Extracted from People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry (by David Katz)
When Lee Perry first arrived in Kingston, circa 1961, he tried to make his start in the music business with Duke Reid, but wound up working for Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd, the younger challenger that would shortly form Studio One. ‘I go to Kingston and I try Duke Reid,’ Perry recalled, ‘and him never ready for me, because he didn’t ready for my type of thing.’ Reid let Perry hang around for a couple of weeks, but refused to record him and did not pay him much attention. Duke is said to have been troubled by the small man’s presence; there was something unnatural in Perry’s eye and, when his gaze fixed on you, it was as though he was seeing through you, or looking at something else that was far and distant. Perhaps Duke had occasionally seen such a look before in his days as a policeman, in the eyes of those who scraped a precarious existence amongst the poorest slum dwellers who were saying that God was an African.
Reid had heard Perry singing a song whose lyrics he found impressive, but thinking that Perry’s singing voice was not properly developed, he gave the lyrics to popular hitmaker Stranger Cole, without seeking Perry’s permission first.
As Clement ‘Sir Coxsone’ Dodd recalled, ‘Scratch came from country and he was hearing all these local musics. He wanted to get into the business, so he used to hang out by Duke’s session or my session. How we really get together that first time, Perry come by Federal and he and Duke in the focus. He vexed and I asked him what happened and he explained to me that the song that going to record in there is a song that steal from him. There was a song that cause him and Duke to get into a fracas, he did sing it and rehearse fe him and Duke go record it over. So seeing he and Duke and some of the guys clash, I came in and pacify it, and realising he was outnumbered at the studio I took him away from the crowd and whatever was happening. At that time, I had to advise him, I said, “In future, you don’t sing your song around to let people hear it, cause sometimes they will have a better voice and they’ll sing the song.” We had a good talk, then he went back to the country and when he came back, he stop visiting Duke and then started by me and in no time I created a little job for him.’
Perry noted that he felt generally compelled to leave Duke Reid because of Duke’s arrogance and negative attitude, the unsolicited use of his lyrics appearing as one liberty too many. ‘It was really true that it was a song that I write and Stranger Cole was singing it, and I said to Mr Dodd, “That is my song,” but there was many more Duke didn’t want me to sing. We join forces to drop a bigger guy who said he was the biggest guy in town, and we small guys, the likkle got big and make him feel it. The pressure with Duke, you couldn’t take it because Duke never have no sense about humanity, him just figure that him is a bully. You would be afraid of his gun—though he’s not going shoot you, he have gun like a whip, and he can skin you. He thinks he’s the boss, but him have no feelings that you could go with him and enjoy yourself; like Mr Dodd, he’s always like a kid. You can go to the people and you can share their thoughts and you enjoy saying words and laugh, make your own entertainment. With Duke, you cannot have people like that around make their own entertainment, cause he’s a boss.
‘I see Coxsone as a struggler, he was struggling under Duke Reid’s pressure. Duke Reid was well heavy, with bigger boys. If you have the most bad boys amongst you, then you’re stronger. It started from there, then me have to be, compulsory, be on Coxsone’s side now.’
The five years Perry spent working for Dodd were filled with ups and downs, the biggest issue involving a lack of proper artistic credit and financial recompense for his work. Dodd described the initial position he created for Perry as that of a ‘handyman,’ though Perry himself was to speak of his role in terms of a ‘gopher’ or apprentice. Once Dodd began recording local artists in earnest, it was Perry’s ear for talent that often brought him his biggest selling acts, and although it was Dodd who re-fashioned groups like the Maytals and the Wailers, their growing popularity owed much to Perry’s largely unseen promotional efforts and musical arrangements.
Despite the enormous popularity of ‘Chicken Scratch’, ‘Pussy Galore’, and other Lee ‘King’ Perry material, Dodd continued to be unimpressed by Perry’s singing voice. He thought nothing of using Scratch’s lyrics for his young singers, and made it perfectly clear that he did not rate Perry as vocalist. ‘He took my songs and gave them to people like Delroy Wilson,’ Perry once angrily recounted. ‘I got no credit, certainly no money. I was being screwed.’ It was bad enough that he received no payment for his lyrics, but was also bothered him was that Dodd refused to credit him as writer of the songs, instead substituting his own name in the credits (although the Jamaican issue of ‘Fret Man Fret’ was an exception to this rule.)
