Back in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, the Perry Sisters were churning out great hit songs like “The Harvest if Plenty”, “I Wonder How Mary Felt”, “We Shall Stand”, “There’ll Be a Payday”, “Resurrection Morn”, “I Don’t Want No Rocks”, “Imagine if You Will” and many others. They were a role model for young ladies and were trailblazers for female groups in the industry. It all came to an abrupt halt in 2002 due to health concerns and the group came off the road. They’ve been quietly and slowly making their way back over the last several years and they’ve recently just released the highly anticipated, Tellin’ the Story, which has been met with great response! Since the current generation of SG may not be familiar with the Perry Sisters or their tremendous contributions to the industry, I was thrilled with the opportunity to play “catch up” with Diana Gillette as she caught us up with all things Perry Sisters!
James Hales: A lot of people who came to love SGM in the last 10-15 years may not be familiar with the Perry Sisters, so let’s have a history lesson on who the Perry Sisters are and how the group got started.
Diana Gillette: We grew up singing together. My sisters Bonnie and Carol sang as a duet at the ages of 10 and 8 years old. Their pastor named them the Perry Sisters. At three years of age I began singing at church in revivals and campmeetings. Being the youngest, I was twelve years old when I joined them to form the trio. In 1974 we officially began our ministry and we recorded our first album, titled Love Will Roll The Clouds Away.
From 1975 to 1980 we recorded 4 albums independently. The first two albums were recorded at a regional studio, then we headed to Nashville. In 1981 we landed a recording contract with Windchime Records, which launched us into national radio exposure. The first single released was “I Will Be A Millionaire”. Then in 1984, we signed a long term contract with The Eddie Crook Co. Our first project was titled Gloryland Train and contained our first Singing News chart single, “Child You’re Soon Coming Home” which charted top ten and remained top 40 for 8 months. In 1988, we released “There’ll Be A Payday” which has become our signature song. In 1992, we signed with Sonlite Records and our first project was Garden Of Dreams. The single “Imagine If You Will”, topped the charts nationwide and was followed by one of the first concept videos to be filmed in the Southern Gospel industry. The Perry Sisters have had 26 chart topping singles, many reaching top ten positions.
JH: You guys initially came off the road in 2002 due to health reasons. How have things been for you and the family since then?
DG: In 2002 I was diagnosed with an 80% heart blockage. I received treatment but found it difficult to continue traveling. I was exhausted and needed a long rest. It was one of the hardest decisions I ever made. Eventually we started singing locally and occasionally longer distance traveling. God has blessed me with better health now. Life on the road can be physically draining and sometimes you get very little rest, and develop terrible eating habits. Over the past years I have focused on eating healthier.
My sister Bonnie lost her battle with cancer about ten years ago. This was devastating to us all. But God was our strength in our time of need. She had a beautiful home going. My sister Carol sings at her church and occasionally with us when we are local. My daughter Angela and her husband are pastoring in Mississippi. They have a seven year old daughter, her name is Meghan. She has recorded her own solo project with Jeff and Sheri Easter. I guess it runs in the family. I am very proud of her.
Tammy and her husband Rodney have two boys. They are active in their church. Rodney is audio and video tech for the Tommy Bates Ministry. Tammy is active in their children’s department and sings on occasion.
JH: Since about 2007, you guys have done some off and on singing and recording. With this latest release, is there a bigger push to do traveling and singing?
DG: Yes, we have signed with Chapel Valley. We are pursuing major radio promotion and advertising. Our schedule is a little more extensive, but we are not traveling every weekend. We have more flexibility in the summer months. I’ve been trying to reconnect with churches and promoters to let them know we are still available for concerts and church events.
JH: Who makes up the current group of the Perry Sisters?
DG: My daughter Nicole Mathews has two boys, which I am very proud. She has filled the alto position since 2007. Nicole has a rather wide vocal range. She can hit the low notes as well as the higher register. Although she carries the alto part most of the time, she does a great job on her featured songs.
April Wilson is our latest addition in the soprano part and is a longtime friend of the family. When she was a little girl she would pretend to be a Perry Sister, holding a hair brush for a microphone. She would sing along with Perry Sister’s tunes. Previously she filled in for Tammy on occasion, so when Tammy stepped down, April was available to fill the position.
JH: A lot has changed in SGM since you guys were such a vital part of the industry in the late 1980s, 1990s and into the early 2000’s. How has it changed from your viewpoint? What has changed for the better? Worse?
DG: Things move at a faster pace with all the new technology we have. The business is conducted with emails and texts. I’m still a little old school, but I’m catching up. Some groups have gotten more progressive in their sound and there seems to be more acceptance to the praise and worship style, southern flavored. I think the diversity of messages in the songs is good. We still need to be reminded of the cross, the resurrection, and the second coming, but also our message is to the hurting, the faithless, and the weary and to those just trying to deal with everyday life. We need to keep it positive and uplifting and pray for God to direct us in everything we do and say.
JH: Back then, it was tough for an all-female group to make any great headway, but you guys were truly trailblazers. Have you seen any progress forward in that area of the industry?
