Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry
For many Jamaican music purists, reggae reached its creative its peak in the mid to late seventies; a period that witnessed the rise of the socio-centric, quasi-religious stylings of Roots, the development of various new playing techniques and the continual evolving sounds of Dub. And at the epicentre of each of these progressions was an enigmatic record producer widely acknowledged as a genius. And it is that man and his groundbreaking work during this golden age that provides the focus of this collection. He is of course Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
As befitting someone whose true character remains a mystery to the world at large, the details surrounding Scratch’s early life are sketchy and often contradictory. His birth date has been given as anywhere between 1936 and 1939, while the exact location of this momentous event is equally vague. Depending on which narration you choose to believe, he was born either in the small town of Kendal in the parish of Hanover, or somewhere in the northeast region of St. Mary’s. Of his formative years, he has divulged almost nothing, other than making the claim that he was a champion domino player and an equally talented dancer.
What is known is that by the late fifties, Scratch was in Jamaica’s bustling capital, Kingston where he found gainful employment running errands for Clement Seymour Dodd, owner of the island’s largest sound-system, ‘Sir Coxson’s Downbeat’. And as his employer moved into producing recordings by local talent, his own creative talents became increasingly utilised. Soon his jobs included discovering and auditioning new acts and arranging recording sessions as well as writing and recording songs himself. His first single, ‘Old For New’ saw issue sometime in 1963 and it was followed soon after by ‘Chicken Scratch’, the title of which provided the moniker by which he is still known.
Throughout the early sixties, Scratch remained a key figure in Dodd’s expanding operations, engineering countless recording sessions and performing on over fifty different songs that saw issue on the producer’s various imprints. But by 1966, a dispute over royalties brought his relationship with Dodd to an abrupt end and he began freelancing for a number of his former employer’s rivals. Those to immediately benefit from his fallout with Dodd included Karl ‘J.J.’ Johnson, Prince Buster for whom he engineered sessions and cut material as an artist before becoming an in-house producer for George Benson & Garnet Hargreaves’ W.I.R.L. Records. Surprisingly, his sojourn with the company lasted just a matter of months, during which time he had failed to provide them with a hit of note, but W.I.R.L.’s loss was Joel Gibson’s’ gain. Gibson (aka Joe Gibbs) was a relative novice to the industry, having only recently launched his own label; a decision prompted by the growing demand for locally produced singles at his Kingston-based electrical repair shop and record outlet. Having heard of Scratch’s availability, Gibson offered the out-of-work producer a position with his newly launched Amalgamated label, a proposal that was duly accepted, with the arrangement soon proving beneficial to both parties. Throughout the tail-end of 1967 and into the following year, Amalgamated grew into one of the island’s most successful independent music enterprises, with Errol Dunkley, the Mellotones, the Versatiles and the Pioneers among those to enjoy hit singles supervised by the gifted Mr Perry.
Aside from Scratch’s developing talents as a producer, he also continued to voice his own songs, the most notable being ‘I Am The Upsetter’, an acerbic swipe at former employer, Coxson Dodd that also provided the first reference to the nick-name by which he would later be known. After a number of months of working relatively harmoniously with Gibson, the pair fell out, their relationship ending acrimoniously, with money yet again the root cause. The experience convinced Scratch that fulfilling his creative and financial potential would require complete independence and after brief spells working with Clancy Eccles and Dorothy Barnett, he formed Upsetter Records with Lynford ‘Andy Capp’ Anderson and Barry Lambert, two respected sound engineers he had befriended while at W.I.R.L.
In the summer of ’68 the first single on the new imprint saw issue: a laudable Rock Steady reworking of the Clyde McPhatter & the Drifters’ R&B hit, ‘Honey Love’, performed by a local singer called Burt Walters. The disc failed to garner much in the way of interest and its failure prompted the withdrawal of Scratch’s partners from the new enterprise. Undaunted, he continued alone, cutting the ground-breaking ‘People Funny Boy’, another satirical swipe at a former employer, with Gibson the latest to suffer a verbal assault. With its unusual, jumpy feel and over-dubbed crying effects, it was the most original Jamaican-produced single of its time and became an instant hit, selling in excess 60,000 copies on the island and thereby assuring Scratch’s long-term future as a producer.
Over the ensuing months, he consolidated his position as one of Kingston’s most up-and-coming independent music makers, his reputation bringing him to the attention of Trojan Records in London, which, after securing rights to his output, launched its own version of his Upsetter label. The UK company’s faith in his talents was almost immediately rewarded, as ‘Return Of Django’, just the second release on the subsidiary, became a sizeable British hit. An irresistible Rock Steady instrumental version of Fats Domino’s ‘Sick And Tired’, led by the unaccredited Val Bennett and the Upsetters, the single broke into the British charts in the Autumn of 1969, spending a total of 15 weeks on the chart and peaking at number five, so becoming one of the best selling Jamaican-produced records of all-time.
