williams some sentimental angst, but they probably had seen the handwriting on the wall; by this time they had built several organs on their own. Aeolian-Skinner’s fortunes had been hanging in the balance for some years. One can cite with reasonable accuracy and authority a combination of factors for the company’s inexorable fall from its once dominant place in the organ building field, including post-World War II inflation, the death of Harrison, growing interest in historical organs (for example, the Organ Historical Society was founded in 1956), and careless business practices.

One of the ideas tossed about, with some seriousness, in Aeolian-Skinner’s end game was a plan hatched by none other than Martin Wick, president of the Wicks Organ Company. It was Wick’s idea to buy Aeolian-Skinner and bring it to Longview, Texas, with Roy Perry as the tonal director.  Martin said he had no trouble with the idea of building Cadillacs in one factory and Chevrolets in another! But, if I remember the story correctly as Roy told me, Wick couldn’t get his board of directors to agree with him.

However, Roy’s unhappy separation from the church in 1972 was a devastating personal trauma which, in varying degrees, caused him pain for the rest of his life.  Like so many talented workers in the church with unusually long tenures, the very attributes that contribute to an effectiveness over a long period of time, became, in a fairly short period of time, a negative force in the climate of inevitable change. The precise series of events leading to this denouement may never be known and are really irrelevant in terms of Roy’s legacy, except to complete the poignant narrative. A talented novelist could, in all likelihood, have taken the cast of characters and circumstances as given at this confluence of events in post-oil boom, small town Kilgore, and made a compelling page turner fit for night time television without altering any of the facts.

Almost simultaneous with his leaving the church came the opportunity to do what Roy considered his greatest work. Writing in March 1973 to Frances Anderson, his former student, choirmember, and occasional substitute organist Roy said  “I have just about got a come-and-go job spread over four years as supervising architect for the rebuilding of the Great Organ in Washington (D. C.) Cathedral. That is a pretty high-keyed swan song.” And again in May of that year “. . . so music is gone for me, but . . . people are still willing to buy my brains. I go to Washington day after tomorrow.”

For a detailed account of Perry’s work at Washington Cathedral, see Roy Perry, Paul Callaway, and the Washington Cathedral Organ | Neal Campbell–Words and Pictures.

I met Roy Perry in June 1972 when I was a finalist at the National Organ Playing Competition held in conjunction with the AGO national convention held that year in Dallas. My teacher was William Watkins, and he wanted me to meet Roy and to see the organ in the First Presbyterian Church, which was his favorite and on which he had played and recorded shortly after its installation. At the time I did not know of the impending talks with Washington Cathedral, but when I did learn that Roy would be coming to the city where I lived, worked, and studied, his trips were given priority in my calendar, and I cleared the way to meet him at the airport, run errands for him, and introduce him to my friends and invite him to come to some of my services. I also had many opportunities to sit in silence as he and Aeolian-Skinner’s former head voicer John Hendricksen went through the painstakingly patient process of finishing the many ranks of new pipework for the cathedral organ. I also had the opportunity to visit a few of his friends who made their way to Washington to see him and his work at the cathedral, including Joseph Bramlette for whom Roy and Jim Williams had just completed a house organ in Malibu, California.

Roy Perry on the first page of the Style section of The Washington Post, July 4, 1976.

Roy Perry and the cathedral organ on the first page of the Style section of The Washington Post, July 4, 1976.

I left Washington in 1976 just as the work at the Cathedral was complete. By this time Roy had made something of a name for himself as a consultant and potential organ designer, and various offers and inquiries came his way, both in Washington and beyond. His last work was designing and finishing some additions to the Aeolian-Skinner organ in the Church of the Epiphany in downtown Washington, where my good friend Charles Callahan was then the organist. I kept in touch with Roy via telephone and letters, and through Charlie, who had the occasion to see him frequently. Increasingly the reports of his health were not good, his various afflictions worsened, complications from diabetes escalated, and his behavior became more erratic, approaching that of dementia.

I was soon to see for myself something of the nature of this disturbing series of events. Undeterred, however, I had arranged for him to survey the Aeolian-Skinner organ in St. George’s-by-the-River Episcopal Church in Rumson, New Jersey, where I was organist. The organ, while very effective, had never been completed and it was my thought that Roy and his cathedral consortium, which he humorously referred to as Organbuilders Anonymous, might complete the organ.

