This month, we’re heading back to Miami for more fun in the sun and soul-shaking grooves. As I was researching last month’s column on the early days of the local R&B scene, one name kept popping up: George “Chocolate” Perry. His appearance on so many records from those days might lead one to think he virtually lived at TK Studios, and in fact, owner Henry Stone did give the teenaged Perry a key to the studio and his own office, making him a producer, as well as a session player. His resumé begins with a full list of South Florida greats—Little Beaver, Clarence Reid (and his X-rated alter ego, Blowfly), Betty Wright, Latimore, George and Gwen McCrae, and Timmy Thomas, among others—but his solid groove, cool lines, and thick tone landed him in the company of some of the world’s top artists, both in the studio and on the road. Al Kooper, Dionne Warwick, Bobby Caldwell, the Osmonds, Joe Walsh, Don Felder, Gloria Estefan, Stephen Stills, and Crosby, Stills & Nash have had their grooves enrobed in Chocolate, and the results were delicious.
Perry started playing guitar very young, and sang bass in the school chorus, which inspired him to build his own washtub bass. At the ripe old age of 12, Perry joined a local R&B band called the Soulsters playing guitar, which led to the pre-teen’s first jaunt in the studio, recording a track with an obscure South Florida artist named Cockroach. When the Soulsters bass player was drafted into the military, Perry took over, and Miami got a whole lot funkier. Some of his earliest work at TK was with Clarence Reid, and Chocolate spoke about the process in the studio back then. “We always had guitar, bass, drums, and keys cutting live with a reference vocal, and Clarence would come up and sing or show each player what their part was. After a few times, he just looked at me and said, “You know what to do.” Perry mainly did his work on a 1956 Fender Precision Bass with roundwound strings, recording a direct track and blending it with a miked Ampeg B-15. Tracks like Little Beaver’s “Party Down” let you hear the rich tone and in-the-pocket groove that have led some to call Perry “the James Jamerson of South Florida.” Example 1 is an approximation of his main “Party Down” riff. Perry’s early R&B work fits perfectly in the classic mold set by the Detroit legend, but there is an undeniable feeling of ease and relaxation to his playing. Perry acknowledges the regional flavor this way: “Memphis is Memphis. In Muscle Shoals, you get Muscle Shoals. But in Miami, you have this cultural mix. Miami musicians were capable of variety—you have Jamaican, Latin, R&B, you had to be able to please the tourists with pop, and Caribbean tunes. In the studio, when the producer said, “This is the flavor we need now,” it was like we would flip a switch.”
Chocolate produced and played on Gwen McCrae’s hit “Rockin Chair” while still in his teens. The track reached #1 on Billboard’s Top Soul Singles chart in June 1975, and was his first gold record. Example 2 is similar to what Perry plays over the verses, and once again, that Motown-onvacation vibe informs his rhythmic and melodic choices. Like many regional recording centers, Miami had its crew of session players, and TK was the hub of R&B activity and a key incubator for the disco sound. During Chocolate’s stint in the ’70s, the talent stable included Perry and Ron Bogdon on bass, Timmy Thomas and Latimore on keyboards, Little Beaver and Snoopy Dean on guitar, and drummers Robert Ferguson and Harold Seay. This tight-knit group brought all their influences to the table, and their working relationship developed over many long sessions: “We would record so many factory songs, one after the other,” Perry says. “But they didn’t have to write it all down; we had something like ESP. You could just look across the room, and everyone knew that meant, ‘Go to the bridge,’ or whatever.”
The work of Miami soul legend Latimore played a big role in Chocolate’s desire to become a musician, and it wasn’t long before the young man with a P-Bass found himself in the studio laying down some of his funkiest work with the singer/keyboardist. On “Qualified Man,” Perry opens up the track with a 100 percent badass riff that was sampled by K-Otix for its 2001 track “The Club.” The lick brings to mind elements of Willie Weeks’ famous solo on “Voices Inside (Everything Is Everything)” [Donny Hathaway Live], with its big melodic range and funky dead notes, but the rest of the track strikes a perfect balance between activity and space. Example 3 is the basic idea of Chocolate’s signature riff—dig the way he sometimes uses the high D as a grace note into the C#, and use the open-string dead notes as your ticket back down the neck to hit the D on the 5th fret of the A string.
By the mid ’70s, the Miami scene began to heat up considerably. Disco was in full bloom, and TK was at the forefront, with hits like George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby” and a steady stream of dancefloor gold by KC & the Sunshine Band. In 1975, when the Bee Gees moved to Miami to reinvent their sound, Perry wound up in the studio playing on the trio’s hit “You Should Be Dancing.” Featured prominently throughout the movie Saturday Night Fever, the song became a cornerstone of the genre with its pounding four-on-the-floor kick drum, funky guitar strums, silky strings, horn blasts, Latin percussion, and—best of all—a pumping P-Bass line. (An interesting side note about this track is the appearance of Perry’s then-bandleader, Stephen Stills on percussion.) Example 4 is roughly what Perry plays under the chorus, a busy riff that elevates the drama of the groove before dropping back down to a more anchored feel for the verse. Perry plays the line with super-tight articulation that initially led me to think he might have used a pick, but he confirmed that it was simply his fingers playing down by the bridge.
Chocolate Perry was an integral part of many hits, including Dionne Warwick’s chart-topping “Heartbreaker,” and Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love,” which features two bass parts—the main groove played by Caldwell himself, and a funky slap/pop part played by Perry in the tune’s second half. Perry played on the debut album American Fool by John Mellencamp, back when he was Johnny Cougar; that’s Chocolate holding it down on hits like “Jack and Dianne” and “Hurts So Good.” In addition to his work as a player, Perry has been active on the other side of the glass, writing and/or producing for artists like the Blue Notes (post-Harold Melvin), Bobby Caldwell, Jamaican artist King Sporty, and Gwen McCrae, among others. He ventured out of the studio to tour the world with many top acts, but eventually he gave up the road in 1992 due to health concerns. Perry still lives in South Florida and stays active writing, recording, and producing tracks that can be heard on his self-titled YouTube channel. While there are many great unsung heroes in the world of R&B bass playing, few have had the extensive career and major impact of George “Chocolate” Perry. Listen to this groove monster in action—it won’t take long until you realize you should be dancing.
Ed Friedland is currently touring with Grammy Award winners the Mavericks, and living outside of Nashville, Tennessee.