Another bone of contention was Dodd’s enduring disapproval of music expressing Rastafarian sentiment. Although most of the Studio One musicians and a growing number of singers were Rastas, Coxsone would not allow them to record songs openly expressing their beliefs, though Delroy Wilson’s ‘Lion of Judah,’ another of the songs Perry had written, was innocuous enough to escape his censure in 1963.
The first tune Perry recorded away from Dodd, titled ‘Give Me Justice,’ was an impassioned plea for the justice he felt was being denied him at Studio One, and was the first of several songs aimed directly at Coxsone’s head, doubly ironic, as the song was surreptitiously recorded in Dodd’s studio on an occasion when Coxsone was absent. ‘Why take advantage of the innocent ones?’ Perry sang forcefully over the bouncing ska rhythm, ‘soon it will be a change of plan…Give me justice!’
The 1968 single ‘I Am The Upsetter,’ recorded when Perry was working for Joe Gibbs (aka Joel Gibson), took things even further. Over a buoyant All Stars rhythm on which Lynn Taitt was doubled-tracked to play two different guitar lines, Perry queried Coxsone’s ‘gravelicious’ and ‘covetous’ nature. He was ‘greedy’, ‘red-eye,’ and could not be satisfied, Perry proclaimed, but the avenging Upsetter was on the musical rise, chasing Coxsone away with a vinyl upper cut. ‘That tune has a meaning,’ Perry later explained.’ After spending time with Coxone and the amount of work that I dis and the pay that I got…I was hurt about the whole deal.’
In another interview, he stated that, ‘He treat me good as a friend but not cashically. He was a nice pal, but at the time there was only a few man with the money to back ideas so sometimes a man just take away your ideas and don’t give you the right rewards.’
Perry later explained, ‘I don’t have a reason to hate Mr Dodd. What I do is upset him and teach him a lesson, and I did really even forgive him as well. Duke Reid didn’t give me no chance, he take all me tune, but even if Coxsone only give me one pound a week, it doesn’t matter; I was just giving Mr Dodd my service and he was giving me some food because me didn’t have any at the time. Me get to that me not sleeping in the tailor shop no more; I could afford to rent a place, whatsoever likkle money he give me and what likkle me can achieve for my side, me can make it and me live. If I was waiting on Duke Reid I would still be in the tailor shop, so though it was one likkle money Mr Dodd was giving me, my word was going out on record.’
But the situation with Gibbs soon soured. While Gibbs continued to pick up steam off Perry’s concerted efforts, Scratch himself found that the recognition and financial independence he sought was far from evident. If he had been under any illusions about being in partnership with Gibbs, the assertion of the more ruthless side of Gibson’s character soon made it readily apparent that this would never be the case.
Perry found himself to be in a situation that was all too familiar. He had broken away from Coxsone Dodd only to find himself treated no better by his new boss, Joe Gibbs. When he confronted Gibson one night, their quarrel turned ugly, and Perry struck out on his own after a heated and quarrelsome parting.
Fast-forward ten years, and Lee Perry is exhibiting such strange behaviour at his Black Ark studio that close associates are questioning his sanity. And it has never been clear how much is a fictional portrayal, or deliberate. Danny Clarke of the Meditations noted some of the elements that then contributed to the enactment of Perry’s surreal charade: ‘Scratch was a Rastaman from way back. At the time you have Ras Michael and the Sons of Negus used to go to Scratch, you have the Niyabingi people them used to come and sit down, and everybody come want money, everybody always looking money, money, money, money! So them drive Scratch to zero, take Scratch to country, say they’re looking to kill the Pope and them shit, so all those things just kind of get to Scratch. Because Scratch is a scientist, Scratch just come with something to get rid of these people.’
Max Romeo recounted certain incidents that occurred as Perry struggled to shake of the predatory idlers who congregated daily at his studio: ‘He had a Rastafarian church he started with a bunch of dreads. I don’t know what happened, but those dreads fall out of grace, so he wanted to keep them off him. He put a pound of pork on his antennae, and rode around town until it rotted and maggots were falling from it, claiming that he don’t want no Rasta ‘round him because Rasta come give his kids lice. After he put the pork on the antennae, the dreads was still coming, so he wrote on his car back, “I am a batty man.” That’s when the dreads run in all different directions! His situation continue a little further with the game: he had a nice orange Pontiac, took the bonnet off, planted flowers in and was driving around. The dirt lodges in his carburettor so the car can’t go no further.’
By the end of January 1979, the Black Ark was entirely devoid of visitors. Though the mixing desk and tape machines were still connected, the studio became little more than an abandoned shell covered in words; despite retaining a basic functionality, it had virtually ceased to exist.