Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Reggae Producer and Pioneer, Dead at 85
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, the pioneering reggae artist, producer and songwriter, has died at the age of 85.
Jamaican media outlets reported the musician passed away in hospital in Lucea, a town located on the northwest part of the island.
In a series of tweets, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness remembered the reggae icon.
"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,” Holness noted. “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."
Born in the small town of Kendall, Jamaica in 1936, Perry dropped out of school at the age of 15. An interest in music eventually took him to the city of Kingston, where he worked in a series of roles ranging from record seller to vocal talent. As a singer, one of Perry’s earliest releases was “Chicken Scratch,” the song from which his nickname was derived.
In 1968, Perry released “People Funny Boy,” one of his first singles as an independent artist. The track is now considered one of the most important in reggae history, reflecting the transition away from Jamaica’s ska and rocksteady sounds.
In 1973, Perry built his iconic Black Ark Studios. It was there that he began further musical experimentation, trailblazing the use of drum machines, sampling and vocal effects. It was Perry who pioneered dub music recordings, creating eerie, echoing sound spaces within his material.
In addition to his long history of solo releases -- as well as albums recorded with his backing band the Upsetters -- Perry produced work for such notable reggae acts as Bob Marley and the Wailers and King Tubby. His skills caught the attention of artists from different genres as well. The Clash, who famously covered Perry’s “Police & Thieves” on their 1977 self-titled debut, recruited the producer for their single “Complete Control” released later that year (it would be included on U.S. versions of The Clash).
Around the same time, Paul and Linda McCartney sought out Perry, traveling to Jamaica and recording songs at Black Ark Studios.
In 2019, the former Beatle looked back on the experience. "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."
The material from those sessions would eventually end up on Linda’s posthumous compilation album, Wide Prairie.
Perry’s reputation as a producer was only surpassed by his famed eccentric nature. The musician often wore bright, glittering outfits, while colorfully dying his beard. He routinely spoke of music in mythical tones, relating songwriting to connecting with a higher power. Perry was also known to ritualistically blow marijuana smoke onto tapes and (later) computer screens while recording.
"You could never put your finger on Lee Perry - he's the Salvador Dali of music,” the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards commented to Rolling Stone in 2010. “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."
Throughout his prolific career, Perry released more than 70 albums under his own name and produced hundreds more for other artists. According to Discogs.com, he died with more than 1000 production credits to his name.