Lee “Scratch” Perry, who died at the age of 85, was one of Jamaica’s most talented and unpredictable record producers, as well as a highly recorded singer. But perhaps his greatest global legacy was the profound effect he had on the king of reggae, Bob Marley.
As frontman of the Wailers with Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, Marley had enjoyed modest success in Jamaica before entering Perry’s charismatic orbit in 1970. Connecting with Perry changed the way Marley saw things, l ‘moving away from the harmonies measure of a trio towards something more sincere.
Urged by Perry to take a more spiritual approach, he copied some of Perry’s vocal phrasing, built a new bass-dominated sound, and, with Perry’s help, began releasing a slew of new songs – such as Soul Rebel, Duppy Conqueror, Kaya, and Small Ax – that would propel him onto the world stage.
Although Perry and Marley went their separate ways on bad terms before Marley truly reached the pinnacle as a solo artist, it was Perry’s lack of free-spirited orthodoxy that got the most out of the young man. .
Essentially a layman in musical circles, Perry came up with ways of doing things that would rarely occur to skilled musicians – and which they routinely dismissed as unachievable until they tried them out and found the opposite. His adventurous and shamanic spirit took him to the top as a reggae producer in the mid to late 1970s, when he led the Jamaican music scene from his legendary Black Ark studio in the capital, Kingston, creating records. Critically acclaimed and popular with artists such as the Heptones, Junior Byles, Max Romeo and the Congos.
His tiny 12-square-foot workplace, cluttered with eerie artifacts, produced a sound unlike any other, as distinctive in its own way as Phil Spector’s famous sound barrier. The ark was also one of the great cradles of dub music, where Perry, along with his collaborator King Tubby, got under the hood of reggae, stripped it down to the essentials, and put it back together under a new shape, adding a cacophony of sound effects. , reverbs and electronic exclamation marks.
The Golden Age came to an abrupt end in 1979, however, when an overworked Perry, still deeply eccentric but now increasingly unsettled by the consumption of reckless amounts of ganja and rum, burned the place down and was entered the desert.
Perry had always walked the thin line between genius and madness, and was an enigma throughout his life. Born into extreme poverty in the rural Jamaican town of Kendal, Ina (née Davis), a farm laborer, and Henry, who worked on the roads, he left school early, living on the move and earning a living. a precarious life in the northwest of the country as a professional dancer, domino player and bulldozer driver. After a short-lived marriage to a local woman named Ruby Williams, he moved to Kingston in the early 1960s, where he found work with Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s famous sound system, who played American records to the masses. in theaters across the country.
When Dodd dove into record production and set up his Studio One label, Scratch helped him by sourcing talent, hosting studio sessions, and writing songs. Although he was not fortunate enough to have a great singing voice, from 1961 he also began recording full-fledged songs. Among his first releases of around 30 singles was Chicken Scratch, the song that gave him his nickname.
Perry was one of Dodd’s key men in the early ’60s, but was never well rewarded for his efforts and in 1966 he acrimoniously parted ways with his boss over personal and financial matters. Quarrels were not unusual when it came to Perry, and his other long-standing nickname was “the upsetting”. He then worked as a freelance writer for various producers and in 1968 established his own label Upsetter.
By now he was a recognized leader in his field, and Trojan Records in London even created his own licensed version of the Upsetter imprint to release his singles – one of which, Return of Django, reached No. UK charts in 1969. It was Perry’s decision to sell his Wailers tapes to Trojan and pocket the money for himself that temporarily ended his relationship with Marley. However, the next album, African Herbsman, became one of the cornerstones of Marley’s recognition, and the two were to work together later, notably on the single Punky Reggae Party.
Perry began building the four-track Black Ark studio in the backyard of his Kingston home in 1973 and for the next five years he produced some of the great reggae works of his closet-like estate. . The studio had a mystical air that Perry attributed to the presence of aliens, but in reality the dense underwater sound emerging from its walls was due to the constant overlay of material and the resulting loss of sound quality. Improvisation was also the order of the day, and Perry often snatched unknown musicians from the streets to join a session. Junior Murvin’s classic single, Police and Thieves, took shape this way, when Perry heard the young singer scratching the nascent tune in the adjoining courtyard.
In his prime, Perry was focused and lucid in the studio, able to convey exactly what he wanted. But in other arenas, it was far from consistent. During the long period of erratic behavior that led to the burning of the Ark and the breakdown of the relationship with the mother of four of his children, Pauline Morrison, he began to walk backwards down the street, smearing the studio and his house with arcane graffiti and pounding the floor repeatedly with a hammer. Although he was arrested for arson after the fire, he was released for lack of evidence and the exact circumstances of the incident have never been determined. Perry wasn’t going to enlighten anyone, as he always preferred to speak in rhymes and puzzles.
After this episode, Perry left for the United States before settling in Amsterdam, then in London in 1984 and finally in Switzerland, where, in 1991, he married Mireille Campbell-Rüegg, a businesswoman with whom he had two children; the couple returned to Jamaica in 2020.
He made several albums of varying quality, appeared live on numerous occasions, and produced various artists in the late ’80s, all while being tracked down by crazy stories of his odd behavior. There had been a half-hearted attempt to rebuild the Ark, in which Perry had built a duck pond in the drum booth, but it had come to naught.
Instead, during the ’90s his old material found favor with a new generation of fans, and he benefited financially and critically from a plethora of re-releases and compilations, including the very comprehensive Arkology. (1997).
He collaborated with dub producers Mad Professor and Adrian Sherwood and did production work for the Beastie Boys – and in 2003, won a Grammy Award for Best Reggae Album with the Jamaican recording ET.
In a disturbing echo of his days in the Ark in 2015, Perry’s recording studio in Switzerland was damaged by a fire that destroyed various unreleased recordings and some of his stage equipment. Although much of his subsequent work was a disappointment for his followers, he continued on his unconventional and unpredictable path until the end.
He is survived by Mireille and her children.