26 May, 2006
Desmond Dekker, the first Jamaican pop act to score a major hit in the UK, has died.
The singer died of a heart attack in London on Wednesday night. Dekker was 64 years old.
Born Desmond Adolphus Dacres in Kingston, on July 16, 1941, Dekker and his backing group the Aces (consisting of Wilson James and Easton Barrington Howard), had the first international Jamaican hit with Israelites. Other hits include 007 (Shanty Town), from 1967, and It Mek (1969).
Orphaned as a teenager, Dekker began working as a welder, singing around his workplace while his coworkers encouraged him. In 1961, he auditioned for the late Coxsone Dodd at Studio One and Dodd’s archrival, Duke Reid at Treasure Isle. Neither was impressed by his talents, and Dekker moved on to Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s label, where he auditioned before Derrick Morgan. With Morgan’s support, Dekker was signed but did not record until 1963, because Kong was reportedly waiting for the perfect song. That came in the form of Dekker’s Honour Your Father And Mother.
The song was a hit and Dekker followed up with Sinners Come Home and Labour for Learning. It was at this time that he changed his surname from Dacres to Dekker.
His next hit, King of Ska, on which he was backed by the The Cherrypies (also known as The Maytals), became one of his early signature tunes and remains well-known among ska fans.
Until 1967, Dekker’s songs, including Parents, Get Up Edina, This Woman and Mount Zion. were polite and conveyed mainstream messages. In that year, however, he appeared on Morgan’s Tougher Than Tough, which marked the beginning of the rude boy craze. Dekker’s own songs did not go to the extremes of many other popular tunes, though he did introduce lyrics which resonated with the rude boys, starting with the aforementioned 007 (Shanty Town). The song established Dekker as a rude boy icon, and helped him become a leading figure in the British mod scene.
Dekker continued with songs in the same vein, such as Rude Boy Train and Rudie Got Soul, as well as continuing with his previous themes of religion and morality in songs like It’s a Shame, Wise Man, Unity, It Pays, and Sabotage. His Pretty Africa is among the earliest popular songs to promote repatriation.
Israelites, released in 1968, appeared on both the US and UK charts, eventually topping the latter and peaking in the Top Ten of the former. He was the first Jamaican performer to enter US markets with pure Jamaican music, but he never managed to repeat in the US. That same year saw the release of Beautiful And Dangerous, Writing On The Wall, the Jamaica Festival song winner Intensified [Music Like Dirt], Bongo Girl and Shing a Ling.
At the end of the 1970s, Dekker signed with Stiff Records, a punk label linked with the Two-Tone movement, a fusion of punk and ska. He recorded an album called Black & Dekker, which featured his previous hits backed by The Rumour, Graham Parker’s backing band. Dekker’s next album was Compass Point, produced by Robert Palmer. Though that album did not sell well, Dekker remained a popular live performer, and he toured with The Rumour.
Only a live album was released in the late 80s, but a new version of Israelites reawakened public interest in 1990, following its use in a commercial for the audio recording products maker Maxell and on the soundtrack for the 1989 movie Drugstore Cowboy. He re-recorded some old singles, and worked with The Specials for 1992’s King of Kings, which used hits from Dekker’s musical heroes, including Derrick Morgan.