Steven Elmer Perry was trying his best to sing his songs. The chemo made his throat burn like hell. His friend, Dallas entertainer Jes Spires, was encouraging him to finish. Spires had paid in full for the recording session by hosting extra open-mic nights. Their musician friends, Orion Pitts and Justin Pickard, were playing for free.
Recorded at Kitchen Studios in Garland, John Painter was engineering the CD. Each person involved knew this would be Perry’s last recording session, his last chance to capture a lifetime of musical nuggets — songs loved and respected for their poetic excellence.
Perry would pass away from cancer on Sept. 7, 2017. It’s been six years since Perry died, and Spires still can’t play Guilty As Charged, Perry’s swan song. Hearing Perry’s voice brings him to tears.
“Steve’s songs were jewels, worthy to be in movies,” Spires recalls. The two men had a bond, a strong friendship. Despite their vast difference in age, Spires says, “Steve was never a mentor — he loved the intelligence of being with other musicians, the camaraderie, the conversations.” They often played chess.
Spires is proof Texas musicians are shaped by vastly different backgrounds and intimate venues. He still glows when talking about Perry. “He was just an exceptional musician,” Spires says. “His songs are mini-movies, postcards of life.”
Perry was born in Ada, Oklahoma, on Aug. 7, 1953. His father, Harold Perry, had been an Oklahoma state archery champion. He was Steve’s idol, a former school superintendent. While in a new job for Gaso Pump & Burner, Harold was killed in a freak accident. While crossing a bridge near Binger, Oklahoma, a car was illegally towing a truck by a bolt in its bumper. The bolt snapped, and the vehicle crossed the bridge and hit Harold Perry head-on, killing him instantly.
Perry never really recovered from losing his father at an early age. His mother worked any way she could to make money … teaching piano, making clothes and pies, substitute teaching. Her three children — Steve, Mike and Colleen — were all exceptional in school, and she made school a priority.
Perry had trouble concentrating in school. “Mom says I tend to daydream,” he’d say. Mike was a genius, and Colleen was smart and beautiful. Perry, meanwhile, began loving music in grade school — Simon & Garfunkel were favorites. But then he heard a record by Jerry Jeff Walker that would influence his musical style. He’d sing it till shortly before he died: “I knew a man Bojangles and he danced for you / In worn out shoes.”
It wasn’t long before Perry asked for a guitar and lessons. In high school, he made the tennis team and also became a fencer. He was in the Boy Scouts and the Civil Air Patrol and graduated high school in 1971. Perry’s goal was to be a naval pilot. He briefly joined a heavy metal band in Oklahoma City in 1972 called Cobalt Blue; he’d become adept at three-fingered picking. He was attending the University of Oklahoma, and everything looked rosy.
Then tragedy struck when his brother, Mike, committed suicide. Steve considered why a genius would do such a thing. “He must have been incredibly lonely” he later said.
Mike’s suicide hit Perry hard. He joined the Navy and had one of the highest entrance aptitude tests in naval history. He possessed a Mensa-type mind. He could have been a professional musician or artist — his pen and ink works were phenomenal — but Perry planned to make the Navy his career.
He was working with computers, but with an eye to flying. After an eye test, however, Perry was told he’d never become a pilot — he was color-blind. After this blow, he decided to leave the Navy, despite officials begging him to stay in the service.
He worked, studied and became an underwriter for an insurance firm in Dallas. He loved Dallas and would later marry a woman who had a son, Josh Holt. Steve reared the boy as his own. During this time, he never stopped composing or reworking his songs. “Steve showed me the way,” Holt says. “He was a jack of all trades.” Josh saw Perry as the only father he ever knew. “I was his kid,” Holt adds. “He didn’t want any others.” Even after Perry and his wife divorced, Perry and his stepson remained remarkably close. The Insurance company Perry worked for closed its Dallas office. He could have remained with the company in a move, but he chose to stay in Dallas. He started driving for a local public carrier. He loved talking to people, driving them around Big D.
Perry started attending open-mic nights at various clubs in Dallas. He soon established himself as a musician with unique original songs.
