Shocks Of Mighty: An Upsetting Biography
NAME: Rainford Hugh Perry
Updated and revised from Reggae Rasta Revolution (Schirmer Books, 1997)
With a man as legendary and eccentric as Lee Perry, the story of his life is a mix of fact and fiction, newspaper clippings and ghost stories. Much of what we know about Perry is open to conjecture, point of view, clouds of ganja, and grains of salt the size of golf balls. Therefore, I make no apologies for taking artistic license in telling Scratch's story.
"I came, I saw, and I conquered." Lee Perry's early life mirrors many of Jamaica's musical super stars: he was born poor in a small village, earned an early reputation as a wise guy, came to Kingston in the 1950s, heard the music, learned the moves, and got the groove. His first job was with pioneering record producer Clement "Coxsone" Dodd and his soon to be legendary Downbeat Sound System: errand boy, security guard, talent scout, uncredited songwriter, and -- eventually -- singer. Perry made his first recording, "Chicken Scratch", in 1961. While it was a drop in Coxsone's sound system bucket, it did provide the young Perry with his famous and lasting nickname. When Coxsone established the famous Studio One in 1963, Perry spent more time behind the microphone, cutting rude and raucous ska numbers such as "Roast Duck", "Doctor Dick" and "Wishes Of The Wicked".
In 1966, after more than five years with Coxsone, Perry left in a flash of lightning, pissed off at the producer for not giving him enough money or recognition over the years. He crossed the street and joined forces with greenhorn producer Joe Gibbs, cutting his first signature tune, the sinister "I Am The Upsetter", as a warning to Coxsone and anyone else who might try to underestimate him. Gibbs wasn't really a producer at first, just a hustler with a lot of cash and an ear for music. He quickly realized that Perry had the groove, so in 1967 he hired Perry to run his new Amalgamated label for him. Perry wasted no time, and produced a string of hits for Gibbs, including The Pioneers' "Long Shot", which was the first song to use a new rhythm in Jamaican music -- it didn't have a name at the time, but a year later someone christened the beat "reggae". "Long Shot" and other Perry works from this time are therefore evidence for those who claim that he actually invented reggae.
Perry's productions mashed up the place, but since Gibbs wanted a "silent" partner, he was asking for trouble when he decided to put Perry on the elbow list. Furious once again for being slighted, he split from Amalgamated with a mighty roar and retaliated with "People Funny Boy", which was another "screw you" song aimed straight to Gibbs' head. Ironic, since Perry's big hit for Gibbs had been "Upsetter", which was aimed straight to Coxsone's head.
By 1968, Perry decided that since he couldn't work with any of Jamaica's producers without being jerked around, he would do it himself. His first move was to get the best hired guns he could find to help him make some waves. He found such a crew in Gladdy's All Stars, a set of session musicians who were as hot as sugar cane fields in July. Perry named his new band after his current nickname and his new record label: The Upsetters.
Under Perry's leadership, The Upsetters cut rowdy, wigged out instrumentals like "Drugs And Poison", "The Vampire", "Dig Your Grave", and what became their signature tune, "Return Of Django". Alongside the Upsetters instrumentals, Perry scored hits with soulful numbers from some of Jamaica's top vocalists, such as David Isaacs, The Silvertones, and Slim Smith. When "Return Of Django" became a hit in England, Perry and his crew were invited on a six week tour of Britain - a first for a reggae band. However, in a spectacular case of bad timing, the original Upsetters couldn't make the trip, so Perry had to hustle together a new crew. A young group named the Hippy Boys became the new Upsetters.
Riding a wave, the ambitious Perry opened up his own store, the Upsetter Record Shop, located at 36 Charles Street, premises once owned by his buddy Prince Buster. The shop not only sold the latest and kinkiest Upsetter records, but acted as Perry's base of operations -- not to mention rehearsal room, bar, and herb counter. The Upsetter Shop played an important role in waking the town and telling the people about the Upsetter's sound, which was becoming more distinct with each release. The popularity of Perry's productions also enabled him to sponsor a weekly program on the JBC, where the latest Upsetter records were spun by enthusiastic jive-talking DJs. While most of these early singles were straightforward, soul inspired reggae, occasionally Perry would throw people for a loop with a bizarre B-side or strange vocal effects. The Upsetter was beginning to upset.