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The Soul Rebel, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry (1936-2021)

How Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry fought and shaped the Wailers

By Colin Grant


The febrile and fractious relationship between the mercurial record producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and the original Wailers, Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingston, produced some of their most searing songs. A dozen years ago I met Livingston and Perry separately to discuss their brilliant but combustible collaboration. It was a slippery business.

It was clear after only a few minutes in his company that Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry had spent decades refining the art of sowing confusion. Behind the idiosyncratic style there was method.  His top hat was worthy of Dr Seuss. Chunky rings adorned each finger. Half a dozen gold chains looped from his neck to his navel. Tasselled Aladdin’s slippers rounded off an effect which was less carnival and more cockney pearly king. His eyes were never at rest.  Almost immediately the clowning began. He claimed not to remember his whereabouts from the morning, let alone the day he struck a deal with the Wailers. I decided to launch back to the past to a date that he must surely have remembered.

‘Where were you on Independence day?’ I asked.

He had a smile as slow and even as a lift ascending: ‘I don’t rightly know, you know sah.’

A day that every Jamaican alive at that time can instantly recall is 6 August 1962. It’s like asking Americans where they were when the news came through that President Kennedy had been shot.

‘C’mon,’ I pleaded, ‘you well know where you were. Where were you?’

Perry’s eyes locked onto the Aladdin’s shoes. A joker’s cackle was just about stifled.

‘So, where were you?’ I asked again.

He shuffled about like a school child who’d just been caught playing truant.

‘Whereabouts? One of those parts, sah. Who can say?’

Perry’s slippery, studied linguistic (and very Jamaican) obfuscation was best practised on non-Jamaicans. It was a manner that was already fine-tuned by the time he met the Wailers in the early 1970s, but they recognised it for what it was, and were generally not amused, Livingston least of all. Lee Perry, who styled himself ‘the Upsetter’ had emerged from the ranks of Studio One where his first task had been to make himself familiar with brush and broom. By the time he left Clement Dodd’s care he’d transformed himself into an indispensable producer. Perry was not shy of pointing out his attractions: ‘When people hear what I-man do them hear a different beat, a slower beat, a waxy beat – like you stepping in glue. Them hear a different bass, a rebel bass, coming at you like a sticking gun.’

Ultimately, the wizard at the mixing desk parted company with Dodd in a fit of pique over the studio boss’s differing assessment of his worth. Notwithstanding his irritation over the irreverence shown to him, Perry did not much care for propriety – a characteristic which was evidenced by his immediate disregard for the dynamics of the trio, and his transparent favouritism towards Bob Marley. In a group of three vocalists, only one could lead, and though Perry conceded that ‘Peter Tosh was an artist by himself,’ he preferred to concentrate on Marley, believing his musical intelligence matched his own.

Perhaps Perry sensed that Marley was by temperament far more given to experimentation and accommodation. Bob Marley was more likely to be intrigued than alarmed by Perry’s eccentricity (bordering on psychopathology) which saw him, for instance, ‘planting’ an LP in his yard each time a record album was produced. If Tosh’s displeasure with Perry centred on the business of production, then Livingston’s jealousy was personal. When I sat down with Livingston on his tour bus, he was still seething at the memory from almost forty years ago.

Photo of Bunny Wailer and Colin Grant by Jazz Grant

Bunny Livingston had always felt closer to Marley than anybody else, and believed now that Perry was trying to ‘take over’ his soul-mate, his ‘inch man.’ His suspicions seemed to be born out when the producer invited Marley to move into his yard, all the better to hone some of the creative ideas forged in the intense heat of their musical collaboration.

Something of Perry’s impish and mischievous nature crept into the records he produced for the Wailers. The tracks were by turns innovative, experimental and exuberant. ‘Duppy Conqueror’ was a prime example – a playful and satirical exposé of the superstition about Obeah and duppies that was still abroad in the land. Perry’s account of the origins of that song revealed the sympathetic understanding that he and Marley were developing. ‘I said “Well look here Bob, I want you to write a tune with ‘yes me friend, we on the street again’ in it.” He gave me the third line, I gave him the fourth line and so on. We started to work together and the ideas started to flow till finally we made the tune ‘Duppy Conqueror’.