Early on, Perry met Spires at these events. Spires was born in Sweetwater, Texas. His grandfather had owned two huge ranches, the Moon Ranch and the Spires Ranch. Both totaled over 80,000 acres (about half the area of Austin). When the old man died, he left the ranches to Spires’ aunts, cutting Spires out of the fortune.
Spires had a rough upbringing, always working, whether on a ranch, roofing or other hard work. He lived in Abilene, then Mesquite, where he graduated from Mesquite High. Spires’ father may be in the running for most married man in America: he was married 15 times. His stepfather was a former Green Beret … strict, tough, extremely religious. To receive his first vehicle, his stepfather required that Spires type out the Book of Job from memory. Spires did it!
Spires worked for five or six different roofing companies in Mesquite. He eventually made his way to Austin, where he decided to make music his life. The six-foot-five Waylon Jennings sound-alike started waiting tables at Olive Garden during the day and busking at night on Sixth Street. Gary Clark Jr. heard Spires play and helped him get some gigs.
He moved back to Dallas, roofing during the day, playing at night. He finally decided to make music his life. Spires found he had a talent for hosting open-mic nights. He started at O’Riley’s in Dallas, a club that hosted one of the area’s original open-mic nights. “At one time I was hosting five or six open mike nights a week,” Spires recalls.
Spires noticed that wherever he hosted an open mic, Perry would show up. “I noticed Steve was following me,” Spires says. “We seemed to connect. How well he wrote songs — his storytelling — was unmatched by anything I heard in Dallas.”
Perry started going by his full name because of a certain Aerosmith singer also named Steve Perry. “Perry’s travels came through his music; he was also a helluva guitar picker,” recalls Justin Pickard, a professional whose group the Thunderbird Winos has attained local and regional success. “Steve’s music was beyond the local bar band stuff. He transcended the scene where he played.” Perry was beginning to book paid gigs, making a name for himself.
Spires can recall perfectly where he was when Perry came to him and said, “I have terminal cancer.” Spires was in shock. “You’re going to die, man!” Jes said. “We must get your songs down on tape.” Spires worked extra hard to pay for the session (a session he’d originally planned for himself. “Steve was getting chemo,” Spries recalls. “He had to lie down between songs.”
It was an amazing session — even though Perry’s vocals were rough, his range limited. Guilty As Charged was a magical experience for all involved.
Now, six years later, the CD is laying like a gold nugget under the soil, just waiting till someone discovers the brilliance of a man who could not outrun death … a man whose friends have never forgot him. “Everyone you meet who knew Steve says, ‘I miss him,’” Spires says.
His music is equal parts Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Lyle Lovett, salted in a Jerry Jeff Walker stew; in other words, it’s the poetry and fiber of Texas music.
Perry’s songs on Guilty As Charged are little paint chips of life from the dark and light sides. “Take My Life” is about suicide; “Drive Baby” is the story of a man giving in to his lust and ruining a relationship; “Galahad” is a sad story about a barfly being observed by a man who’s just not interested.
Perry and Spires aren’t famous, but Texas music isn’t about fame — it’s about the nuts and bolts, the day-in-and-day-out efforts to please a crowd of goat ropers, suits and hippies in the same room. That is Texas music.
Perry found happiness in his last few months. He married Nancy Rohe, a Navy veteran, with whom he had a long-distance relationship for years.“Steve had just started to work hard on his music.” Nancy says. They had five months together.
Perry’s sister, Colleen, has kept many of Perry’s pen and inks. She’s also the guardian of his legacy. Perry was always there for Colleen, and Colleen was there for Steve. When he called during Christmas 2016 to tell her he had terminal cancer, “It sure ruined the holidays” she recalled. “He loved his family, his friends.”
Perry had no better friend than Spires. He gave Spires a guitar and the rights to Guilty As Charged.
The pain for Spires didn’t stop with Perry’s death. On May 27, 2022, his beautiful and talented wife/partner, artist Theresa Mangrum — a muralist whose works are all over Dallas and the world — passed away in Spires’ arms. She’d been spraying some of her artworks in a garage that wasn’t well ventilated, and the theory is that the spray cut off her breathing.
Spires’ level of pain is unfathomable, but one thing is certain: Steven Elmer Perry and Theresa will never be forgotten by Jes Spires.