When approached for a feature story interview, Janice Kapp Perry was a little puzzled by the attention, just as friends had predicted. The best thing about Janice Perry, they had said, is that she doesn't know she's Janice Perry. Which is why Perry wonders why anyone would want to do a story about her.
"I might be the most ordinary person you have ever met," she warns the reporter. "I hope there is a story in there somewhere."
She's the most ordinary person you ever met if ordinary is someone who has written and recorded close to 900 songs and 60 albums, as well two musicals and nine cantatas and she didn't start writing until she was 38.
This quiet, mild 66-year-old woman is a songwriting machine who turned a hobby into a family business.
And yet she has hardly touched the piano in the past two decades except to find the notes for her compositions because of the onset of a painful, mysterious paralysis in her left hand.
Janice Perry is so ordinary that she's a household name to 12 million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her husband/manager Doug doesn't exaggerate when he says, "You can go to any Primary or Young Women's (church) meeting anywhere in the world on any Sunday and hear her music."
The LDS Church has published 10 of her songs in its children's Primary songbook, as well as one in the church's hymn book. The church once conducted an informal survey, asking people to name their favorite children's songs. Four of the top seven were Perry's, and two more made the top 20.
"She is part of the culture," says Craig Jessop, director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, whose ranks once included Perry. "She has touched more lives of the LDS Church than any living LDS composer."
Her songs have been sung and recorded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and performed by the Mormon Youth Symphony and Choir on Temple Square. One of her songs, "Everyday Heroes," which she co-wrote with Sen. Orrin Hatch, was recorded by Brooks & Dunn on the 2002 Winter Games Olympic CD, and 8,000 high school students sang the song at the Washington Monument last year.
"Heal Our Land," another Hatch-Perry song, was sung by gospel singer Wintley Phipps at the National Prayer Breakfast and at a concert in Washington in advance of President Bush's inauguration. "Jesus' Love Is Like a River" was sung by Gladys Knight and has been performed widely outside the LDS Church.
Before the music came along, there was an athletic career that lasted well into middle age, and there were children. Lots of them. She's got more kids calling her Mom than Carol Brady, with four of her own and 11 foster children.
The melodies and words have sprung from her brain as if from a bottomless well. Think of it: 900 songs in 28 years. Her songs are so singable and so immediately embraced that they were included in church songbooks alongside decades-old songs that had had to pass the test of time.
"Her songs are as beloved as much by adults as children," says Jessop.
To Mormons, her songs are as much a part of Sunday as a quadruple combination. Everyone in the church knows these songs: "As Sisters in Zion," "I Love to See the Temple," "We'll Bring the World His Truth (Army of Helaman)," "(I Belong to) The Church of Jesus Christ," "I'm Trying to Be Like Jesus," "Love Is Spoken Here," and "A Child's Prayer."
"They are classics in the church," says Joy Lundberg, Perry's friend, cousin and sometime collaborator.
Perry finds inspiration everywhere. She wrote "Where Is Heaven?" while pondering the whereabouts and doings of her infant son Richard, who had passed away a few hours after birth.
She wrote "Love Is Spoken Here" under duress. She planned to enter an annual church songwriting contest, but two days before the entry deadline she still had nothing. While attending a church social, she asked Doug to help her think of an idea. Doug pointed to a cross-stitched sampler on the wall: "Love Is Spoken Here."
"There's your title," he said.
The song took first place and became an LDS favorite.
She wrote the musical arrangement for "As Sisters in Zion" on a battery-powered keyboard while leaning against a fire hydrant in a weedy vacant lot in Philadelphia, waiting for her bus to be repaired.
Perry seems to be able to compose new songs on demand. Many of them began as requests from local and general church leadership. The LDS Church asked her to write music for a poem written by a pioneer 150 years earlier, which became "As Sisters in Zion." A local leader asked her to write a missionary song, which resulted in "Army of Helaman." A stake leader asked her to write a song about the temple, so she wrote "I Love to See the Temple."
Her trademark: simple, singable, melodic songs.
"Janice has one of the most remarkable gifts of melody I've ever seen," says Jessop.
Moody says much the same thing: "She has a gift for melody. And she has the ability to write in a way that resonates with people."
It was a jump shot on the basketball court that marked the end of one thing and the beginning of another.
She was 38 years old and wondering if she should quit playing sports. She was old enough to be the mother of many of her softball teammates, and the injuries were taking their toll.
She had been a sports junkie since she was a tomboy growing up on an Oregon farm. She played backyard football with the boys and served as her brother's catcher when he practiced pitching a baseball.
"She was an athlete," says Lundberg. "She was fabulous. She was the first one chosen for games, even if boys were playing."
There were no school sports for girls at the time, but she made up for lost time after she married. For some 20 years she played church- and city-league volleyball, basketball, fast-pitch softball and coed slow pitch. She was a pitcher in fast-pitch and helped her team reach the state finals.
