Another NPR Obit, Another Factchecking Fail

On-Air Lee Perry Piece Needed a (Better?) Editor

Readers of this website — by my best guess, all two of you! — will note that I have twice criticized NPR for errors in obituary/remembrance pieces for reggae artists, first for deejay U-Roy and a second time for singer Bunny Wailer. Well, I'm at it again. This time, the subject is my single favorite musical artist, Lee “Scratch” Perry.

In “Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Visionary Reggae Producer, Dies At 85 reporter Neda Ulaby says, [a]t Perry's storied Black Ark studio in Kingston, located behind his family's home, Perry worked with Bob Marley and the Wailers, the Heptones, Junior Murvin, and many more....

“Remembering Jamaican Producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry”

Reporter Anastasia Tsioulcas repeats that assertion in “Remembering Jamaican Producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry” (broadcast on All Things Considered on : At Perry's own studio, Black Ark, he worked with many of Jamaica's biggest talents, including Junior Murvin, the Heptones, the Congos, and Bob Marley's band, the Wailers.

This is immediately followed by a clip of a Wailers' record called “Mr. Brown,” ostensibly an example of their work at the Ark.

Only it isn't. “Mr. Brown” was not recorded there, because the studio hadn't been built when that record was made. Furthermore, by the time it was built, Perry and the Wailers had long since parted ways. Here's a timeline:

The Black Ark recording studio, Kingston, Jamaica

So the Wailers — Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, and Bunny Wailer — never recorded at the Black Ark. And, as far as I can determine, Bob Marley's backing band the Wailers never recorded there either. (Marley cut a couple of records at the Ark in the late 1970s, but he was backed by studio musicians, not his own band.)

To sum up: it's definitely wrong to imply that “Mr. Brown” was recorded at the Black Ark. And it's probably wrong to claim that the Wailers recorded anything there.

That's Dub Plate, Damnit

Ulaby used a 2006 NPR piece as research material. That earlier report, by one Christopher Johnson, contains the same error about the Wailers and the Black Ark:

[I]n 1973, Perry opened Black Ark studio. Some crucial roots reggae was laid down there by groups, including Bob Marley's Wailers. Perry made quick enemies with that trio when he secretly sold their tapes to another label and kept the money.

Yes, Perry made enemies with the Wailers for selling tapes of their music to Trojan Records. No, the Wailers did not record those tapes at the Black Ark. Gah.

The Christopher Johnson piece also says the Black Ark Studio was active into the mid-1980s. In fact, operations at the studio ended around 1979, and it burned down no later than 1983. Still, Johnson's story is mostly good, if you listen to it.

“At 70, Reggae Pioneer Perry Releases ‘Babylon’”

If you instead read the web version of the story, you'll see several transcription errors, including one of an interview clip with a Chicago dj:

[Perry] was doing remixes before the term even really existed with these 12-inch dub plays....

Errr, that should read “dub plates,” not “dub plays.”

Now, the transcription may have been done by speech recognition software, so I could give NPR a pass on those errors. The problem is that Ulaby included that quote, warts-and-all, in her obituary. That does not get a pass.

Hey, Ms. Ulaby! It's “dub plate” — “plate” being a slang term for a vinyl record.

Can NPR Please Hire an Editor Who Knows Something About Reggae?

This is the third time that NPR has aired or published obituaries for reggae stars with glaring errors. In this case, the subject was an artist whose impact went way beyond reggae music. So it's a shame that NPR couldn't do a better job of fact-checking it, and a real disappointment when comparing them to NBC, ABC, or Yahoo News. Are NPR's obituaries as error-prone when the subject is a rock drummer or guitarist? What if it's a country music singer or an opera composer? I can't say for sure, but I suspect not.

Which raises the question: does NPR's music desk need a reggae editor? Perhaps they could tap Milo Miles — he has a pretty good grasp of reggae (including Perry's large body of work), and since he works for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” he might be amenable to improving their obituaries.