DG: In the early days of our ministry we never considered the pros and cons of a female group. We just felt the call to spread the gospel in song. I had seen a female group on television the Johnson Sisters, which appeared on the Singing Caravan. Wow I’m showing my age now. But there were no female trios in the SG industry. I remember when our first single with the Eddie Crook Co. was released, they could not assure us of how we would be received. Dave Wilcox told me we were pioneers. I didn’t totally understand that at the time but later it became evident. However radio did widely accept our music. There were certain denominational churches that would not book us because we were all female and I was the spokesperson. Also some promoters that leaned more to a quartet, were not interested in booking us. And there were a few curiosity seekers along the way. I remember one time a gentleman came to our table after a concert, and said, “Well I just came to see what a female group could do.” So I said, “What did you think? He said, “You can hold your own with the best. I’m a fan.” I feel privileged to have been able to blaze the trail for others. I’ve seen progress in recent years and watched the talent continue.
JH: Tell me about your newest recording, Tellin’ the Story.
DG: This new project, Tellin’ the Story is one of my favorite projects. I wrote 5 new tunes and chose 4 from previous recordings. As I began to gather the material, I realized several of the songs flowed in the same vein. “Go Tell”, “I Wonder How Mary Felt”, “The Price of One Crown”, and “He Could Have Saved Himself” all telling the same story, “Come Drink of This Water” is a song I wrote 15 years ago but never recorded. I chose “I Wonder How Mary Felt” because of the requests we were getting and the original version was no longer in circulation. We tried to recreate from the original recordings, staying true to the basic arrangements.
JH: What songs mean the most to you and why?
DG: Probably “Go Tell” is my favorite on the project. I love to sing songs with a resurrection message. There’s just an element of excitement especially when it’s performed live. Another song, “Tell It to the Man Upstairs” is from a childhood memory. I remember an uncle that always had a testimony about his experience with God and he referred to him as the man upstairs. I know there may be some that would think of this term in a negative way. But I see it as a song of encouragement, especially the lyric that says, “the test that we face is no greater than grace, He’s promised us a way to get out.”
“I Wonder How Mary Felt” holds a special place in my heart. As a mother I can’t begin to comprehend her pain. But I’m so thankful for her son, Jesus.
JH: As a songwriter, has a song you’ve written ministered to you in a special and unique way?
DG: As a songwriter I draw from many sources. During the course of my life I have written about my Christian experience as well as life in general. By far my best resource book is the bible. I wrote the song “Only Sleeping” after the passing of my mother. She had Alzheimer’s disease and being able to sing about it was healing to me through my grieving process. It was also a comfort to countless others.
In early 2000 we recorded the song “Make Me More Like You”. I introduced it as my testimony…“Make me more like you Lord make me more like you. Let the light of your love come shining through. Teach me Lord to do the things you want me to. Even though they persecute me and the world may turn against me. It’s my desire to make me more like you.”
“A Willing Vessel” is a song that ministers to everyone and it’s perfect for altar services. It speaks to me in a special way. I think of how much God loves me that he will accept me with all my faults and failures. Even when I fall he’s still there to pick me up and start over again. He’s just looking for a vessel that willing to obey.
JH: Who were your inspirations as a songwriter? Why?
DG: I began writing in 1980. My mother was instrumental in encouraging me to write. She had been writing poetry. One day she gave me a poem and told me she thought it could be a song. It was titled “The Wedding in Mt. Zion”. So with her words I arranged it into song form putting a melody to the lyrics. That was the beginning. Rex Nelon was in concert in our area, the local DJ was featuring the album with that song. Rex was on his bus listening to the radio. A few days later I received a phone call I heard that rich deep bass voice say, this is Rex Nelon. I couldn’t believe it. He told me he had heard our album and loved the harmony and the songs. He compared us to the Johnson Sisters and secular artist The Andrews Sisters. He said he wanted to record and publish my songs. Karen Peck had just joined the group. “The Wedding in Mt. Zion” was her first featured song on her first album with The Nelons. In the early 80s we were in concert with the Hinsons. They were one of the first professional groups we opened for. We were nervous and excited because we were big fans. I will never forget after we left the stage Ronnie Hinson came to me and we sat backstage and he complimented our performance as well as critiqued my writing. As a young songwriter that advice and encouragement was priceless.
JH: You guys have been around a long time and been many places…both physically and spiritually. What is the greatest lesson you have learned?
DG: Being in ministry for the past 44 years there have been a lot of lessons along the way. Like learning to trust God when the bus breaks down and you’re sitting beside the road and no one will stop to help you. That’s when your faith is really tried. But one thing I know for sure through the good times and bad I learned to praise him no matter what came my way.
JH: What is God teaching you right now?
DG: God has been teaching me about forgiveness. I have faced circumstances in which I wasn’t sure I could forgive. Sometimes the wounds are so deep it makes it harder to forgive. I see family members and church members that have been hurt over and over so they’re not willing to forgive. But Jesus said, “when you stand praying forgive if you have anything against anyone. So that your Father in Heaven may also forgive your sins. But if you do not forgive neither will your Father who is in Heaven forgive your sins.” It’s a journey we will all take at some time in our lives. But God will give us the grace and the strength to endure, if we follow the commandment of Jesus when he said, love one another even as I have loved you.
To find out more about the Perry Sisters, check them out at: www.perrysisters.com