BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — If you’ve spent an evening or two in the lounge after dinner at one of Bakersfield’s finer restaurants — Mama Tosca’s, Cafe Med, KC Steakhouse — you’ve almost certainly seen him play: The slight but nattily dressed man with the fedora and sunglasses.
Richie Perez — tenor sax.
Perez died this week at 87 from complications of COVID-19, according to his son Mitchell, bringing an end to career in entertainment spanning an incredible 70 years.
Perez, born in San Angelo, Texas, on Sept. 23,1934 — the same day, he was proud to note, as jazz great John Coltrane — came to California with his family at age 9 as part of a latter day Dust Bowl migration.
He took to the saxophone as a teen and became determined to master it. The band director at Bakersfield High School told him he already had enough sax players — so, undaunted, Perez learned the instrument on his own.
His first gig was at what is now the MLK Center on East California. His pay that night — zero.
At 15, he auditioned for blues legend Muddy Waters in a Bakersfield motel room for a show that night at Rainbow Garden — and he got the gig. But it was a one and done thing — his parents wouldn’t let him go on the road with Waters’s band.
He stuck with local jobs — like running gigs on Lakeview Avenue at the Cotton Club and the Dellwood Club. It could be rough in those places, especially for a slender young Latino kid, so he snuck out to the safety of his car during breaks.
Over the years he played with dozens of bands, developing a reputation not only for sublime command of his tenor saxophone but for his outgoing, suave demeanor.
Steve Eisen, who runs the Bakersfield Jazz Workshop, remembers the first time he saw Perez perform
“I was like ‘Wow,'” Eisen said. “He was playing with a great keyboard player, organ player, Johnny Blue. And I said, ‘Man, these guys got soul. Bakersfield, yeah, there’s jazz here.'”
They knew Perez well over at California Keyboards, where he had his horns tuned up and repaired, and bought reeds. Owner Ed Tomlinson says Perez had an an old school style.
“He played like nobody in town,” Tomlinson said. “A lot of people play with a real harsh attack. He was one who was really cool. When he played it was, ‘fa-fa-fa-fa-fa.’ You know, the old style.”
He was also known for his impeccable dress — tailored suit, flashy tie, fedora pulled down low, dark glasses. He was particular about his carefully cultivated look. His longtime friend
Fred Sanchez bought him a snazzy polka dotted tie in New York City, but noticed he wasn’t wearing it.
“And then a few months go by,” Sanchez said, “and I ask him, ‘Hey Richie, I never see you wearing that tie I bought you.’ And he says, in his normal tone, he says, ‘Uh, wasn’t happening man.'”
Perez lost his wife of 65 years, Lupe, last October, to cancer. They had seven children and 27 grandchildren.
He was a memorable character in this community — where we live.
Services for Perez will be at 10 a.m. Saturday, March 13 at Basham Funeral Care on Niles Street.