Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark studio is a place of hallowed renown. The site where some of the heaviest, strangest and most psychedelic reggae and dub were ever recorded, it was constructed in a converted carport at Perry’s home on the outskirts of Kingston as a projected haven for the Rastafari faithful who faced daily persecution in Jamaica. Similarly, King Tubby’s front-room voicing and mixing facility in the nearby Waterhouse ghetto was home to some of the deepest and most mind-bending dubs ever committed to tape. Yet, the first album to surface from the Black Ark, which was voiced at Tubby’s studio because the Ark had not yet been equipped with adequate microphones, was an unexpected blend of pop and soul cover tunes and love ballads, with a hint of Rasta consciousness and some trance-inducing dub cropping up in unexpected places. Some 35 years after its initial release, the Silvertones’ Silver Bullets can be viewed as an atypical Black Ark classic worthy of deeper investigation, evidencing the complexity of reggae in flux and the diverse pallet of Perry’s musical imagination.
The Silvertones began as the singing duo of Gilmore Grant and Keith Coley, teenaged friends who came to know each other in eastern Kingston shortly after Jamaica achieved its independence from Britain in 1962. Grant was originally from a rural location in the parish of St. Mary in northeast Jamaica and Coley from St. Elizabeth in the far southwest, their countryside upbringing lending rustic qualities to their voices. Nothing much happened for the group until they chanced upon Delroy Denton, a tall, striking lad with a distinctive baritone and good command of the guitar, all of which made him a natural front man. Their debut recording, a ska re-casting of Brook Benton’s “True Confession,” leapt to the top of the Jamaican charts in 1966 and was followed swiftly by a more languorous take on Wilson Pickett’s “Midnight Hour,” refashioned in the emerging rock steady style with Jamaican audiences firmly in mind; the original ballad “It’s Real” was also popular.
“We were around for quite a time, trying to make some songs but you know, in those days it was rough,” Grant explained, some years before his passing. “After a while, we meet Denton and though he could play the guitar, he really get to be lead singer. Duke Reid used to have auditions on Sunday, so we take a try, but we didn’t get through the first time. Eventually we made our first song for Treasure Isle, ‘True Confession,’ and it was a lucky time for us, because they record eight songs that night and our song was the last one. In those days it was only two tracks, one for the music and one for the voice. [Saxophonist and bandleader] Tommy McCook said to us, if we can make the song in one cut, he will record us, but if you spoil it you don’t have another chance. So that’s the one chance that we get and we take it, and ‘True Confession’ was the only hit song out of the eight.”
Although they continued to record both original compositions and cover tunes for Duke Reid following the subsequent popularity of “It’s Real” and “Midnight Hour,” the group also began moonlighting for rival producer Sonia Pottinger, cutting a series of hits under the alias the Valentines, addressing the growing “rude boy” phenomenon and its attendant street-gang viciousness on songs such as “Guns Fever” and “Stop The Violence.” Then, in late 1968, as Lee Perry made his first songs as an independent producer, the Silvertones recorded a reggae re-take of Jerry Butler & Curtis Mayfield’s “He Don’t Love You” for Perry, laying the foundations of a long and fruitful working relationship with the wily producer. The following year, their playful reggae version of Brook Benton’s “Kiddy-O” was included on Perry’s debut album, The Upsetter, credited on the sleeve to the Muskyteers.
After a period of relative stagnation, during the early 1970s the Silvertones were seeking a way forward. Grant formed a short-lived label called Blue Spark, voicing the original “Rock Man Soul” with the group, backed by the Now Generation band, but the single sank without a trace, as did a cover of Burt Bacharach’s “Please Stay,” cut for Peter Ashbourne’s Wall label, along with a reconfigured remake of Dicky Doo and the Don’ts’ “Teardrops Will Fall,” voiced for Clancy Eccles. It would take a producer with great perception and sonic ingenuity to make the most of the Silvertones’ vocal abilities. That producer was none other than Lee "Scratch" Perry.
Since first working with the group, Perry’s productions had progressed by leaps and bounds. In 1969, his instrumental “Return Of Django” reached the U.K. pop charts, enabling Perry and his Upsetters band to engage in a six-week tour of Britain, then an unprecedented feat for a Jamaican group. Back in Jamaica, in 1970-’71, while based at Randy’s studio in downtown Kingston, Perry recorded a series of incredible hits with Bob Marley and the Wailers, preparing them for the international breakthrough they would subsequently achieve upon singing to Island Records, and he went on to craft music of great social and political relevance with Junior Byles at Dynamic Sound.
But Perry really hankered for a studio of his own, and after meditating beneath a tree in the front yard of his home in Washington Gardens, a lower middle-class district on the western outskirts of Kingston, he knew he had found the correct location. Perry thus enrolled the guitarist and singer Bobby Aitken as his chief contractor, and while Aitken erected much of the masonry, the singer Leonard Dillon of the Ethiopians was responsible for the distinctive patterning on the cement walls of the surrounding compound. The building of the studio was a long, slow and ultimately expensive process, costing over £12,000 in total, which was certainly a hefty sum by the Jamaican standards of the day. Yet, its interior had only the most minimal of equipment by the time the Silvertones began recording there in late 1973. In fact, Perry’s Alice mixing desk had only a single VU meter, as it was meant for radio station usage and not for a recording studio; Perry says he purchased it on the Edgware Road during a recent visit to London for a mere £35, and one of his associates suggested that much of the other gear had been “liberated” from a recently defunct London recording facility, possibly including a drum kit formerly played by Ringo Starr.
