"I like to see people happy"

By Carl Gayle
Black Music (January 1975)

I Am The Upsetter"I am the Up-set-ter, you'll never get away from me / I am the av-en-ger..."

Lee Perry's song "The Upsetter" hit Britain's sound system territory – parties, clubs, pub halls, bath halls, town halls, and anywhere else that you could hear JA music – in the autumn of '68.

It was a bold new sound, typical of the style of raunchy, aggressive music that by then had already replaced the tranquil, more subtle rocksteady which had been hot on the dance floors even up to the middle of that year.

It was as if we'd been waiting for exactly this sound, this record, to jolt us out of our tranquility and to help us express our anger. The popularity of "The Upsetter" proved that most people have something or somebody to get even with.

In the early morning hours of the London suburb morning you could see a hear them motioning to the record's beat and singing ("You'll never get away from me / I am the Up-set-ter / Suffer you bound to suffer") in the street as they made their journeys home. It was a new day, a new sound: the sound of the street.

His records had been enjoying tremendous success but he wasn't yet a hero.

Perry says the song was his was of expressing how he felt about the way Clement Dodd (Sir Coxsone) had treated him financially while he had been working for Dodd. It spoke of revenge: "You take people for fool, yeah / And use them as a tool, yeah / But I am the av-en-ger..."

The title alone suggests that "Return Of Django", even though it was an instrumental number, bore the same message. By then, 1969, Perry's name was well established. His records had been enjoying tremendous success but he wasn't yet an ethnic hero. With "Django" we related to the originality and potency of the tune, the message suggested by the title itself, and the name of the label and the band, Upsetters. The Upsetter was back.

Back when Lee Perry was just a follower of Sir Coxsone Downbeat's sound system they called him "Little". He's short and neat and doesn't look 34. When the dance the "chicken scratch" came in, he cut a tune for it and they started calling him "Scratch".

"Wherever he (Coxsone) played, I was with his sound system until we get into the record business. That time we used to record live at Federal Studio, sometime around '54 coming up. I can't recall exactly when. First type of thing we used to do we called 'boogie'. From there it transferred right down to ska. I was just sharing my ideas with Coxsone and Duke Reid (a rival system / label owner). Then I started to write songs for people like Delroy Wilson and Shenley Duffus."

For entertainment at that time, you either listened to Coxsone, Duke Reid, King Edwards, or Bells systems. Those were the times of keenest rivalry, when record labels were erased and DJs traveled to America for good, rare R&B (an interesting parallel with today's "Northern Soul" scene). The earliest artists were Owen Gray, Theophilus Beckford, Laurel Aitken, Kentrick Patrick, Monty Morris, Shenley Duffus... Lee Perry was on the scene right from the start.

"I used to control the production part for Coxsone, select artists. Me and Jackie Mittoo, we'd team up and produce the backing tracks for the artists. Afterwards, we and Coxsone sat down and decide which records to put out. We worked as a bossmanship."

The first artist he worked on was the adolescent Delroy Wilson. Perry wrote and produced "Spit In The Sky", "Joe Lies" ("...A man who always wants but never gives") and "Lion Of Judah" with Mittoo, for Wilson. They were all big hits.

"Producing is not really a thing that you learn, it's born in you."

"Producing is not really a thing that you learn, it's born in you. You have a feeling toward the music. Once you know the artist has a good melody line and the voice is good, you can think of the type of rhythm to fit that melody. It's a thing you have to feel."

Perry, who was audition manager for Coxsone, held auditions and rehearsals at Coxsone's shop in Orange Street. "I select the ones that I feel good enough and say to Coxsone 'this one' and 'this one is good'. He says alright, fine. We call a rehearsal and we cut the tune."

The musicians used on all of the records that Coxsone began to make in the early sixties later became known as the Skatalites. The main core of this studio band was Ernest Ranglin (guitar), Jah Jerry (guitar), Lloyd Brevett (bass), Lloyd Knibb (drums), Jackie Mittoo (organ), Tommy McCook (tenor sax), Roland Alphanso (sax), Johnny Moore (trumpet) and Don Drummond (trombone).

Lee was also the outdoor man, the sales representative for Coxsone. "The people know me because I started off with the cats in the ghetto. I had a crowd out there so whatever I want to present to them, they accept it. Coxsone used the sound system to promote his records. I never operated it. I went round and dealt with the pressing, the distribution, the shops."

Lee also made recordings like "Rub And Squeeze" and "Doctor Dick" (an "injection" specialist) – both "rude" songs, under the name King Perry. The split with Coxsone came finally in 1968.

"'The Upsetter', that tune has meaning. After spending that time with Coxsone and the amount of work that I did and the pay that I got... I was hurt about the whole deal. Even before I did 'The Upsetter' I had one which had a meaning toward the deal he give me called 'Run For Cover'".

Perry then worked with West Indies Studio (now Dynamic) for a time and with Joel Gibson (Joe Gibbs). Among the hits he produced were Errol Dunkley's "Please Stop Your Lying" and "You're Gonna Need Me". Perry split with Gibbs after "Run For Cover" and "The Upsetter" and worked with Clancy Eccles, who had a big hit with a cover of "What Will Your Mama Say". "It was I who really taught Clancy recording. We had a good thing going there, then he started his own thing."

