Desmond Dekker

Biography  (16 July 1941 – 25 May 2006)

Desmond Dekker (16 July 1941 – 25 May 2006) was a Jamaican ska, rocksteady and reggae singer-songwriter and musician. Together with his backing group, The Aces (consisting of Wilson James and Easton Barrington Howard), he had one of the first international Jamaican hits with “Israelites”. Other hits include “007 (Shanty Town)” (1967) and “It Miek” (1969). Before the ascent of Bob Marley, Dekker was one of the most popular musicians within Jamaica, and one of the best-known musicians outside it

He was born Desmond Adolphus Dacres in St. Andrew, Jamaica and grew up in Kingston, where he attended the Alpha Boys’ School. After his mother took ill and died, his father moved him to St. Mary, and then to St. Thomas, where he apprenticed as a tailor before returning to Kingston and taking a job as a welder, singing around his workplace while his co-workers encouraged him. In 1961 he auditioned for Coxsone Dodd (Studio One) and Duke Reid (Treasure Isle). Neither was impressed by his talents, and the young man moved on to Leslie Kong’s Beverley’s record label, where he auditioned before Derrick Morgan, then the label’s biggest star.

With Morgan’s support, Dekker was signed but did not record until 1963 because Kong wanted to wait for the perfect song, which “Honour Your Mother and Father” was felt to be. “Honour Your Mother and Father” was a hit and was followed by “Sinners Come Home” and “Labour for Learning”, and at this time Desmond Dacres became Desmond Dekker. His fourth hit made him into one of the island’s biggest stars. It was “King of Ska”, a rowdy and jubilant song on which Dekker was backed by The Cherrypies (also known as The Maytals). Dekker then recruited four brothers, Carl, Patrick, Clive and Barry who became his backing band, The Four Aces.

Dekker and the Howards recorded a number of hits including “Parents”, “Get Up Edina”, “This Woman” and “Mount Zion”. Until 1967 Dekker’s songs were polite and conveyed respectable, mainstream messages. In that year, however, he appeared on Derrick Morgan’s “Tougher Than Tough”, which helped begin a trend of popular songs glamorizing the violent rude boy culture. Dekker’s own songs did not go to the extremes of many other popular tunes, though he did introduce lyrics that resonated with the rude boys starting with one of his best-known songs, “007 (Shanty Town)”. The song established Dekker as a rude boy icon and he also became an established hero in the United Kingdom’s mod scene.”007 (Shanty Town)” was a Top 15 hit in the UK, and Dekker toured that country with a posse of mods following him.

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”, “Hey Grandma”, “Unity”, “If It Pays”, “Mother’s Young Girl” and “Sabotage”. His “Pretty Africa” is a long-standing favourite among his fans and may be the earliest popular song promoting repatriation. Many of the hits from this era came from his debut album, 007 (Shanty Town).

In 1968 Dekker’s “Israelites” was released, eventually topping the UK Singles Chart (the first reggae hit to do so) and peaking in the Top Ten of the US Billboard Hot 100. Dekker was the first Jamaican artist to have a hit record in the US with a form and style that was purely Jamaican, though he never repeated the feat. That same year saw the release of “Beautiful and Dangerous”, “Writing on the Wall”, “Music Like Dirt” (which won the Festival Song Contest), “Bongo Girl” and “Shing a Ling”. Also in 1968, he was referenced by The Beatles in the ska-influenced, Paul McCartney penned song, “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” (from The White Album) starting with the lyric: – “Desmond has a barrow in the market-place”.

1969 saw the release of “It Mek”, which first had only lukewarm success but was re-recorded and then became a hit both in Jamaica and the UK. Dekker also released “Problems” and “Pickney Gal”, both of which were popular in Jamaica but had only limited success elsewhere.

In the 1970s Dekker spent most of his time touring and moved to the UK, where he continued to record. Among his best known releases of this period was “You Can Get It If You Really Want”, written by Jimmy Cliff. Dekker had not wanted to record it but was persuaded by Leslie Kong. Dekker’s version uses the same instrumental backing track as Cliff’s original. Kong, whose production had been a crucial part of both Dekker’s and Cliff’s careers, died in 1971, and so both of his protegés lost direction for a period before returning to music.

Dekker continued recording, but with only limited success until he began working with the production duo Bruce Anthony in 1974. His first hit with the pair was 1975’s UK top 20 hit “Sing a Little Song”. After the UK top ten re-charting of “Israelites” in 1975, Dekker did not chart in the UK again for some time. Dekker also found only a limited audience in Jamaica.

At the end of the 1970s, Dekker signed with Stiff Records, a punk label linked with the 2 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 and the Akrylykz (featuring Roland Gift, later of the Fine Young Cannibals). “Israelites” became the first hit and a Top Ten Belgian hit and was followed by “Please Don’t Bend”, Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” and “Book of Rules”. His next album was Compass Point, produced by Robert Palmer. Though it did not sell well, Dekker was still a popular live performer and toured with The Rumour.

In the early 1980s, as the 2 Tone movement died out, he saw his fortunes dwindle and he was declared bankrupt in 1984. Only a single live album was released in the late 80s, but a new version of “Israelites” reawakened public interest in 1990, following its use in a Maxell advertisement. 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. He also collaborated on a remix version of “Israelites” with reggae artist Apache Indian.

Dekker died of a heart attack on 25 May 2006, at his home in Thornton Heath in the London Borough of Croydon, England, aged 64. He was preparing to headline a world music festival in Prague. Dekker was divorced and is survived by a son and a daughter.

The Aces – The current line up for Dekker’s backing band, who are still performing tribute concerts includes:

  • Delroy Williams – Backing Vocals / M.C.
  • Gordon Mulrain- Bass guitarist and session musician. Mulrain is also known as music producer ‘Innerheart’ and co-founder of British record label Ambiel Music.
  • Aubrey Mulrain – Keyboard player and session musician.
  • Steve Roberts – Guitarist and session musician, also a member of the British band Dubzone.
  • Leroy Green – Drums and session musician.
  • Stan Samuel – Guitarist and session musician
  • Charles Nelson – Keyboard player and session musician.

This particular line-up also recorded with Dekker on some of his later studio sessions in the 1990s.

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