SunPress Blog #5: Lee Perry at Studio One
By David Katz
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is one of the most original artistic beings to ever emerge from Jamaica. Actively shaping every important shift of musical style on the island from the pre-ska days of Jamaican rhythm and blues to the psychedelic roots reggae of the late 1970s, Perry nurtured the careers of Bob Marley and the Wailers, Max Romeo and George Faith, turned dub into an art form and prefixed the remix cultures of hip-hop and disco. He forever changed the way we think about sound through the astounding sonic innovation pioneered at his tiny 4-track home studio, known as the Black Ark. Collaborating with everyone from Paul & Linda McCartney and the Clash and to Brian Eno and the Beastie Boys, Perry became a wandering nomad following a dramatic metamorphosis at the end of the 1970s, his artistic compulsions resulting in a range of outsider art and an ever-changing 3-D wardrobe. Yet, Perry’s entry-point came at Studio One, that hallowed music institution that gave rise to much of Jamaica’s most noteworthy talent.
Raised in a remote country parish in Jamaica’s far northwest, Lee Perry helped to build roads when the Negril area was being developed for tourism in the late 1950s, until divine voices directed him to the capital city to seek his fortune in music. An approach to Duke Reid led to his lyrics being poached and a physical chastisement, leading future Studio One founder Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd to lure Perry into his rival camp. Recognising his uncommon ears, Dodd made use of Perry’s talents in various ways between 1961-66: first, Perry acted as a sound system spy, helping Dodd to locate the key records played by others, and later, Perry acted as a talent scout and auditions supervisor, helping to bring acts such as Toots and the Maytals to Dodd’s attention, and assisting with musical arrangements along with Jackie Mittoo. Perry also voiced over 30 songs for Dodd as a singer himself, including battle tunes like “Mad Head” and “Royalty,” aimed at Dodd’s competitors, and rude numbers such as “Doctor Dick” and “Pussy Galore,” the latter backed by the Wailers.
Yet, a creative force like Perry could not remain under the wing of a boss for long. It was inevitable that he would break away to become an independent producer and the 1966 single “Give Me Justice” attested to that fact—the first of many in which Perry expressed his general frustrations with the unequitable arrangements of the Jamaican music industry.