"How Long Will It Take", sung by Pat Kelly and produced by Lee Perry was a massive Jamaican hit and a big seller in Britain among West Indians. "Byron Lee (the producer named on the label) wasn't even in the studio. He heard a tape of it and didn't even like it, said it was slow," said Lee.

Perry's biggest hit as a vocalist was with the superb, inimitable, innovative "People Funny Boy" with its message (the guy who turns his back on his friends after making it big), its unusual uptempo rhythms and sound effects. When you first heard it over a sound system, it was so different from anything else that you wondered if you were in the right place. The record gave rise to a new dance, but the music was so unique that the dance couldn't really be done to any other record. Even now, "People Funny Boy" sounds unusual for Jamaican music...

"I said I'll do a thing with a good beat and shake them up."

"Yeah, it's unusual. I like to see people happy. I sit and watch the people and I said I'll do a thing with a good beat and shake them up – make them move to it. Then I put out that new beat and everyone was with it. It sold about 60,000. It was popular for about eight or nine months. People had to keep buying it because their copy got worn out. So the sales stepped up now and again. That was when I left Amalgamated (Joe Gibbs' label). That was another move toward the feeling of the things people did to me."

Lee Perry's prominence as a producer continued with things like "Tighten Up" (another very distinct sound that induced dancers to invent new moves and which led to Trojan's Tighten Up LP series) for the Untouchables, "Place In The Sun" for David Isaacs, and the beautiful instrumental rendition of "Spanish Harlem" – all on Tighten Up Volume One .

Instrumentals like "Eight For Eight" and "One Punch" were inspired by Perry's bad deals with associates also, just as "Return Of Django" was later. "If the title can move a person, I'll use it. I always write from a title. Ideas come to me. People are always looking for new ideas, right? I don't copy, I always do originals. When I created that feeling ("Return Of Django"), Jamaica wasn't ready for it yet. But Jamaican people like action and I'm a lover of movies and my favorite star was Django. I was just basing it off a theory so any cowboy could be Django. Like we see a film and we name the star Django because he's a rude boy. He had some bad deal and now he's coming back to bad it up. Like three or four guys beat him up, but him still tough, so him come and fight another day, you know?"

"Return of Django" made Lee Perry famous in Britain.

"Return Of Django" hit the UK pop charts and made Lee Perry famous in Britain. The music was even used for TV advertising, but: "With all of the commercials that they've done, I haven't got a penny from it. Honestly, when we tried to get something from the performing rights people they told me that my publisher had been paid. And my publisher is Trojan Records. So there's nothing I can do if they got paid. I've tried... I thought that I'd get a lawyer to go into it, but it takes a lot of money. At the same time, that was when I decided to put up my own studio. So I didn't even want to borrow a penny from the bank. I wanted to put all of the cash that I had into it. I've got it going successfully. I have a four track studio and that's the money I make from my records in Jamaica... So at the time I couldn't afford to take anyone to court, and until now this thing is still not settled."

Perry's love for westerns also gave rise to instrumentals like "For A Few Dollars More", "Return Of The Ugly" (another chart record) and "Clint Eastwood". "The biggest mistake I made in my life," he said, "was to give 'Clint Eastwood' to Pama Records. That could have been another hit record, but..."

"A Live Injection" (which fetched £5 on the pre-release market) was another British hit for Lee Perry the producer. Like "Django", he issued it on his Upsetter label. And he tagged the musicians he used on all the sessions The Upsetters. Known nowadays as Gladstone Anderson's All Stars, these musicians monopolized studio sessions in Jamaica. Almost everyone used Gladdy's band. But the character and the style of the music they made in Jamaica would change, as would their pseudonym, according to whom they were working for. Lee Perry's productions were always the most obvious, distinct and unusual.

"There was a boss album that I put out, a strong one... The Upsetter, a firm album. That was a champion album... 'Man From MI5', 'Night Doctor', 'Soulful I' (laughs)... that was a bad album."

The album amply illustrates the penchant Lee had for creating eerie moods to suit his weirdly named songs. Records like "Night Doctor", "Drugs And Poison", "Medical Operation" and even "A Live Injection". I put it to Lee that the music, as good as it was, was nevertheless like a succession of distress signals. Was there some kind of occult inspiration?

"I'm not really that professional."

"It's not that, it's just the way the ideas flow, you know. You think of the chemist if you think of the dentist. The thing with 'Night Doctor' is, it started as a series where I was basing the music on, like, a hospital theme. I planned to write that the night doctor give a live injection and perform a medical operation, but before we could even finish the thing, a lot of people in Jamaica started riding on the idea and making hit records. Tip Top Records (run by Sonia Pottinger), they came in and spoiled the whole idea so I said alright, forget it. The music they did was alright, but the message... They was all riding on my back. You don't have to ask, just listen. My LP is different from the others. That music was the feeling, the inspiration that I got, so I returned it to the people."

"I'm not really that professional, I can't play so good but I can play enough to give the musicians a good idea of what I want. I bang the piano most of the times and the organ, 'cause they're my favourite instruments, as well as bass. They (referring to Gladdy's All Stars) are the Upsetters, they're my favourites".

Next month: Perry's work with the Wailers and the DJ men...

Continue to part two »