The record’s success helped finance the opening of Scratch’s own record retail outlet, the Upsetter Record shop, situated at 36 Charles Street, in the heart of downtown Kingston. The store quickly became a regular meeting place for local talent, while its locality enabled the producer to keep his ear to the ground regarding musical tastes and trends. This, allied to his irrepressible talent, provided him with an edge over his competitors and record sales both locally and across the Atlantic remained healthy, with the Bleechers, Busty Brown and Dave Barker among the small circle of artists benefiting from Scratch’s unerring skill as a producer. Around this time, Scratch was also instrumental in reviving the flagging fortunes of Bob Marley & the Wailers, producing a number of seminal recordings by the group, including the original versions of ‘Duppy Conqueror’, ‘Small Axe’ and ‘Keep On Moving’. Among the other performers to benefit from the producer’s talents during this period were singers Keith ‘Junior’ Byles, Little Roy and Leo Graham, vocals groups such as the Heptones, Carlton & the Shoes and the Gatherers, plus a number of DJs, whose number included Dennis Alcapone, Big Youth, I Roy, U Roy and an up-and-coming youth who recorded under the name of Dillinger.
By 1973, Scratch was comfortably established as one of Jamaican music’s leading players, having produced a series of sizeable hits for his Upsetter, Spinning Wheel and Justice League imprints. But for all his success, he remained unfulfilled creatively, unable to fully develop his ideas because of the restrictions of studio time. So it was that he arranged for construction work to begin on a studio of his own, situated behind his house in Cardiff Crescent in Washington Gardens. Once the building was complete, he began installing the best affordable recording equipment available and by the close of the year, the newly named ‘Black Ark’ studio had been furnished with a four-track quarter-inch TEAC 3340 tape machine, a silver Alice board mixing desk, a Grantham spring reverb and tape echo unit, a Marantz amplifier and a collection of assorted instruments. Over the years that were to follow, all were put to good use as Scratch embarked on a one-man his crusade to push the boundaries of Reggae beyond their conceived limits. This compilation highlights some of the best of this material that originally saw issue as 7″ singles on his Jamaican labels.
As the Seventies wore on, Scratch’s behaviour became progressively erratic. Increasingly distracted from his work by his excessive lifestyle and disillusioned by both the music business and his life in Jamaica, he spelt prolonged periods away from his studio and as 1978 drew to a close, his output had diminished to little more than a trickle. Others noted how the Ark itself had become a reflection of his troubled state of mind, its walls covered in graffiti, which became progressively more illegible as the producer painted ‘x’s over his scrawls. Eventually, the studio had ceased operations and while subsequent spells in Holland and England helped clear his mind of the fog that had increasingly clouded his thoughts, once he was back in Kingston, Scratch fell back into old ways and resumed the gradual destruction of his once beloved studio.
Early in 1981, Chris Blackwell helped arrange a trip to New York for the troubled producer, paying an advance of $25,000 to enable Black Ark’s reconstruction, but although the visit did result in his return to music making (as he began working closely with local white Reggae bands the Terrorists and the Majestics), the money was soon spent. Upon his return to Kingston in the summer, Scratch began working on a new album with engineer Errol ‘E.T.’ Thompson and the Professionals band at Joel Gibson’s recording facility in the Duhaney Park district, while soon after, the Majestics arrived from New York to work with him on a series of tracks at Dynamic studio that would later comprise the ‘Mystic Miracle Star’ LP.
The projects proved a false dawn and soon any sense of renewed enthusiasm had waned. Any Hopes of new material emerging had all but dissipated when, in the summer of 1983, Black Ark was all but obliterated by a raging fire, the producer later taking credit for its combustion. Its sudden and dramatic end marked the sad end of an era, but what had once been a sanctuary had increasingly become regarded as a prison, and with its destruction came liberation.
A move away from Jamaica marked a new chapter in Scratch’s life. At Chris Blackwell’s Compass Point in the Bahamas he finally finished work on the material cut with the Professionals two years earlier – the result being the producer’s final Island album, ‘History, Mystery, Prophesy’. There followed a prolonged period in London, where he worked with leading Reggae producers, Neil ‘Mad Professor’ Fraser and Adrian Sherwood, then in 1989 he settled in Switzerland with his new partner, Mireille. There have since been numerous tours and new albums, including his Grammy winning 2002 collection ‘Jamaican E.T.’, and while we can be grateful that he still undoubtedly still has much to contribute musically, it is impossible not to rue the passing of Black Ark, where for a few glorious years he created some of the most original and challenging work ever to see issue in Jamaica.