The Portfolio: How Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry gave Bob Marley his chops

“It was my idea to put them back together; he didn’t want to do it. Bob wanted to sing with me alone without them, but I said, ‘No, you need them for special work, like Sun Is Shining, you need the harmony’.” And so it was that one of the greatest musical partnerships the world has ever known came to fruition: the incredible combination of Lee “Scratch” Perry and the Wailers.

Working together solidly for the rest of 1970 and part of 1971, Perry and the Wailers created a body of timeless work. The Wailers were the hardest and most original vocal trio on the island and the Upsetter musicians were creating the toughest rhythms under Perry’s limitless artistic vision. Just as he had created something new with People Funny Boy, Perry was now in the process of changing the reggae beat, with the Wailers realising the new direction. “When the people hear what I-man a do, them hear a different beat,” said Perry in an often quoted passage from 1977, “a slower beat, a waxy beat — like you’re stepping in glue. Them hear a different bass, a rebel bass, coming at you like sticking a gun.”

Although Perry coaxed brilliant performances from each of the Wailers, his special relationship with Bob Marley resulted in much of the strongest material. His own father had abandoned him at birth and Marley sought out a series of surrogate father figures throughout his life. Perry fulfilled this role for a time, but in their relationship Perry was generally treated like an elder brother or, at times, a demented uncle. 

Perry’s best strength was his ability to teach and many have testified to the concrete changes he brought to the Wailers. As Clancy Eccles noted, Perry was always a fan of Bob Marley. “He loved Bob, he feel like Bob is the best singer in the world. But Bob Marley never used to sing like how he sings now, then he used to sing a different way, but Perry used to sing that way how Bob Marley sound now.”

Perry transformed the Wailers’ sound by paring it down and aiming it more towards Jamaican ears as opposed to having them simply aping the styles of their American vocal heroes. Perry spent weeks rehearsing with the group in the back of the Upsetter record shop, restoring confidence in their creative abilities and persuading them to reach greater heights through a more honest expression of their true selves. From the recording of My Cup, their adaptation of James Brown’s I Guess I’ll Have To Cry Cry Cry, captured on tape in the summer of 1970, Perry and the Wailers created a string of exceptional songs that remain outstanding works of their respective careers. 

Recording in Randy’s Studios, the group cut more than  two albums’ worth of material with Perry by the end of the year; material that helped the direction of reggae by giving it a harder edge with lyrics delivered in more natural and distinctly Jamaican vocal style.

This edited extract is taken from People Funny Boy: The Genius of Lee ‘Sctrach’ Perry (Omnibus Press), a biography by David Katz. Perry, one of reggae’s foremost producers, died on August 29, 2021, in Lucea, Jamaica. 

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