This Latin Grammy nominated vocalist was born Jesse Pérez Jr. under the sign of the Virgin, on September 21 in one of the poorest barrios in the Alamo City, where he was reared in a West Side housing project on St. Christopher Street.
“You haven’t experienced “bad” unless you go through living in the Cassiano Homes,” Jay said. “I saw more bad things than good, but I would never forget where I came from and that we weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths.”
The most meaningful gift he had received from his father, whom was also known as The Big Bopper, was his first drum set. Shortly thereafter, his parents split up.
In spite of the poverty, he recalls the sense of great caring as everybody looked out for one another. This was important since Jay’s was the oldest of three sibling and he was responsible for keeping order in their home because their mother, Janie Naranjo, worked two jobs and it was 11 p.m. before they would get to see her. However, she made sure they were clean and they were fed.
“I was about nine or ten years old when my mother saw something in me,” the Virgo recalls. “I mean I sang Jackson Five and Stevie Wonder songs around the house because my voice was higher; and when family got together and they told me I could sing, it didn’t faze me at all because I was a kid.”
Mike De León, who with brothers Bobby and Rick, had his own band, headed a city-wide after-school creative arts program funded by Bexar County MHMR that was meant to keep kids living in projects out of trouble and he clearly recalled their first meeting.
“I remember, he came to me and said, ‘I can sing and I want to sing with you guys,’ I said ‘okay, show me’ and he started singing right off the top of his voice. Although he had a high voice, his was a strong voice and we didn’t have to turn on the PA when he sang.”
The proof Jay had talent was confirmed when, only backed up by his music teacher on piano, he sang “Yesterday” at a Brewer Elementary School talent contest and won first place. No one in his family sang or played an instrument, so Jay’s was bestowed with a God given talent.
“I give Mike De León all the credit for being where I’m at because he taught me everything from harmonizing to singing lead,” Jay said of his mentor.
“Being able to sing, Jay fit right into Young and Free,” De León added.
At 11, Jay made his singing debut before a live audience with Stevie Wonder’s “You Are the Sunshine of My Love” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?”
Willard Johnson, keyboards; Ernie, trumpet; Mario Leija, drums; David Soriano and his cousin, plus a conga player and guitarist made up the rest of the band.
De León was also responsible for introducing and exposing Jay to Quincy Jones and soul music. It was during this period Jay’s repertoire included tunes by Gino Vannelli and Earth, Wind and Fire. On the home front, thanks to Jay’s mother working two jobs, she was able to move her brood out of the courts and to the Valley Hi area.
In 1979, Jay joined Albert Castañeda’s Mayor as a drummer when he was a sophomore at John Jay High School. After finishing his junior year he was forced to drop out of high school because as the oldest, he was in charge of his sister Yvonne and his brother Jeff. Therefore he pitched in by working at Firestone during the day; picking watermelons in Dilley, Texas each evening and with thorn filled and ripped hands, unloading them at the market on South Zarzamora Street. After a few hours, Jay then had to get up at 4 a.m. to fold and deliver the San Antonio Light as a part of his paper route.
Realizing the value of education, Jay cracked the books and obtained his GED diploma, but as he says, “It’s not the same as graduating with your class.”
Meanwhile, he was unable to be a full-time musician, so Jay started freelancing with Henry Balderrama y La Patria and other bands.
In 1983, Jay and Castañeda started recording demos for other groups. Then tired of doing this for other bands, they decided to launch on a recording career. It was at this point, they formed Mysterio; and although Castañeda was the lead vocalist, Jay also took turns at the mike from his position behind his drum set.
One night, Mysterio was performing at Market Square when Óscar Montemayor of Los Musicales told Jay that Latin Breed was looking for a vocalist.
So after two years of checking out the Breed when they were performing at the Latin Corner as Fantasia, Jay had the opportunity to join the band and dove right into the heart of Tejano music.
