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Desmond Dekker

The man behind one of reggae’s most famous and instantly recognisable tracks, `Israelites’, DESMOND DEKKER (born Desmond Adolphus Dacres, 16 July 1941, Kingston, Jamaica) can be credited alongside BOB MARLEY in bringing about the genre’s global growth. Add this seminal ska classic to other Brit-hits `007 (Shanty Town)’, `It Miek’ (or `It Mek’) and `You Can Get It If You Really Want’, the run up to the 70s was just fine and dandy.
Curiously enough, DEKKER actually worked alongside MARLEY when he was an apprentice welder waiting for his big break. Impressed by his vocal talents, Desmond’s workmates encouraged him to audition for Kingston’s top producers. After being rejected by both Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid, he was taken under the wing of Derrick Morgan, the main man at Leslie Kong’s Beverley roster. As A&R man, Morgan made the decision as to when the singer was ready to cut his first single.
The great day finally came in 1963 with the release of `Honour Your Mother And Father’, a track that topped the Jamaican chart and established DEKKER as a clean-cut star. Follow-up hits `Parents’ and its flip-side `Labour Of Learning’ continued in a similarly virtuous mould, while the modestly titled `King Of Ska’ was at least mildly prophetic, with DEKKER going on to lift Jamaica’s annual Golden Trophy five times during the 60s.
Together with his talented vocal sidekicks The Aces and the much underrated Beverley’s house band, he continued to churn out the hits (e.g. `Get Up Edina’, the rasta influenced `Mount Zion’) even as ska gave way to rocksteady and the rise of the rude boys. In fact, DEKKER was to effect an abrupt volte-face with the release of 1967’s aforementioned `007 (Shanty Town)’, leaving his nice-boy image for dust as he forever cast the violent rude boy ethos in (vinyl) stone.
A wildly infectious classic that name-checked the likes of James Bond and Hollywood’s Ocean’s Eleven (the Rat-Pack version), the single climbed into the Top 20 and turned DEKKER into a figurehead for British mods and skinheads. The song also provided the title for his debut Doctor Bird-endorsed album, 007 SHANTY TOWN (1967) {*7}, which itself featured many of his subsequent hits including the similarly themed `Rudie Got Soul’ and `Rude Boy Train’. Other homeland hits from the period included `Wise Man’ (inspired by Haile Selassie’s visit to Jamaica), `Unity’, `Mother’s Young Gal’, `Beautiful And Dangerous’, `Sabotage’ and `Hey Grandma’, while parent LPs at the time, ACTION! (1968) {*6} and INTENSIFIED (1968) {*6} were also issued on Pyramid Records.
The best was yet to come, however, as DEKKER released the `Israelites’ to massive acclaim in November ‘68. As spiritually relevant and uplifting as `007…’ had been frenetic and addictive, the track’s haunting, otherworldly grace saw it claim the UK No.1 spot after steadily climbing the chart for five months. It also cracked the US Top 10, a feat previously unheard of for a Jamaican artist. All in all, this biblical parable sold in excess of a million copies worldwide and made DEKKER an international ambassador for reggae. It was a role he relished, scoring further hits including a UK Top 10 smash `It Miek’, the latter inspired by the antics of his wayward little sister. Confusingly, as with other reggae acts of the era, a couple of labels had control of the man’s output; 1969 unfolded two sets that clashed: Pyramid/Doctor Bird’s THE ISRAELITES {*7} – credited with The Aces (Wilson James, Easton Barrington Howard and Carl Hall) – and Trojan’s THIS IS DESMOND DEKKAR {*6}; the latter sleeve spelling his name incorrectly although a solo Top 30 entry nevertheless.
Up to this point, the majority of DEKKER’s output had been self-penned and he was reluctant to entertain any notions of recording a cover single. Following on from the attendant Top 50 `Pickney Gal’, Kong’s tenacity and perseverance paid off and the singer’s glorious reading of JIMMY CLIFF’s title track from the album YOU CAN GET IT IF YOU REALLY WANT (1970) {*7}, gave him another huge Jamaican and Brit smash in 1970. This classic paean to positivity was subsequently recorded by CLIFF himself (also a protege of Kong) for the soundtrack to The Harder They Come gangster flick, which effectively re-introduced Jamaican culture to Britain. Both artists were devastated by Kong’s early death in the summer of ‘71, especially DEKKER who had by this point relocated to England. He subsequently struggled to match his earlier successes and, save for a 1975 Top 10 hit with a re-issued `Israelites’, and a high-pitched Top 20 hit later that year in `Sing A Little Song’ (recorded as part of a session with British pop producers Tony Cousins and Marc Anthony), DEKKER languished in obscurity; the re-workings on ISRAELITES (1975) {*6} – on Cactus Records – a bit cheeky.
In an unlikely turn of events, DEKKER was lured back into the music business via a deal with indie label Stiff, as the ska-revival movement swept Britain at the turn of the decade. Augmented by pub-rock band The Rumour (known more for backing GRAHAM PARKER) and The Akrylykz (featuring a pre-FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS’ Roland Gift), the veteran star re-worked a clutch of his biggest hits in “2-Tone” style and released them as BLACK AND DEKKER (1980) {*6}. This was followed by the self-penned, ROBERT PALMER-produced COMPASS POINT (1981) {*2}, although the renewed enthusiasm for all things DEKKER didn’t translate into critical or commercial success. The singer filed for bankruptcy in 1984 amid claims that his management had withheld funds.
After a further extended period out of the spotlight, Trojan Records decided to record a night at Dingwell’s in London, and releasing it as a double-LP, OFFICIALLY LIVE AND RARE (1987) {*4}, with the rare studio addendum side comprising of six nuggets from his earliest days. 1990 brought another unexpected turn of events when DD’s career was again reinvigorated, this time by a Maxwell Tape TV ad based on the `Israelites’ song. Hooking up with his rocksteady crew, Brian Campbell (keyboards), Steve Roberts (guitar), Learoy Green (drums) and Spy – not Trevor Salmon – (bass), KING OF SKA (1991) {*5} reprised several of his Jamaican-only hits.
DEKKER duly hooked up with veteran 2-Tone combo The SPECIALS for the disappointing KING OF KINGS (1994) {*3}, an album of vintage Jamaican covers including JIMMY CLIFF’s title track, which failed to live up to its promise.
1996’s MOVING ON {*3} and 2000’s HALFWAY TO PARADISE {*5} were similarly underwhelming, the surfeit of retrospectives on the market only underlining the weakness of the modern material. The latter, though much settled and improved, saw out re-treads of the Goffin-King title track and HARRY BELAFONTE ditties `Daylight Come’ and `Island In The Sun’.
Even if never recording another note, DEKKER would’ve remained an iconic figure in the history of Jamaican music. His extensive musical legacy, meanwhile, was testament to his genius as both a pioneer and a populariser. Sadly, he died on 25th May 2006 in Thornton Heath, Surrey.
Released by producer Delroy Williams a matter of months after Desmond’s death, …IN MEMORIAM 1941-2006 {*7} featured re-recordings from early 2004 of his once classic hits. Augmented by Steve L. Roberts, Learoy Green, Michael Rose, Eddy Thornton and Aubrey Mulrain, `007 (Shanty Town)’, `Israelites’, `It Mek’ et al proved just how poignant DEKKER was to the world of pop music. R.I.P. = Reggae In Peace.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/BG // rev-up MCS Apr2015-Dec2019

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