Max Romeo, the reggae singer who worked with Lee “Scratch” Perry on their classic 1976 album War Ina Babylon, spoke to Rolling Stone to pay tribute to his friend and collaborator following Perry’s death Sunday at the age of 85.
“The first thing is, he was truly a producer; he didn’t just a sit in a chair in the studio and listen to what you got and record it. He joined in in the building of the thing,” Romeo tells Rolling Stone from his farm in Jamaica.
“He’s a genius in the truest sense of the word. Of course he was ahead of his time. His creations actually contributed to rap music, Protoje and Buju Banton’s music. He’s the best I ever worked with in my 55 years in the business.”
Perry and Romeo first met while both were working for rival Kingston record companies in the Sixties; Romeo for Ken Lack’s Caltone Records, Perry for Bryon Lee’s Dynamic Sounds. After Romeo broke out in 1968 with his controversial international hit “Wet Dream,” Perry and Romeo first worked together on “Three Blind Mice,” a track on Romeo’s 1975 album Revelation Time.
The following year, Romeo entered Perry’s Black Ark studio to record what would become a defining album in both artists’ catalog: 1976’s War Ina Babylon, featuring Perry’s Upsetters and part of the “holy trinity” of albums — along with Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves and the Heptones’ Party Time — that Perry produced at Black Ark.
“It was a great experience. I spent two weeks in the studio without going home. Lee, he worked night and day. He rarely sleeps during a production,” Romeo told Rolling Stone. “It was a crazy scene, but good music always comes out of a crazy mind.”
Forty-five years later, Romeo credits Perry with saving what has become the album’s standout single, “Chase the Devil.”
“Actually, when the album was completed, it was the only track that I didn’t like. I went to [Perry] the next day after listening to ‘Chase the Devil’ and I told him, ‘The whole album is brilliant, beautiful, but one track is stupid to me.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Chase the Devil?’ He told me to go home and get some rest, because I was trying to cut the best track on the bloody album,” Romeo told Rolling Stone.
“I just went by what he said. I said, ‘Okay, if you feel that way about it.’ And it turned it to be true, it was the most successful track on the album. They’re all good tracks, but that one is the leader track.”
While the two had a falling out following the release of War Ina Babylon, they eventually reconciled. Romeo said that he last saw Perry two years ago and reminisced about playing at a series of shows celebrating Perry’s birthday in France a few years ago.
Romeo added, “This morning, when I heard — I hadn’t cried in about 16 years, since my best friend passed on — that Lee died, I found out that I still had tears left. There was tears trickling down my face. It really hitting hard. I pray for him.”