“As far as Tejano, I was influenced by Little Joe, Esteban Jordan and David Lee Garza when they had Ram (Herrera) singing for them,” Jay revealed.
This on-and-off again gig lasted three years as he also freelanced with Crusader Band, Mysterio plus Ram Herrera & Montana Band.
Ralph Cortez, who taught English by day and sang with the Breed five nights a week, chose teaching over music to provide stability and security for his family. So Jay rejoined Latin Breed.
They were in the process of recording the “Breakin’ the Rules’ album, which they had rehearsed extensively with Cortez,” but Jay wound up actually recording the album.
Saturday, February 10, 1990 marked Jay’s last performance with the Breed. Óscar G(onzales) had quit Los Musicales de David Lee Garza and Jay was offered higher pay and more artistic freedom. So the following Friday, he did his first gig with Los Musicales in Víctoria followed by Houston and El Campo, Texas.
JAY BECOMES A SOLO ARTIST AND “THE VOICE”
In late 1993, while still working with Los Musicales, Jay recorded his first album as a solo artist for Sony Discos; and in March of the following year, he quit Los Musicales and was replaced by Marcos Orozco. He formed his own band and became an opening act for Little Joe, La Mafia and La Sombra.
In late 1994, while promoting “Steel Rain” at KXTN, Gilbert “Dr. Rex” Alemán asked him if he had a nickname. Initially puzzled, Jay turned to José Rosario, Sony’s record promoter, and without hesitating, Rosario answered, “Around the office, we call him ‘La Voz’ ” Then capitalizing on his new moniker, his third compact disc was titled “The Voice” and since then, Jay has been referred to as either “La Voz” or “The Voice.” After 22 years of paying his dues, Jay Pérez had arrived.
The rest, as they say, is history. The Grammy Award nominated singer-songwriter went on to win virtually every Tejano and Latin music award for “Best Vocalist” and “Best Entertainer.” In addition, many of his albums and single releases have won for “Best Song” or “Best Album.”
So we’ll jump to the present and his latest compact disc. Entitled “All the Way Live” and recorded at last year’s National Tejano Music Convention in Dallas, Jay said, “I had been dying to do a live album in front of a massive crowd because I feed off the energy of the audience.
“Recording in a studio and live is like day and night because you feel so compressed, so confined to a little booth where everything has to be so perfect, self tuned and more disciplined. In one word, you’re so restricted. But when you’re performing live before 4,000 to 5,000 people, you put more feeling into a song because people are listening and you also have the freedom to do more, like putting more risks into a song,” Jay continued.
As for the content, Jay says, “It’s a compilation of hits that don’t get played and several melodies that people have reacted to and requested be put in an album.”
ON THE PERSONAL SIDE
At 45, Jay has at least two to three more decades ahead of him, but is either of his children being groomed to become a vocalist?
“My son Nicolas (a.k.a. Nick and/or Nico) just graduated from Taft High School where he was with the Theater Art Department so he’s taking it a step beyond by acting. My daughter Karlie is into dancing, but I have never heard her sing.”
In regard to his own upbringing, Jay was influenced by numerous types of music and with a wide repertoire of tunes in different music genres. Therefore, Jay is hardly a Tejano traditionalist; and this makes for one kick-butt show since fans will be treated to a mixture of Tejano, country, soulful ballads and perhaps a country tune because he has the voice.
While other reporters have described Jay’s voz, in closing, this writer decided to turn the tables around and asked him to describe his own voice.
“Yesterdays crooners had a finesse, silky voice and I love to do romantic ballads and to put that in force, I just listen to people who are good in that genre, like Luis Miguel. I also listen to Adalberto (Gallegos) and Rubén Ramos. But when it comes to a forceful voice, Jimmy Edward has been one of my mentors for many, many years.
“As to my own voice, I would say I have strong mid range and for Tejano, I go for a pure powerful voice and singing with puros huevos.”