Lee “Scratch” Perry, the eccentric, revolutionary Jamaican producer, songwriter and performer whose influence extended far beyond his historic role in the development of reggae music, died Sunday at a hospital in Lucea, Jamaica at age 85. No cause of death was immediately given.
The news was confirmed in a tweet from Jamaica’s 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 wrote.
“Perry was a pioneer in the 1970s’ development of dub music with his early adoption of studio effects to create new instrumentals of existing reggae tracks. He has worked with and produced for various artistes, including Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Congos, Adrian Sherwood, the Beastie Boys, and many others. Undoubtedly, Lee Scratch Perry will always be remembered for his sterling contribution to the music fraternity. May his soul Rest In Peace.”
Perry made his name in the late 1960s and ’70s for producing some of the most cutting-edge reggae artists, with his Upsetter label helping establish many of the genre’s greats, like the Wailers. As a performer, he won the Grammy for best reggae album in 2003 for his recording “Jamaican E.T.”
Musicians from many genres quickly began weighing in on Perry’s importance. “Few more important figures in the music of the 20th century,” tweeted the band the Mountain Goats. “He expanded the vocabulary of studio sound, lived a long life & leaves a lasting legacy. Play his music for your kids, see how instantly they love it. It’s universal. Safe travels home to God.”
Keith Richards is among the rockers who has weighed in on Perry over the years, telling Rolling Stone in 2010, “You could never put your finger on Lee Perry – he’s the Salvador Dali of music. He’s a mystery. The world is his instrument. You just have to listen. More than a producer, he knows how to inspire the artist’s soul. Like Phil Spector, he has a gift of not only hearing sounds that come from nowhere else, but also translating those sounds to the musicians. Scratch is a shaman.”
Perry had little doubt of his own significance in the music world. “I am the best record producer that Jamaica has seen. Many say that l am the best in the world!” he said in 1984.
Even in a form that has some eccentrics, Perry particularly stood out. “Being a madman is good thing!” Perry told Rolling Stone in a 2010 profile. “It keeps people away. When they think you are crazy, they don’t come around and take your energy, making you weak. I am the Upsetter!” he said, alluding back to his 1968 single of that name.
Active professionally from 1961 to the end of his days, Perry was known internationally by his nicknames “Scratch” (drawn from “Chicken Scratch,” the title of an early song cut for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One label) and “the Upsetter” (springing off the 1967 single “I Am the Upsetter,” a stinging slap at his former boss Dodd).
After a long apprenticeship working for Dodd and the prominent producer Joe Gibbs, Perry stepped out on his own in 1968. One of the first releases on his fledgling label Upset (later Upsetter) was “People Funny Boy.” The song, a sharp put-down of Gibbs, rode a slow, heavily accented rhythm (sparked by music Perry heard at a local “Pocomania” church) that was new to the island’s popular music, then still dominated by the up-tempo sounds of ska and rocksteady. A local sensation that reached the charts in England after its release there by Trojan Records, it is considered one of the very first reggae recordings.
He broke further into the international market with a series of ska-influenced instrumentals released under the Upsetters handle with spaghetti Western-inspired titles. The biggest of these was “The Return of Django,” which climbed the British charts on the back of its use in a TV spot for Cadbury chocolate bars.
Perry’s most productive creative alliance came in 1970, when he reconvened with a vocal trio he had worked with at Studio One: the Wailers. On their sessions he produced for Perry’s Upsetter imprint, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer hardened their sound, and they became one of the first Jamaican groups to outspokenly champion Rastafarian beliefs.
Though the association lasted only a couple of years, the Wailers’ recordings for Perry proved to be the foundation of the group’s repertoire; those compositions (some of them written with or refined by Perry) included “Small Axe,” “Keep On Moving,” “Trenchtown Rock,” “Concrete Jungle,” “400 Years” and “Kaya,” all of which would be re-recorded by Island Records.
In “The Rough Guide to Reggae,” historian Steve Barrow noted that the Upsetter sides “confirmed not only the full fruition of the Wailers’ songwriting and interpretive powers, but also a new stance in Jamaican music: unmistakably tougher, yet simultaneously spiritual.”
Marley and Perry maintained a close yet highly volatile professional and personal relationship until the reggae superstar’s death from cancer in 1981. The pair collaborated on such later songs as “Jah Live” (a posthumous tribute to Emperor Haile Selassie, the icon of Rastafarianism) and the cross-genre celebration “Punky Reggae Party.”
Perry racked up significant U.K. hits in the early ’70s with stunning productions for the gifted, troubled vocalist Junior Byles (“Beat Down Babylon,” “A Place Called Africa,” “Curley Locks”) and singer Susan Cadogan (a chart-topping cover of Millie Jackson’s “Hurt So Good”).
He also was a crucial figure in the development of the homegrown art form of dub, which involved the stripping of vocals from previously released recordings and treating the instrumental beds with a variety of otherworldly effects. Perry serviced dozens of unique “dub plates” to Jamaican sound system dancehalls. “Upsetter 14 Dub Blackboard Jungle,” a 1973 collaboration with renowned mixer King Tubby, was one of the first stand-alone dub LPs, and it helped ignite a sub-genre of its own.
In 1974, Perry established his own fabled studio, wired up by Tubby, in his home at 5 Cardiff Crescent in the middle-class Kingston suburb of Washington Gardens. The Black Ark’s four-track board, Echoplex delay and Roland echo/phaser combo created a wealth of outr? sounds in the producer’s skilled hands.
In his reggae history “Bass Culture,” Lloyd Bradley wrote, “Unfettered by time or expense, Lee Perry could literally do what he liked, and his almost perpetual rhythm-building, tune deconstructing or extending of an original idea often went way past the point at which logic tells most people to stop, into a place where the instrumentation took on ethereal qualities.”
Perry told British critic and musician David Toop, “The studio must be like a living thing. The machine must be live and intelligent….When I making music I think of life, creating life, and I want it to live. I want it to feel good and taste good.”
In 1976-77, Perry produced some of the most original reggae albums ever cut (which were released by Island in the U.K. and U.S.): Max Romeo’s “War Ina Babylon,” the Heptones’ “Party Time,” Junior Murvin’s “Police and Thieves” (the topical title track of which was swiftly covered by the English punk band the Clash), George Faith’s “To Be a Lover” and Perry’s own unclassifiable combination of vocals and dub “Super Ape.”
The world began beating a path to his door: During the ’70s, Paul and Linda McCartney, Robert Palmer and John Martyn recorded at the Black Ark, and the Clash flew Perry to London to produce their single “Complete Control.”
However, by 1978 Perry was showing signs of serious mental instability, some of it fueled by the heavy abuse of potent ganja and white rum. He was living a pressurized existence: Local gangsters were dunning him for protection money, and an unwelcome cult of Nyabinghi (devout Rastafarians) had started squatting on his property.
Important relationships dissolved. He broke sharply with Island after label chief Chris Blackwell refused to issue the Congos’ “Heart of the Congos” (now considered the producer’s masterwork) and two of Perry’s solo albums. In 1979, his common-law wife Pauline Morrison left him for a member of the vocal group the Meditations, which he had produced.