“We know Perry from the record shop he had on Charles Street,” continued Grant. “That time he have an album named Cloak And Dagger and it sell in a plain plastic; he couldn’t make the jacket fast enough to sell that album. We check him as Scratch and said we’d like to make a few songs for him, for in that time we had tunes like ‘Early In The Morning,’ ‘Sweet And Loving Baby,’ ‘Rejoice’ and ‘Rock Me In Your Soul.’ Scratch said, ‘Let’s do an album,’ and we voiced that album in King Tubby’s studio, just a small little place; each time we do a song, we would have to come outside and get some breeze and then go back in again.”
According to Coley, Perry laid the rhythm tracks live at the Black Ark over a period of weeks with talented session veterans such as guitarist Hux Brown and keyboardist Ansel Collins, who provided the melodies over a bedrock laid by a set of upcoming players, including guitarist Bertram “Ranchie” McLean, who would later collaborate with Serge Gainsbourg, and drummer Anthony “Benbow” Creary, who would go on to play on hit albums by Johnny Clarke, the Mighty Diamonds and Cornell Campbell, among many others. Then, once the rhythms had been laid, the group decamped to King Tubby’s studio, where the material was voiced in a night-long marathon.
The resulting album, Silver Bullets, showed the duality inherent in the group’s oeuvre in that it is half composed of cover tunes and half originals, a duality also inherent in much of Perry’s work. Although popular American songs like Ben E. King’s “That’s When It Hurts” and “Souvenir Of Mexico,” Jerry Butler’s “He’ll Break Your Heart” and the Archies’ “Sugar Sugar” are covered credibly enough (with the latter somehow transformed from bubble-gum pop to deep reggae soul), the group really shines on the original numbers written by Delroy Denton, particularly “Soul Sister,” a song exploring romantic frustration, and the rollicking swoon of “Early In The Morning.”
Similarly, “Rock Me In Your Soul” has a slowly creeping introduction and again has Denton imploring his paramour to heed his pleas, while “Sweet And Loving Baby” betrays a strong soul influence. In contrast, the outstanding spiritual number “Rejoice Jah Jah Children” reveals the growing influence of Rastafari on Kingston’s music community, and the fine reverberating dub version titled “Rejoicing Skank” that immediately follows heightens the mystical nature of the faith. And although Lee Perry has been credited as the songwriter of “Rejoicing,” Perry clarified that his former common-law wife Pauline Morrison is the one who really put it together, with Biblical verses as her most obvious reference points.
Strangely, the final song on the album didn’t feature the Silvertones at all, being instead a dub version of Dave Barker’s reggae recasting of the Staple Singers’ “Are You Sure,” produced at Dynamics by Perry’s colleague, Larry Lawrence. While up in London putting finishing touches on the album, Perry discovered that the running length of Silver Bullets was still a bit short, so he transferred a dub cut of “Are You Sure” at Chalk Farm studio in Camden, after Lawrence was finished overdubbing some Moog onto it with session player, Ken Elliott. That choice by Perry is a confounding one, since Perry recorded other songs with the Silvertones that were left unreleased, including a Gilmore Grant composition called “I’ve Got This Feeling,” which is still yet to surface. Nevertheless, since “Rejoicing Skank” is already on the album, perhaps another dub number is not entirely out of place, even if it was from a different artist’s session at another recording studio.
Silver Bullets was first released in Jamaica in early 1973 on a new label Perry controlled called Black Art, yet the mix on the Jamaican pressing was completely different to that of Trojan’s release. The most notable difference is that the songs are presented in split-channel stereo, like an Esquivel record, so that the vocals are typically in one speaker and the music in the other. There were also some alternate vocal takes on the Jamaican edition, and slight musical variations, too. Yet, in either form, the album is equally appealing, the blend of fine vocal harmony, tight musical backing and unique Perry mixing all yielding an exceptional result.
After the creation of Silver Bullets, the Silvertones recorded a handful of other tracks for Perry, including the playful “Kill The Music” and a social protest number, “Financial Crisis,” before moving on to work with Winston Riley and then to Studio One. Denton’s migration to the U.S. torpedoed their trajectory, though after reforming in the late 1990s with new member Clinton “Tennessee” Brown, the Silvertones went on to record the album Young At Heart at Studio One, shortly before Brown’s untimely death. Then, in 2013, a French connection brought forth Keep On Rolling and with the current lineup of surviving member Coley, Joel “Kush” Brown and Anthony Feurtado, there was a collaboration with Philadelphia’s The West Kensingstons, Push The Fire. Of course, none of these albums carried the same creative fire, the same Lee “Scratch” Perry wonder of Silver Bullets, an album that caught the Silvertones at their dubbiest best.