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
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.