"In coed softball," says Doug, "she'd strike out fine male athletes."
She played hard and aggressively, and as she grew older she seemed to become more vulnerable to injury. She severely sprained an ankle in a volleyball tournament while attempting a spike. She took a hard line drive to the gut on the pitcher's mound. She suffered lower back spasms after sliding into second base in a regional tournament. She jammed fingers and broke her glasses in other competitions.
While playing a game of H-O-R-S-E one day, she shot a jump shot and landed on her nephew's foot. Her ankle was broken.
It was the best thing that ever happened to her. In the same week, both her ankle and the family TV broke. The ankle was placed in a cast for several weeks. The TV was put away for eight years. They couldn't afford to fix it and, later, when they could, they decided they were better off without it. That left Perry with nothing to do while she was laid up. Her bishop asked her to write music for a church road show.
Perry had grown up in a musical and religious family. Her parents, Jacob and Ruth, played drums and piano, respectively, in the Kapp Orchestra, which performed frequently at church and community dances. Ruth claimed Janice could pick out tunes on the piano when she was 2 years old.
Janice took piano lessons from her mother, played drums in the school band, sang in choirs, played piano for church services and formed a dance band. When a friend wondered aloud how anyone could write a song, Janice wrote one to show it could be done and performed it in church. It was well received, Perry had proven her point, and that was enough as far as she was concerned.
During the first seven years of marriage, the Perrys couldn't afford a piano, and sports took most of Perry's free time. If she wasn't playing ball games, she was watching them, at BYU and later the Jazz. She played the piano at church, but that was all until her bishop asked her to write the road show while her ankle was mending.
Her show was such a hit that the neighborhood kids urged her to write pop music. She wrote 12 songs and made a demo tape, which she mailed to record companies in Nashville and Los Angeles, but that was a dead end.
"Writing pop songs was not satisfying for me," she says. "There's such a thin line between writing what kids will like and what your standards are. I thought, why not write things that I believe?"
She had six hours a day to herself to write songs, while the kids were at school. Within a year, she had 10 contemporary gospel songs. "Every song I wrote made me want to write another, and I forgot about sports," she says. Her brother Jack offered to pay the cost of publishing the first piece she wrote, and she sold the sheet music to Utah bookstores, making enough to repay Jack.
"I had never considered that you could make a living doing this," she says.
Contemporary LDS music was almost unheard of at the time. When the stores asked for more, she began to peddle other songs, going from store to store. Someone suggested she make an album. Merrill Jensen, a well-known professional LDS musician, agreed to take on the project, but it would cost $10,000.
Money was tight in the Perry household. They had already wondered how they would pay for their children's church missions and college.
Who knew that the music floating around in Perry's head was the answer. To raise the $10,000, Perry reluctantly borrowed money from several family members. The loans were repaid within six months.
"When she started writing the children's music, I thought, we've got something here," says Jerry Jackman, a Utah music publisher who heard Perry's early music.
"Where Is Heaven?" was released in 1979. "I'd be embarrassed to admit how many times I played the album that first day, hearing the sheet music come to life," she says. Her second album hit the market two years later. She also wrote and recorded a musical "It's a Miracle" and from 1981 to '84 the family toured the country with the show on weekends, along with 28 cast and crew members. They rode in a bus nicknamed "Faith" while their equipment traveled in a truck called "Works." They did 239 performances. Doug built the sets, Janice oversaw concessions, and their children had roles in the production.
At first the Perrys hoped the music would make enough to pay for its production. Then they hoped it would be enough to pay for missions. Finally, Doug, a data processor, quit his own job and formed Prime Recordings to produce and sell his wife's music.
"None of us knew what we were doing," says Perry. "We figured it out step by step. Rent a studio, find good voices and an arranger, and put your financial life on the line and hope you recover the money. The amounts (of money) were scary."
Prime Recording has become a fairly lucrative operation, collecting royalties and selling songbooks, sheet music and CDs, some of them recorded in Japanese, Spanish and Korean. Eventually, they had to move because the business outgrew their house. There were stacks of sheet music, records and cassette tapes in the hallway and filling two rooms in the basement.
Perry works in an office at the back end of the house, while John and Doug work in an office at the front of the house. She writes lyrics and notes in pencil and gives them to Doug, who prepares them for publication. Moody, among others, credits Doug for Janice Kapp Perry's commercial success. Those who know the couple believe Janice is too mild and modest to have promoted her own work.
"Doug believed in her work and made sure it was published," says Moody. "He is a driven man and a hard worker."
John now oversees the day-to-day operations, handling promotion, distribution, inventory, artwork and printing. The other children have ties to the business, as well. Steve is a full-time songwriter and playwright, with 11 albums of original music. Lynn is a songwriter, with one album to her credit. Robert is a graphic art designer who has done artwork for the family business.
