Lee “Scratch” Perry, legendary reggae musician from Jamaica, dies at 85
The famed performer worked with such artists as Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Beastie Boys and Paul McCartney.
By Chris Willman | Variety
LOS ANGELES — Lee “Scratch” Perry, one of the towering figures in 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.”
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. pic.twitter.com/Eec2MEd6yC
— Andrew Holness (@AndrewHolnessJM) August 29, 2021
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.
In a 2007 review of his performance at West Hollywood’s House of Blues, Variety described Perry as “patriarch of the hypnotic and weirdly seductive style of dub — one of Jamaica’s biggest contributions to the lexicon of popular music. … Perry became one of the most iconic figures in Jamaican music on the strength of his collaborations with the Wailers in the late ’60s and the visionary productions recorded during the ’70s in his own Black Ark studio, which he literally burned to the ground in 1980. He’s always been more of a producer than a singer. … But Perry is more than just a voice. Wearing outlandish clothes and jewelry, he seemed to encapsulate the very essence of vintage reggae: rhythmically prodigious, slightly catatonic, wondrously evocative and blessed with a jovial attitude and a wicked sense of humor.”
Even in a form that has some eccentrics, Perry particularly stood out, and embraced that reputation as well as having forged it.
“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.
Of his association with Bob Marley, Perry told NME, “We worked like brothers ’til Chris Blackwell saw it was something great and came like a big hawk and grab Bob Marley up. … If he had listened to Scratch, the idiot, the shit, the madman, he wouldn’t have died.”
He made no secret of the fact that he felt he’d been robbed of his place in history, or at least the money and esteem he was due for it. “It’s history and poverty,” he told the Guardian on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 2016. “I’ve seen people robbed of their birthright. Island Records and EMI Records and Universal Music ripped off Jamaican music and reggae musicians.”
When he was 60, he worked with the Beastie Boys on the “Hello Nasty” album. “It was great, great fun,” he recalled of the collaboration. “They were nice Jewish boys and they were clean inside. Very lovely. They called me ‘Dr. Lee, PhD’ (the name of the 1998 Beasties track he performed on) because they could feel that I loved them. They were very good boys, wonderful.” He had similar words for the Clash, saying, “They were listening and wanted to learn and I could teach them what they wanted to learn. They were happy working; they were all good boys.”
Others from outside the reggae world who called upon Perry ranged from Paul and LInda McCartney to the Orb to Andrew W.K. to Robert Palmer to the Clash, who covered his “Police and Thieves” on the band’s first album before inviting him to join them in the studio.
Perry was born Rainford Hugh Perry on March 20, 1936 in Kendal, Jamaica. At 20, his first music job was as a messenger at Jamaica’s famed Studio One. “Didn’t make music until I was 25 because I started late,” he told ClashMusic.
After rising with and then splitting from Marley, in the early ’70s Perry began concentrating more on the art of remixing, toasting over his studio creations on the influential album “Cow Thief Skank.”
One of his most fertile periods began when he built the Black Ark Studio in 1973, before the facility burned to the ground, with Perry claiming responsibility, saying the studio was afflicted by bad energy from spirits: “A vampire; a bloodsucker,” he said of the studio. “It filled me with fucking dread.”
Paul McCartney spoke of how he ended up enlisting Perry to work on solo material by Linda eventually released on the “Wide Prairie” album, speaking to the impact the producer had on artists from far afield. “We loved early reggae and I had the ‘Tighten Up’ albums – ‘Tighten Up’ volumes I and II,” McCartney said. “We were hooked on reggae and we went to Jamaica. … We knew Lee Perry from all of that. We knew he was one of the great local guys and there used to be this fantastic little record shop called ‘Tony’s’ in Montego Bay — and you’d go in and it would just be records, records, records. … I remember one of them being ‘Lick the Pipe’ and I’ve still got that! … We loved it so much that we asked Lee Perry if he would (record with us)… and he did.”
A documentary, “The Upsetter,” narrated by Benicio Del Toro, premiered at the SXSW Film Festival in 2008 and was released in theaters three years later. A second documentary, “Lee Scratch Perry’s Vision of Paradise,” came out in 2015. Still another doc came out in 2019: “The Revelation of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.”
Perry was an eccentric to the end, telling Tapeop.com in one of his last interviews in 2020: “The music is perfect. I’m sure the music is perfect. I am a mystic. I am a fish. I am a chicken.”