By Liz Tracy
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I'm not shaking my bonbon, and I'm not doing the Latin-lover thing," says Franky Perez. "I didn't set out to do a Latin record, because I didn't want to get trapped into that. But I'm an American of Cuban descent, and I'm very proud of that."
The Las Vegas singer/songwriter's debut, Poor Man's Songs, doesn't sound like an overt tribute to Hispanic culture as it narrates Perez' Cuban upbringing and personal escapades through grassroots, Springsteen-inspired songs steeped in apple-pie American values. Perez' vocals alternate between a crooned whisper and a bluesman's bellow on "Love, Soul, Rock 'N' Roll," whose gospel tinges and Southern twangs are the result of a cameo appearance by ex-Black Crowes/Hookah Brown guitarist Rich Robinson. Songs like "Forever" offer hints of '50s doo-wop, while a Caribbean breeze permeates "Bella Maria" and "Southwest Side," which name-drops Alpha 66, Fidel, the Bay of Pigs, and just about every other phrase heard at a Cuban coffee counter. "My father used to tell me that all of the world's problems were solved there," 27-year-old Perez says. "Everybody there knew why the revolution failed."
While his songwriting tells true stories, there was a time when insight took a back seat to piss and vinegar. His earlier work varied between angry anthems or politically charged rants while playing with metal and hardcore bands. "I used to write about things that were bigger than me," Perez explains. "Finally when I became honest and started writing completely about what I knew -- the things that I could reach out and touch -- my writing took that next step."
Born in Vegas, Perez was raised by parents who moved to Sin City after living in Miami during the early '70s, where his father ran a Cuban cafeteria. While dreaming of returning to Miami to open the same style of eatery, he waited tables at a casino.
"In terms of financial wealth, I was a poor man's son," Perez remembers. "We learned to appreciate things and not take things for granted." His father cherished Willy Chirino and Beny Moré records, which the younger Perez began appreciating as well. During his teens, Perez earned moderate success with small-time act Professor Punn, which came close to inking a deal before breaking up. Realizing that his time was better-spent as a solo artist, Perez decided to head to New York City. But by the time he reached New Orleans, he ran out of money.
Rather than return home, Perez asked his family to wire him cash, and he headed toward Miami, where, like most with the Perez surname, he had family. He lived in South Beach for a year, working as a waiter and occasionally playing area coffeehouses and hotels. In Little Havana, he took conga lessons from musician and Santeria priest Lazaro Valdez. The priest also read Perez' shells -- an old voodoo practice. The shells' forecast? Perez was on the right path. While he enjoyed South Florida fun, his refrigerator remained as empty as the shells that predicted success. But when would that achievement come? After all, money was so tight, a desperate Perez made a promise to God that he would wear white for 30 days if things turned around.
One day, he got a call from veteran music industry manager Pete Angelus (Black Crowes), who'd spent time and resources tracking him down. "I remember telling my mother not to give my number to anyone, because I didn't want to be bothered," he recalls. But the persistent manager talked Mrs. Perez into giving him her son's number, and Angelus sent Perez to Los Angeles to try his luck again.
He did, stopping in Vegas to pick up a few players to round out his band, including bassist Pete Chiccetti and drummer Bailey Hicks. (Guitarist Brian Bissell and pianist Bobby Lynch joined later, rounding out the renamed Highway Saints, formerly the Sacred Hearts.) The group rehearsed through a catalog of more than 60 of Perez' songs for almost six months, and gigged around Los Angeles. Soon, they lured Jason Flom, head of Lava/Atlantic (home of Kid Rock and Sugar Ray) to a showcase arranged by Angelus. A few weeks later, Perez entered into a partnership with Lava. "The day I signed my deal, I got a pretty fat check, so that also turned things around," he reflects.
The next day, he came through on his promise and purchased an entire wardrobe of white clothes.