By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — One of reggae’s finest producers and most flamboyant performers passed away Sunday. Lee “Scratch” Perry died at a hospital in Lucea. The Jamaica Observer initially reported his passing. Perry was 85. His impact as a vocalist and performer not only was massive in the worlds of reggae and dub, but extended into rock and rap. His passing was noted by a number of international politicians and musicians, as well as Jamaica’s current Prime Minister Andrew Holness. “My deep condolences to the family, friends, and fans of legendary record producer and singer, Rainford Hugh Perry OD, affectionately known as ‘Lee Scratch’ Perry,” Holness tweeted.
Perry was born in Kendal, a rural Jamaican town. He never forget those humble beginnings, even after he became a celebrity and was revered for his imaginative productions and pioneering work in both vocal and instrumental circles. His love of music and desire to work in the field led him to leave school at age 15 and relocate to Kingston. Perry always credited nature with the inspiration for his work.
“My father worked on the road, my mother in the fields. We were very poor. I went to school… I learned nothing at all. Everything I have learned has come from nature,” Perry told the British music outlet New Music Express during a mid-80s interview. “When I left school there was nothing to do except field work. Hard, hard labor. I didn’t fancy that. So I started playing dominoes. Through dominoes I practiced my mind and learned to read the minds of others. This has proved eternally useful to me.”
As bizarre as some of that sounds, Perry not only believed it, but repeated those sentiments many times over the years. Perry got his start by combining performing with hustling records as a salesman for Clement Coxsone Dodd’s sound system during the late ‘50s. He would later shift to Joe Gibbs’s Amalgamated Records. In both cases Perry eventually clashed with his bosses over money, and finally created his own label in 1968. He called it Upsetter Records and issued his first single “People Funny Boy.” It was a combination direct jab at former boss Gibbs and an example of his visionary production style. The record included a crying baby’s voice, one of the first singles to utilize a sample.
Perry would eventually produce vital recordings for Bob Marley, Max Romeo, Junior Murvin and the Congos, while luring the top talent in Jamaica to a backyard Kingston studio he nicknamed “The Black Ark.” Perry’s productions and recordings helped popularize reggae overseas. His specialties as a producer were layering sounds and utilizing any and every device creatively. He’d sometimes insert the sound of stones being clumped together or water running. His bass-heavy dub productions were also magical, as was his production work with drums and percussive elements.
In his later years such rockers as Keith Richards and Paul McCartney sought out Perry for sessions. However Perry’s colorful personality could also degenerate into episodes of erratic behavior. The Black Ark burned down (Perry claimed he did it) in the early ‘80s. Perry would settle in Switzerland for a time, but continued recording and performing almost to the end.
Artists ranging from Questlove to his longtime British comrade Mad Professor and rappers the Beastie Boys paid tributes to Perry on social media following news of his death. He was truly a unique figure both in and out of the studio.