Jean-Jacques Perrey, the French musician, producer, and icon of space age pop, died of lung cancer at his home in Switzerland on Friday. A pioneer of combining electronic instrumentation with the sensibilities of popular music, Perrey formed a successful duo with Gershon Kingsley, composer of the deathless synth earworm “Popcorn,” before releasing a string of cult albums of futuristic lounge music and pop. He was 87.
Perrey’s first instrument was the accordion, but after briefly trying to pursue a formal musical education, he enrolled in medical school. However, he dropped out within a year, after meeting Georges Jenny, the inventor of a vacuum-tube-based synthesizer called the Ondioline. A more versatile and user-friendly update of an earlier electronic instrument called the Ondes Martenot, the Ondioline was one of the first electronic keyboards to be adopted in pop music. It scored its first hit single with “L’âme Des Poètes,” a 1951 recoding by the French crooner and songwriter Charles Trenet, with Perrey playing.
Throughout the 1950s, Perrey traveled promoting the Ondioline in between gigs with some of the biggest names in chanson and French jazz. He backed Trenet alongside the guitar virtuoso Django Reinhardt (on “Ma Maison”), and performed live with Edith Piaf. In 1957, he released his debut album, Prélude Au Sommeil. With its extensive use of organ-like drones, Prélude suggested a halfway meeting point between the avant-garde of the time and Perrey’s more mainstream aspirations.
Perrey relocated to New York City at the end of the decade to work for Carroll Bratman, founder of the storied Manhattan instrumental rental Carroll Music and something of an impresario of novelty and exotic instrumentation. Bratman encouraged Perrey to experiment with applying avant-garde techniques like tape editing to commercial music and paired him up with composers and arrangers, including Angelo Badalamenti and Gershon Kingsley. He would partner with the latter as Perrey And Kingsley; their second album, Kaleidoscopic Vibrations (1967), was one of the first to feature instruments built by synthesizer guru Robert Moog.
Afterward, Perrey entered his most accomplished period as a musician, releasing several solo albums, including The Amazing New Electronic Pop Sound Of Jean-Jacques Perrey (1968) and Moog Indigo (1970), which would provide a seemingly inexhaustible supply of samples for the next generation’s hip-hop producers and house DJs. Perrey continued to release albums—many of them with Moog-based pun titles—throughout the 1970s, but effectively retired after 1980. He returned to recording and performing live in the mid-2000s; his last album, ELA, a collaboration with David Chazam, was released last year.
Perrey’s music, including the compositions he recorded with Gershon Kingsley, continues to be covered and sampled. The Kaleidoscopic Vibrations track “Baroque Hoedown” has served as the theme for Disneyland’s Main Street Electrical Parade since 1972. His playful and off-kilter recordings have long been a favorite of commercials and animation. Earlier this year, a Perrey tune scored the couch gag in The Simpsons season finale.