"It's something I never anticipated," says Doug of the success of the music. "In some ways we're like Dorothy and Toto. We got picked up by the tornado and it carried us with it."
"Nobody's more surprised than I am by what's happened," says Perry. "You go to other countries and it (the music) is there. I wonder, how did it get there?"
The pain and paralysis began shortly after she began writing music. There was something wrong with her left hand. At first she couldn't control her index finger. Then the middle three fingers and the wrist curled downward, and she couldn't hold her hand in a normal position for playing the piano. There was a painful, burning sensation running from her forearm up to her shoulder and neck when she played the piano.
Over the next few years she would visit 40 doctors, but nobody could ever diagnose the problem. Maybe those 15 years she worked as a typist to earn extra income for the family took their toll. Maybe it was a sports-related injury. She's visited psychologists and chiropractors and a man who ran his hands in the air over her body searching for "electrical fields." They all threw up their hands.
One day while composing at the piano she found that her hand could no longer play. She angrily slammed the piano shut. How could she be writing music to glorify God and have this happen, she wondered? How could God let this happen?
"I'm not proud to let anyone know that," she says.
During her round of doctor visits, she visited an osteopath who was blind. "The irony of me complaining to a blind man," she says. "I asked him how he dealt with his handicap. I needed peace of mind. He smiled and told me, 'You'll learn so much from this that you couldn't learn any other way. You won't trade it for anything. You'll learn about the Lord's timing.' Well, it happened. It's not a big deal anymore."
But first she had to change her composing style. She used to experiment with melodies on the piano, but that became too painful. Now she writes lyrics while sitting in an easy chair, and then she writes the song in her mind, hearing the melodies and harmonies. Next, she plays the piano to find the exact notes and records them in pencil. For a time, she wedged a pencil over the thumb and little finger to keep the three middle fingers out of the way, but she no longer bothers. She manages to play the bass clef with only her thumb and little finger.
"She walks through fire every time she writes a piece," says Doug. "It hurts while she's writing and then for a day or so afterward."
"Sometimes she sits in there and writes, and I don't see her all day," says John, "but she pays for it. It hurts her."
For 20 years, she rarely played the piano, but while serving a church mission in Chile a couple of years ago she forced herself to play for church services again because there was no one else.
"I've followed the case of a concert pianist named Leon Fleischer for 25 years," she says. "He lost the use of one of his hands in exactly the same way I did and had to give up performing. Eventually he started giving one-handed concerts. Everything he tried, I tried, all to no avail for either of us. Just recently he tried botox shots in his forearm, and he is now giving two-handed concerts in Carnegie Hall. So, very soon I will go try the same thing and hope for similar results."
Meanwhile, Perry plays in pain just as she once did in softball to churn out more songs. She writes the words as well as the music for the vast majority of her songs; she also collaborates with Lundberg and Hatch, among others. When she needs long, uninterrupted hours to write, she flees to a cabin near Springville.
Her songs are intentionally written with child-like simplicity, lyrically and musically. There are few complex chords or extreme keys or long stretches covering several octaves.
"People thank me all the time because they can play it," she says. "That's because it's what I can play."
She is most comfortable sitting alone in her back office writing songs. When the requests for public speaking began, that was another story. Doug had to coax her to do those. For years, she refused to sing in public even though her voice is good enough to have earned a spot in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir for several years. After a speaking engagement in Hawaii, a woman scolded Perry for refusing to sing in public, claiming it was a form of pride and vanity.
"I didn't appreciate it at the time," says Perry, "but I decided to try it."
She now sings her songs regularly as part of her many speaking engagements and firesides.
"She's the most unassuming, humble, quiet, modest person you'll ever meet," says Jessop.
"She's a remarkable human being," says Hatch. "Everyone who knows her loves her. She's just a kind person."
Predictably, she has a soft spot for kids. Even with their tight finances, she and Doug opened their home to 11 foster children over the years teens and pre-schoolers, kids from China, Argentina, Nigeria, Indiana, Indian reservations ranging in age from preschool to teens and staying anywhere from a few months to many years.
"They still call my parents, and they call them Mom and Dad," says John.
They even took in a man they befriended while he was in prison who came to live with the family after his release.
Perry says she doesn't work as hard as she once did, "I just work when I want to, when something moves me," she says. Her current project: The translation of her songs into Spanish. "During our mission (in Chile), I realized there is a real desire and need for music there," she says.
She still delights in touching people with her music. One woman wrote to her to say that after her husband died unexpectedly, she played Perry's "The Test," repeatedly. "That's how I got through it," she wrote.
It is for moments like these that drive the Perrys. Doug, who likes to introduce himself as "Mr. Janice Kapp Perry," takes care of all the details so that his wife can concentrate solely on writing her songs.
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