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Music Review: Lee “Scratch” Perry – Chicken Scratch [Deluxe Edition]

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Reggae and Jamaican dub pioneer Lee "Scratch" Perry is one of those larger-than-life musical figures who fascinates young, trendy types. Perry’s latest album was produced by Andrew WK, with appearances by Moby and porno star Sasha Grey, which certainly brings his work to the attention of twenty-somethings. Yet the eccentric 73-year-old vocalist, songwriter and producer has influenced a legion of reggae and ska artists. His prodigious output ranges from solo works to production credits for Bob Marley among others, as well as dozens of guest appearances on albums by other artists.

For Chicken Scratch [Deluxe Edition], Rounder/Heartbeat Records travels all the way back to Perry’s formative days as gopher and vocalist for Duke Reid at Federal and then for Clement Dodd at Kingston’s Studio One circa 1961. Perry then struck out on his own with “I Am the Upsetter,” entering the commendable realm few musicians attain. And now after almost fifty years of producing and performing with other ska and reggae artists, Chicken Scratch [Deluxe Edition] gives us a listen to Perry’s first recordings.

The original Chicken Scratch, released in 1989, dusted off some of Perry's earliest recordings from Dodd’s Studio One & Reid’s Federal. This remastered edition includes bonus tracks and the album's fourteen original studio recordings. The term “Chicken Scratch” refers to the short-lived early '60s dance fad — no rival to "The Twist" — that prompted the titular track. The songs on this compilation, while far from Perry’s best work overall, still guarantee a good time.

This compilation exhibits the bare-bones start of a legend in the making. The production is sparse, the vocals aren't as forceful as the Black Ark efforts, but Perry’s trademarks are all here. There's the double entendres of “Roast Duck” and “Rape Bait,” a battle with the ever-nasty “Mother in Law’ before Ernie K-Doe got to her, and an early version of “Just Keep It Up”, written by Otis Blackwell. Also, serving up a contrast of content, "Madhead" brims with skanking buoyancy while “Cannot Wrong (And Get Right)” provides some moralizing and philosophizing. And “Feel Like Jumping” should make listeners feel as told.

Perry’s back-up singers, the Soulettes, comprised of Rita Marley, Marlene Gifford Constantine Walker, add charm to most of these fledgling recordings with the Wailers providing background vocals on “Hand to Hand” and pre-Upsetter musicians lending the ska beat.

Perry still wows in concert, having performed last year at CMJ and the year before at SXSW. If you get the chance to see him, definitely check him out. Between his outlandish outfits and multi-colored dreads, pro-ganja sentiments — not to mention a kick-ass backup band — he puts on a show that keep you smiling 'til the final note.

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