I forget the exact sequence of crossed signals surrounding his visit, except that I had been given the flight number for his plane which was to arrive at Newark Airport. When I arrived at the gate I was told that the flight number he had quoted me was for a flight to LaGuardia Airport in New York.  This being the days before cell phones or hand-held email devices to confirm such details, I simply got in my rickety Volkswagen and drove from EWR  through the Holland Tunnel, through Manhattan, and out to LGA.  No Roy on any flight there, either.  So I called the secretary at St. George’s saying I had been delayed, only to be told that a Mr. Perry was waiting for me in the chancel of the church.  His flight did arrive in Newark, but was indeed assigned a different number from that which he quoted me.  So, back home I went, across the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, through Staten Island, the Outerbridge Crossing, down the Garden State Parkway, to the church, now several hours later than I had planned, where—sure enough—he was at the organ.  That was enough of a snag for one day, but I only learned later, from various sources, what had actually transpired during the morning while I was driving all over Monmouth and Essex counties in New Jersey, and the boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island.

When I didn’t show at EWR, Roy had confidently hailed a limousine for the only good-sized hotel near Rumson anyone could find for him, the Molly Pitcher Inn in Red Bank.   When he got there, he inquired for a room, but they told him they had nothing.  He pressed a little, invoked the name of St. George’s-by-the-River, said he was only there on business for the night, so they gave him an unused staff room—fine.

He got to his room, unpacked, called the church leaving a message for me when I called in, and decided to freshen up.  So, he undressed and got in the shower—no soap.  Traveling light, he didn’t have a robe, but he did have a Washington Cathedral stone carver’s apron in long gray canvass with the Cathedral’s iconic Jerusalem cross embroidered in episcopal purple on the front which a stone carver from the Cathedral had given him.  Foolishly (but this was Roy!) he slipped it on, and went out into the hall to find some soap and some slightly disoriented, non-English speaking women saw him naked from the back and shrieked in horror.  God only knows what he said to her, but the house security detail forced him to leave the premises immediately.

As he strode indignantly through the lobby with his belongings to find a cab to the church, he yelled at the top of his voice to no one in particular, thinking he was quoting the namesake of the hotel, Molly Pitcher,  “shoot this old gray head if you must, but spare our country’s flag, she said.”  To which some mousey anonymous tourist sitting on a suitcase said, “wasn’t Molly Pitcher said that, it was Barbara Fritchie!” Exeunt omnes!  It’s a tragic, yet humorously noble scene, and though containing obvious overtones of instability, it still causes me to laugh, even as I write this!

Shortly before this time there came to Kilgore a new organist of First Presbyterian Church named Stephen Farrow who reached out to Roy, effecting a time of calm and healing in Roy’s life which in the best of schemes might have evolved into a happy golden era. Sadly, this was not to be as Roy died by his own hand on Saturday, May 27, 1978.

The Crim’s, taking the role of his next of kin, served as his pallbearers and made arrangements to have him laid to rest in their ancestral cemetery just outside of town. For his funeral in the First Presbyterian Church, where he served for forty years, Stephen Farrow played the organ, and the Rev. Dr. Shirley Guthrie, by now the pastor emeritus, presided. Later, the church placed a plaque at the foot of his grave, in addition to the actual marker, which gives the years of his service to the church, concluding with the quotation Dr. Guthrie had used at his 35th anniversary celebration, which is as good a summary of his life as any I can think of: “His Music Enriched Our Lives.”

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[1] Pirtle, Caleb III, and Terry Stembridge. Echoes From Forgotten Streets: Memories of Kilgore Texas, Oil Capital of America, 65. Dallas: Dockery House Publishing. ISBN 1 879 234 56 4

[2] Pirtle, Caleb III. Holding Forth The Word of Life: The Legacy of the First Presbyterian Church of Kilgore, 79, 84. Kilgore, Texas: by the church, 2000.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Roy Perry: Musician and Organ Builder

  1. Pingback: A Little More on Roy Perry’s Early Life | MMS Organ Music Blog

  2. Earle Goodwin

    Neal beautifully written…Earle Goodwin

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