Born in Elmira, New York in 1930, he attended Harvard University and studied with Paul Hindemith, Walter Piston, and Randall Thompson. His music has been performed by the Chicago Symphony, the Saint Louis Symphony, the Detroit Symphony and the symphonic orchestras of Cincinnati, Minnesota, Montreal, Calgary and Hartford as well as the Vienna Symphony, the Rome Philharmonic, the Slovak Philharmonic, the RTÉ National Symphony of Ireland and other orchestras in Europe.
For twelve years, Perry was the music director and composer-in-residence at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he composed and performed as a pianist more than two hundred scores for the Museum's silent film collection. His subsequent PBS television series, "The Silent Years" (1971,1975) hosted by Orson Welles and Lillian Gish, won an Emmy Award. Perry is often credited with having played a major role in the revival of interest in classic silent films.
For three years (1976–1978) he produced a national poetry series for PBS called "Anyone for Tennyson?", starring Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, Claire Bloom, William Shatner and Vincent Price among others. Fifty programs were presented over three seasons with more than three hundred poets represented. From these programs, he later developed and produced the four-part DVD series, "The Poetry Hall of Fame", which he also hosted.
He was executive producer and composed the music for the Peabody Award-winning "Mark Twain Series" of feature films on PBS (1980–1985). These films, produced by Perry's Great Amwell Company in association with the Nebraska ETV Network, also won five Cine Golden Eagle Awards. Novelist Kurt Vonnegut introduced the series, which began with "Life on the Mississippi" and culminated with a four-hour adaptation of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." This version for the first time emphasized the darker realities of the book.
His Broadway musical, "Wind in the Willows", starring Nathan Lane, won him Tony nominations for both music and lyrics (1986).
Perry's dramatizations of the works of Mark Twain have included a staged musical biography, "Mark Twain: The Musical", that ran for ten summers (1987–1995) in Elmira, NY and Hartford, CT. PBS produced a television version of the show. LML Music recently issued a CD of the complete original cast recording.
His most prominent symphonic compositions include the Jamestown Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (2007), written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first permanent colony in America in Jamestown, Virginia. It was released on CD by Naxos Records with Yehuda Hanani as soloist and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by William Eddins. His Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra was written for and recorded by Armando Ghitalla with the composer conducting. A Naxos recording called "Music for Great Films of the Silent Era" includes his Three Rhapsodies for Piano and Orchestra, the Gemini Concerto for Violin, Piano and Orchestra, written for the Albek Duo, and the suite, Six Title Themes in Search of a Movie. A second Naxos release, "Music for Great Films of the Silent Era - Part 2" includes the song suite Silent Film Heroines with mezzo soprano Wallis Giunta; the Summer Nocturne for Flute and Orchestra with Timothy Hutchins as soloist; a Concerto for Ophicleide and Orchestra called Brass From the Past performed by Nick Byrne; and a World War One commemorative tone poem based on the film Hearts of the World. For both silent film recordings, Paul Phillips conducted the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra.
William Perry's music can also be found on the Opus, Premier, and Bridge labels. It is published by Trobriand Music Company.
Perry's background includes directorial and production experience in the formative years of television, writing script material for Lux Video Theatre and working with Arthur Godfrey, Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason and other entertainment icons. He directed the first color commercial to be broadcast live coast-to-coast ("The Price is Right") and the first musical commercial ever produced and broadcast on videotape ("The Jackie Gleason Show").
In addition to his film and musical work, William Perry has maintained a separate business life. In 2000, he and his wife, Marina Perry, founded Right Face Ltd., a skin care company distributing products throughout the world under the brand name Rosacea Care. Their company now has one of the world's largest and most comprehensive line of skin care products for rosacea and sensitive skin.
Over the years William Perry has won more than a dozen ASCAP Awards for his musical compositions, and in 1984 Elmira College conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters in recognition of his contributions to the field of Mark Twain studies.On the Double (1946)
Xanadu: The Marco Polo Musical (1953)
Happily Ever After (1967)
Wind in the Willows (1985)
Mark Twain: The Musical (1987)
Life on the Mississippi (1980)
The Private History of a Campaign That Failed (1981)
The Mysterious Stranger (1982)
The Innocents Abroad (1983)
Pudd'nhead Wilson (1984)
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1985)
The Gold Rush
Steamboat Bill Jr.
The Mark of Zorro
Blood and Sand
Orphans of the Storm
The Beloved Rogue
Down to the Sea in Ships
Hearts of the World
The Black Pirate
Way Down East
The Iron Horse
The Last Laugh
Storm Over Asia
What Price Glory?
Concerto for Trumpet and Orchestra (1986)
Two Dance Pieces for Trumpet and Orchestra (1986)
Summer Nocturne for Flute and Orchestra (1988)
Life on the Mississippi Suite (1992)
The Horse-Cavalry Suite (1998)
Jamestown Concerto for Cello and Orchestra (2007)
Six Title Themes in Search of a Movie (2008)
Gemini Concerto: An Entertainment for Violin, Piano and Orchestra (2009)
The Silent Years: Three Rhapsodies for Piano and Orchestra (2010)
Brass from the Past: Concerto for Ophicleide and Orchestra (2012)
Silent Film Heroines: A Song-Suite for Mezzo Soprano and Orchestra (2013)
Market Street Overture (2014)
Hearts of the World (2014)
Armando Ghitalla: A Trumpet Legacy William Perry, composer and conductor (Bridge 2007)
The Innocents Abroad Mark Twain Film Scores (Naxos, 2008)
Jamestown Concerto American Music for Cello and Orchestra (Naxos, 2008)
Mr. Mark Twain Original Cast Recording (LML 2009)
The Romance of the Silver Screen (Naxos, 2009)
Music for Great Films of the Silent Era (Naxos, 2011)
Music for Great Films of the Silent Era Part 2 (Naxos, 2015)