Lee PerryThe word “legend” gets chucked about a lot but Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry really was one. Keith Richards once called him “the Salvador Dali of reggae.”

Like a lot of creative geniuses he was crazy, and he was tricky enough to earn the nickname The Upsetter, falling out with nearly all of his employers. But what a legacy he leaves.

Starting off in the late Fifties ska era, when his records exhibited a fascination with vampires, Westerns and sci-fi, he traversed the rocksteady period before evolving its upbeat tunes into the loping languid rhythms that would come to be called reggae.

He played an equally formative part in the development of dub after building his own Black Ark Studio in the late Sixties, with a recognisably bonkers style involving the random use of reverb and echo, and the innovative introduction of samples.

He released discs under his own name and produced countless more, including early recordings for Bob Marley & The Wailers, characteristically falling out with them after he sold them to Trojan and pocketed the cash.

I remember seeing a documentary on Jamaican reggae by Jools Holland who located his house by spotting the toaster on the post of his garden gate – something he explained with the observation that he was himself a toaster.

With characteristic lunacy – his already fragile mental state was exacerbated by massive substance abuse – he eventually burned his own studio to the ground in a fit of rage. Or so he claimed; others said it was an electrical fault.

A friend of mine interviewed him once, on a train as I recall. Perry sat with a Bible in front of him and responded to every question by leafing through it before settling on a page, ripping it out, and presenting it to his inquisitor.

I saw him live only once, about 15 years ago on what may well have been his 70th birthday. There were, as is sadly so often the case with classic reggae, as many black people in his band as in the audience, which mostly consisted of white men over 50.

We could tell it was his birthday because he came onstage with a tinfoil crown on his head containing a birthday cake, with many candles alight, and sang Happy Birthday to himself for so long that many of us wondered if he would do anything else.

RIP Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry


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  1. I had the honour of working with Scratch for nine months in 1984. He had released the “History Mystery and Prophecy” album and had come to the UK to promote it.
    I organised some live shows for him, Dingwalls and the London Lyceum and some up North including an appearance on The Tube.
    I was in a daze throughout this experience as he had been my hero for the best part of a decade at that stage.
    I always told people he was the 20th century Mozart.
    Some of the productions he created, given the very limited range of the equipment he was using in Jamaica at the time, was astonishing. Those recordings have never dated.

    Before that tour started he asked me what songs I thought he should perform. I suggested “People Funny Boy”, a revolutionary recording he made that involved him taping the sound of a baby crying, that he then looped and slowed down to create a rhythm that was to become one of the corner stones of the reggae rhythm. Its a great song, “when you were down and out, I used to help you out”.

    Scratch frowned and shrugged, he couldn’t remember the song. Imagine that. Its the equivalent of Dylan writing “Blowing in the Wind” and then forgetting that he wrote it.

    I had the record, so I taped it for him then I got him a Sony Walkman and gave it to him. He went around London for a few weeks re-learning his song and he then worked up a version that he used in his live set. I am very proud I did that.

    I lived in a flat in Kensal Rise at the time and sometimes after rehearsals, I’d drive Scratch to his favourite Jamaican soul food restaurant in Harrow Road, then we’d take our favourite dish back to mine, rice and peas, ackee and salt fish, all the good stuff he sang about in the song. My daughter was two years old at the time and she adored Scratch. He’d make her laugh. He’d chase her round our front room shouting, “woo woo. I am a train. I am a choo choo train”. We all used to roll about laughing, those were happy special times.

    People used to ask me how I coped with him, he had a reputation for being mad, having been rumoured to have burned down his studio Black Ark a few years earlier. He did smoke a lot of weed and also drank something called Thunderbird, which was a cheap fortified wine, but rough. None of this bothered me, I told people he was a pussy cat.

    Tonight I am very saddened by this news. He was the greatest record producer of all time and will probably never be matched. There are so many wonderful records to remember him by, that is one good thing, the legacy remains.

    RIP Rainford Hugh Perry I am humbled to think I knew you.


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