Reggae pioneer: Desmond Dekker

Garry Steckles remembers the late Desmond Dekker, the man who introduced Jamaican music to an international audience

Courtesy Urbanimage.tvDesmond Dekker performing in London in 1985. Photograph by David Corio

Desmond Dekker, 16 July, 1941–25 May, 2006

Desmond Dekker rarely got full credit for his greatest achievement: introducing an international audience to Jamaican music. Dekker, whose recent death robbed the Caribbean of another of its music legends, was turning out chart hits in Europe and North America long before anyone outside the region had heard of Bob Marley and the Wailers, long before the soundtrack of the Jamaican movie The Harder They Come became an overnight sensation among hip young music fans around the world. That all happened around 1972 and ’73. Desmond Dekker had already been there, done that.

“Israelites”, the biggest hit of a career that spanned five decades, had roared to the top of the UK charts in 1969, and Dekker started appearing on the trend-setting British television shows Top of the Pops and Ready, Steady, Go, whose other regulars included groups like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Who.

I still have vivid memories of the first time I saw him perform. For anyone under the age of thirty in the UK, the BBC’s Top of the Pops was required weekly viewing, and, as the institution was financed entirely by the British taxpayer, it had the resources to fly just about any act who’d made it big in the charts into London to perform a single number on the show. And they brought in Desmond Dekker, live and direct from Kingston, Jamaica, to perform “Israelites”.

His appearance on Top of the Pops was mesmerising. He was wearing a rude boy’s Sunday best, crowned by the snazziest of hats — a barely-there “stingy brim” that seemed to defy gravity simply by staying on his head. And he performed like no artist I’d ever seen, bringing the latest Jamaican sound system dance moves to a TV audience most of whom — myself included — had no idea there was such a thing as a Jamaican sound system.

Like many others in Britain, I’d been hooked on “Israelites” from the first time I heard it. I loved everything about the song — the chugging rhythms of a new music people were calling reggae, the intriguing lyrics (it would be years before I realised they were about Jamaica’s ghetto “sufferahs”), and, most of all, Dekker’s piercing, unmistakable falsetto.

Dekker had been a star in Jamaica for years before he burst on the international scene. His career went back to the early 1960s, an era dominated by a new and uniquely Jamaican form of music that had been created in 1959. It was called ska, and it was the music Jamaica danced to, with Dekker and his contemporaries — up-and-coming young artists like Jimmy Cliff, Toots and the Maytals, Justin Hinds, and Bob Marley — dominating the charts. It was also hugely popular in England, where rebellious youngsters known as “skinheads” adopted ska as their music of choice — which was not without its irony, as the majority of skinheads were overtly and often violently racist.

Desmond Dekker was born Desmond Dacres in Kingston in 1941, and, after being orphaned as a child, was sent to live in a rural town called Seaforth in the eastern parish of St Thomas. Like thousands of youngsters from “country”, he was lured by the prospect of a better life in the capital, and he returned to Kingston in his mid-teens.

At first, he worked in a welding yard just off Waltham Park Road, where co-workers who heard him singing encouraged him to try his luck in the island’s emerging recording industry. He was turned down by two of Kingston’s top producers of the era, Clement “Sir Coxsone” Dodd and Duke Reid — a rare error of judgment on their parts. Next he turned to Leslie Kong, who produced Dekker’s first record — a 45-rpm single called “Honour Your Mother and Father”.

It was around that time that Dekker befriended another talented youngster at the welding yard who also loved to sing, and he introduced his new friend — Robert Nesta Marley — to Kong. Impressed by what he heard at the impromptu audition, the producer gave Marley his first recording opportunity with a single called “Judge Not” — which was nowhere near as successful as Dekker’s “Honour Your Mother and Father”.

Dekker had a string of hits in the ska era, and, unlike some ska performers, had no problems in changing his tempo and his style when rocksteady, a considerably slower and heavier musical cousin, took over in 1966. The following year, Dekker recorded his first major international hit. The song was called “007 (Shanty Town)”, a rude-boy anthem that soared to the top of the local charts and had considerable success in Britain, where it peaked at number fifteen on the mainstream pop charts. A few years later, it would be included in the landmark soundtrack to The Harder They Come.

With rocksteady giving way in turn to a tougher, slightly faster beat called reggae, 1969 brought the song that would be the biggest hit of Dekker’s career, “Israelites”. It rocketed to the top of the UK charts, and also made the top ten in the United States. Desmond Dekker, as they say in Jamaica, had gone “outernational” — and, in doing so, he paved the way for the scores of reggae performers, including Bob Marley, who were to take the music to new heights in the years and decades to come.

Dekker had another big hit immediately after “Israelites”. It was called “It Mek”, and once again the lyrics — it was about his younger sister — were a mystery to many of the people who bought it. But enough of them did buy it to give Dekker his second consecutive top ten hit, even if wasn’t quite as successful as “Israelites”. Dekker’s career in Jamaica started to slow down as the 60s ended and roots reggae began its ascent. His up-tempo style had become a touch passé for the island’s record-buying public. But he was still hugely popular in the UK, and in 1970 he decided to move to England. He lived there for the rest of his life.

Dekker’s career in the pop fast-lane was effectively over, although a reissue of “The Israelites” made the UK top ten for a second time in 1975. Always a dynamic live performer, he remained an attraction on the club circuit and in considerable demand for festivals, particularly in Europe, right up to his death on 25 May of a heart attack. He was 64. His last performance had been before a university audience in Leeds on 11 May, and the day before his death he’d signed to headline the prestigious Coventry Godiva Festival.