Bob Marley might have been reggae’s international icon, taking the music to an entirely new level. But long before he made an impact abroad, Desmond Dekker was the man who helped make reggae (and rocksteady and ska) into a global sound. With hits like “Israelites,” “A It Mek” and “007 (Shanty Town),” his unmistakable high voice helped turn the world on to the new sound of Jamaica in stunning fashion, charting in many countries.
Born in Kingston on July 16, 1943, Desmond Dacres was part of a musical family—his brother George was in the Pioneers, while sister Pauline enjoyed an island hit dueting with Derrick Morgan on “You Never Miss Your Water.” Desmond grew up singing in church, but whatever plans he had were sidelined when his parents died. Orphaned in his early teens, he apprenticed as a welder. His workmates encouraged his vocal talents, and in 1961 Desmond made the round of the big producers like Coxsone Dodd and Duke Reid, but with no success.
He tried again, this time with Leslie Kong, who was enjoying a great deal of success with Morgan and the Beverley’s label.
This time it clicked, although Kong was in no rush to get the young man—renamed Dekker for recording—into the studio. He needed the right song. Morgan took him under his wing for grooming.
“I ’ave Desmond Dekker in a Beverley’s fi two years straight before ’im sing a tune,” Morgan recalled. “Me an’ the man eat, we cook together, everyt’ing, but ’im never ’ave no tune.”
That changed in 1963, with the release of “Honour Your Father And Your Mother.” That was the first of a series of songs which cast Dekker as the good boy, as opposed to the wilder “rude boys” who were emerging in Jamaica. He even tried an early Rasta piece with “Mount Zion”; all the songs were hits,
It was really only in late 1966, when rocksteady was the craze, that Dekker found his grooves. Backed by the Aces, he released “007 (Shanty Town),” which piggybacked not only on the rude boy associations, but also the rhythm and the fascination with James Bond. It was an instant hit, and Dekker’s reputation changed, from the respectful man to the rudest of the rude.
Irresistible, it also hit number 12 in Britain, prompting Dekker’s first tour there. He continued to release
Israelites: The Best Of Desmond Dekker (Sanctuary/Trojan, 2002)
It has all the hits, plus plenty of material that’s not so well-known outside Jamaica. For anyone seeking an overview of what Dekker’s done—and you’re certain to know at least some of the songs here—this is a fine place to begin.
Rudy Got Soul: The Complete Early Years 1963-1968 (Sanctuary/Trojan, 2003)
Inevitably there’s some overlap with the best-of collection, but this does more than sketch in the period before Dekker was an international star. A very worthwhile insight into ska, rocksteady and early reggae.
King Of Kings (Sanctuary/Trojan, 1995)
This album featuring Dekker with the Specials is worth having for the selection of covers of pieces by Dekker’s Jamaican heroes, including his mentor, Derrick Morgan. While not the best of any of the musicians concerned, it does stand up to repeated listenings.
Black And Dekker/Compass Point (Castle, 1994, out of print)
More for aficionados than anything, this brings together the two discs Dekker made for Stiff at the beginning of the 1980s. The first works better than the second, although neither is on a par with what he achieved at his peak.