Desmond Dekker

Ska and reggae pioneer who topped the British charts in 1969 with 'Israelites'


Desmond Adolphus Dacres (Desmond Dekker), singer and songwriter: born Kingston, Jamaica 16 July 1941; married (one son, one daughter); died Thornton Heath, Surrey 25 May 2006.

The first international hit recorded in Jamaica and the first reggae song to top the British charts, Desmond Dekker's "Israelites" (1969) was the most important record in the history of Jamaican music. Its influence can be heard on the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da" and Dekker's success paved the way to the mainstream for Jimmy Cliff and Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Dekker had already made his name alongside Laurel Aitken and Prince Buster in the ska and rock steady era with "007 (Shanty Town)" (1967) and he went on to score a further five hit singles in the UK. He settled in Britain, became a rude boy and skinhead icon in the early Seventies, and saw the music he had helped originate revived by the 2-Tone movement at the end of the decade. However, Dekker himself struggled financially and in 1984 was declared bankrupt. He recorded with the Specials, Robert Palmer and Apache Indian and remained a presence on the live circuit throughout Europe well into his sixties.

Born Desmond Adolphus Dacres in Kingston, Jamaica in 1941, although he sometimes said 1942 or 1943 - "I like to keep people wondering" - he lost his mother at an early age and was raised by his father on a farm in St Thomas before moving back to Kingston to finish his education at the Alpha Boys School. He trained as a welder and loved singing along to the radio while listening to Nat "King" Cole, Brook Benton, Jackie Wilson and the Platters.

While working at the South Camp Road Yard in Kingston, he met the young Robert Nesta Marley, who complimented him on his singing. Encouraged by other workmates, too, in 1963 Dacres decided to try his luck and audition for the producer Leslie Kong. Dacres was kept waiting on several occasions and, knowing that his boss wouldn't let him have any more time off,

"I forced my way in the studio and said: "Mr Kong, you want to hear me or not?" He said: "Alright, sing." I sang him some of my songs, including "Honour Your Mother and Father" and "Madgie" and he liked them. The next thing, I was recording them for him."

These two songs were the A and B sides of the first of 20 Jamaican chart-toppers for Dekker (as he became) over the next five years. After the first five singles, he recruited the backing vocalists the Aces, who sang on "Rudy Got Soul", "Rude Boy Train" and "Sabotage", as well as the James Bond-inspired "007 (Shanty Town)" which charted in Britain in 1967. "I was amazed, because I thought people wouldn't understand the lyrics," Dekker told the Jamaican music historian Laurence Cane-Honeysett.

"It was actually about the troubles that had been happening in Jamaica at the time. There had been student riots and the police and soldiers had been called in to break them up. It was like in the movies . . . I just wrote what I saw happening, but people in the UK liked the tune, even if they didn't really understand what the song was all about. "

In 1967, Desmond Dekker and the Aces visited the UK for the first time and also came second in the Jamaica Festival Song competition with "Unity". The following year, they won the contest with "Intensified '68 (Music Like Dirt)" and also issued a track originally called "Poor Mi Israelites". "It's about how hard life was in Jamaica, how we were all downtrodden, just like the Israelites who Moses led to the promised land," Dekker explained.

"I was telling people not to give up as things will get better. I didn't write that song sitting around a piano or playing a guitar. I was walking in the park, eating corn.

"I heard a couple arguing about money. She was saying she needs money and he was saying the work he was doing was not giving him enough. I related to those things and began to sing a little song: "You get up in the morning and you're slaving for bread." By the time I got home, it was complete. And it was so funny, that song never got out of my mind. It stayed fresh in my head. The following day, I got my little tape and I just sang that song and that's how it all started."

Radio 1 only began playing "Israelites" when the track was re-mixed and re-edited by Graeme Goodall, who had licenced Dekker's recordings to his Pyramid label in the UK. The single rose swiftly up the charts and reached No 1 in the spring of 1969. It also topped the chart in West Germany, Holland, Sweden, South Africa and Canada and made the Top Ten in the United States. "Israelites" charted again in Britain in 1975 and remains a perennial favourite thanks to its repeated use in television commercials, most famously for Maxell audiotapes.

Dekker even took in his stride the various misheard lyrics that went round school playgrounds. "People thought I was singing 'My ears are alight' and 'Get up in the morning, baked beans for breakfast!'," he said. "It was all very entertaining, really. I found it funny and people loved it!"

He charted again with "It Mek", "Pickney Gal" and an infectious cover of Jimmy Cliff's "You Can Get It If You Really Want" which made No 2 in 1970 on the Trojan label. Dekker moved to London but carried on working with Kong, who would cut rhythm tracks in Jamaica and send them over to London, where the singer recorded his vocals. Kong died of a heart attack in August 1971 and Dekker's career lost momentum until the late Seventies, when the Specials, Madness, the Beat and the Selecter revived the ska and rock steady music of the previous decade.

Dekker signed to Stiff Records and recorded the albums Black and Dekker (1980) and Compass Point (1981) which failed to capitalise on his reputation as the godfather of the ska revival. Worse, in 1984, Dekker, whose royalties and finances had been badly handled by various managers throughout his career, was declared bankrupt. He soldiered on with the help of his bass-playing manager Delroy Williams and took advantage of the ska-punk wave of the late Eighties and early Nineties.

In downtown Streatham where he lived, Dekker, the original "Rude Boy", always cut a dapper figure. He started the fashion for wearing trousers high up the leg in order to show off his fancy socks and also sported a black leather glove with rings on the fingers years before Alvin Stardust.

Looking back on a career of more than 40 years, when the compilation You Can Get It If You Really Want was released in 2005, Dekker said he was not surprised that reggae music had become such a global phenomenon. "Reggae music is a different rhythm, a different feel," he said.

""Israelites" was the first reggae music to get to No 1 in England. All over the world, it opened the door for reggae music. At the time, I said reggae music would never die. People enjoyed the music so much that you knew it was going to last. "

Pierre Perrone

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