But in re-inventing the wheel of the Wailer’s sound, Perry too often gave the impression of erasing all that had gone before. Strangely, for a man who considered himself something of an amateur psychologist, his distinct lack of deference appeared either clumsy or wilful, or both. Lee Perry’s arm-chair psychology had been learnt at the dominoes table. He claimed that, ‘Through dominoes I practised my mind, and learned to read the mind of others.’ Though Perry was astute enough to realise that Livingston was ‘a guy that don’t like you to rough him,’ there was a gulf between observation and practice. He ought to have been capable of greater empathy, having been on the receiving end of Clement (Sir Coxsone) Dodd’s disfavour. ‘Coxsone never wanted to give a country boy a chance,’ Perry later reflected. ‘No way. He took my songs and gave them to people like Delroy Wilson. I got no credit. Certainly no money. I was being screwed.’ But Perry seems to have been of the school of thought which said: ‘Do unto others what you have had done onto yourself.’

Initially, the Wailers were prepared to put their misgivings to one side. While they were still struggling to find their way – despite some success – working with Perry, and the musicians associated with him, was undoubtedly leading to a maturation of their music. But in the coming months, the mischievous Perry would find himself on the wrong end of Livingston’s ire.

The first inkling that something was fundamentally amiss in the Wailers’ relationship with the producer came with the artwork on the sleeve of the album Soul Rebels. Judging from the cover, the group’s Rasta sensibility was not shared by Lee Perry. Instead of a demure and conservatively clothed Rasta woman, the album Soul Rebels was emblazoned with a female guerrilla fighter brandishing a machine gun and sporting a khaki shirt, tantalisingly parted to the tips of her nipples.

The soft porn of the album’s cover did not gel with the righteous image the Wailers had started to forge for themselves. But it wasn’t just ‘the photo of the titty business that upset we,’ remembered Livingston. More problematic and disturbing was the fact that the group had been kept in the dark.

The dispute over the cover was a mere dress rehearsal for what lay ahead. The tipping point came at the bar of the Sombrero Club when the excited band members met the producer to discuss the chart success of ‘Duppy Conqueror’ and the album Soul Rebels. Despite their oral contract, when the record started to sell, Perry informed them that contrary to expectations ‘It wasn’t a 50-50 situation’ anymore. He could only afford to pay 10 cents per record sold. While Marley argued ineffectually with the producer, Livingston told me that he stood to one side, listening and growing more and more impatient. He imagined the mockery of his friends: ‘But oonoo idiot. After all you go through with Coxsone. After all you go through with all them people, you come back again and go deal with Scratch, and you have no agreement!’

All the while he was listening to Perry’s justifications, Livingston’s hands clenched the back of a chair. He kicked it over now, and began turning over tables at the bar. He picked up a chair to break over Perry’s head and had to be restrained by Marley and Tosh.

Furniture was righted. In the lull that followed, there might still be a possibility of reaching some accommodation, but the Wailers insisted on returning to the subject of their royalties and to the level of record sales. Suddenly Perry sent one of his retinue to fetch a bottle from the car, and when she returned, he directed her to put it on the table. A conciliatory gesture perhaps to change the mood over a drink? But when Tosh asked Perry what was in the bottle, at first he wouldn’t say. Eventually, he answered calmly that it was acid.

Tosh opened the bottle and threatened to pour it over him. Perry didn’t blink.  According to Livingston, when Tosh eventually smashed the bottle on the table, a strange vapour issued from it. ‘It smoke, it smoke.’

The meeting broke up without Perry explaining his bizarre behaviour. In my interview with Perry, he recalled the encounter differently. The veiled threat was all in the mind: ‘That was [Peter’s] suspicion; there was no acid there. That came out of his thoughts. They always think me have something to do them something, but it was only in their thoughts because they know I wasn’t chicken.’

Whichever version was correct, one thing was sure: all three Wailers turned against the producer. Their dispute did not rest solely on the belief that Perry had short-changed them on royalties, but also on the revelation that Perry had credited himself as the author of a number of their songs. The Wailers (as a group) would never work with Perry again.

Lee Perry photo courtesy of Dan Shepherd

For further reading see: I&I: The Natural Mystics—i–the-natural-mystics/9780099526728.html