Spectropop remembers

DESMOND DEKKER (1941 - 2006)

Until Desmond Dekker hit the British and US charts in 1967, ska and reggae were obscure local beats, little known outside the Caribbean. With hits such as "007 (Shanty Town)", "Israelites" and "It Mek", Dekker put the rhythms of Jamaica on the world map. He also helped to launch a fashion craze in Britain, where young mods and later skinheads adopted elements of the "rudeboy" culture of Kingston's downtown ghettos to which he gave voice. His dominance as the best-known figure in Jamaican music only ended with the emergence of Bob Marley as an international star in the mid-1970s. By then Dekker was resident in Britain where he enjoyed iconic status among the immigrant Jamaican population. For a while he struggled to adapt to the new "roots reggae" sound emerging from Jamaica and the more militant school of Rastafarianism. But he enjoyed a second lease of life in the early 1980s with the ska/mod revival led by 2 Tone bands such as the Specials. He remained a perennially popular figure revered as a pioneering artist in reggae's history.

Born Desmond Adolphus Dacres in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1941, he was orphaned as a child and sent to grow up in the rural surroundings of Seaforth in the parish of St Thomas. By his mid-teens he was back in the Jamaican capital where he worked as a welder. At the time, the Jamaican music industry was in its nascent stages, and although he enjoyed singing, he had little thought of doing so professionally. Encouraged by the praise of workmates who heard him singing around the workshop and by the emergence of a growing number of record studios and labels as Jamaica shrugged off its colonial past and prepared for independence, in 1961 he auditioned for Coxsone Dodd at Studio One and Duke Reid at Treasure Isle. Both turned him down but, undeterred, he next tried his luck with Leslie Kong, owner of the Beverley's label.

Kong signed him but kept him waiting two years before recording him, demanding that he first write a hit song. Dekker eventually got to record in 1963 when Kong deemed that his "Honour Your Mother And Father" had hit potential. He was proven right when the song became the first of Dekker's 20 No 1s on the Jamaican chart and was picked up for British distribution by Chris Blackwell, the Jamaican-born, Harrow-educated future Island Records boss. A string of further local hits followed. Sung in his trademark falsetto, they included "Sinners Come Home", "Labour For Learning" and "Generosity". It was an exciting time in Jamaican music, and Dekker was at its cutting edge. Independence in 1962 had bestowed a new cultural confidence, expressed in the growth of ska, a mix of imported rhythm and blues and jazz elements, combined with such local forms as calypso and mento and characterised by a fast, metronomic tempo and a strongly accented offbeat.

In 1965 Dekker released a song called "King Of Ska", backed by the Maytals, that epitomised the new sound and as the song's title predicted, elevated him to stand alongside the music's biggest stars such as Derrick Morgan, Laurel Aitken and Prince Buster. His success allowed him to form his own vocal backing group, the Four Aces (Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Livingstone were working in similar style as the Wailers at the time), with whom he recorded further ska classics including "Get Up Adinah", "This Woman", "Mount Zion", "Jezebel" and "Rock Steady", a 1966 hit that took its title from the name of another variation on the distinctive ska beat.

By now, the rudeboy culture - which cultivated a love of lawless imagery drawn from gangster films - was in full swing in Kingston. Derrick Morgan was the first to sing about it, when he recorded "Cool Off Rudies" in late 1966. He followed early the next year with "Tougher Than Tough", with Dekker and his brother George singing backing vocals. Seeking a piece of the action himself, Dekker then wrote and recorded "007 (Shanty Town)", a rudeboy anthem that included not only references to James Bond but to the Frank Sinatra film Ocean's 11. Topping the Jamaican charts, the song also hit the mark in Britain where the rudeboy imagery was taken up by the mods. For six months the song was an underground club hit only, but by the summer of 1967 it crossed over to the mainstream and rose to number 15 in the charts.

Dekker toured Britain and followed with further songs celebrating the rudeboy lifestyle, including "Rudie Got Soul" and "Rude Boy Train". Neither enjoyed the success of "007", and ska music temporarily retreated back to its cult status among a hardcore mod following. But in 1968, he came up with "Israelites", which drew on biblical imagery to convey a wider contemporary message about people suffering in exile. The song topped the British charts. He was the first Jamaican artist to do so and he secured another first when the song made the American Top Ten. It was followed by another Top Ten hit, "It Mek". Other classic songs of the period that gave him hits in Jamaica, if not always in Britain, included "Problems", "Beautiful And Dangerous", "Shing A Ling", "Music Like Dirt" and "Writing On The Wall". But by 1970 Dekker's British success had persuaded him to move to the UK, where he lived for the rest of his life.

"You Can Get It If You Really Want", written by Jimmy Cliff and featured in the film The Harder They Come, in which Cliff played a rudeboy Jamaican gangster, took him to No 2 in the charts but, ironically, his relocation coincided with the British market losing interest in reggae. When it was revived by the success of Bob Marley and the Wailers, their heavier, roots reggae style only served to make Dekker sound somewhat old-fashioned. He was also affected by the death from a heart attack of his long-time Jamaican producer Kong, which left him directionless. Nevertheless, a reissue of "Israelites" made the Top Ten for a second time in 1975 and he followed with a minor hit, the pop-reggae number "Sing A Little Song".

Towards the end of the decade his career received a welcome fillip courtesy of the ska revival led by 2 Tone movement bands such as the Specials, Madness and the Selecter. On the strength of the renewed interest, he signed to the punk label Stiff, for which he recorded the wittily titled "Black & Dekker" album, which featured new versions of his old hits backed by the British pub-rockers, the Rumour. However, the album failed to sell, as did the follow-up "Compass Point", produced by Robert Palmer.

In 1984 Dekker was declared bankrupt, blaming his former manager for failing to pay him. A concert album, "Officially Live & Rare", appeared in 1987 and the use of a new version of "Israelites" in a TV advertisement in 1990 kept him in view. Three years later came the album "King Of Kings", recorded with members of the Specials and featuring covers of Dekker's favourite ska and reggae songs by other artists. The inspiration that had made his early recordings so vibrant had largely gone, but he remained a popular live act, and his legendary status is assured as a pioneer of the beat of a tiny island that took over the musical world.

(From The Times)

Desmond Adolphus Dacres (Desmond Dekker), singer and songwriter:
born July 16th, 1941 - died May 25th, 2006