Ska singer, songwriter
Revered by many as the "King of Ska" and as a seminal figure of roots reggae, singer Desmond Dekker is one of the most popular figures in Jamaican music. During a recording career that has spanned four decades, Dekker's rich musical legacy includes being the first Jamaican singer to break down the cultural barrier and bring Jamaican music to worldwide audiences.
Dekker was born Desmond Adolphus Dacres on July 16, 1942 (some accounts of the year vary), in Kingston, Jamaica. His early years were spent on a farm where gospel music and the church were an important part of his upbringing. By his early teens, both of his parents had died and he was forced to seek work in the capital as a welding apprentice. The sparks flew in more ways than one: impressed by his casual singing around the workshop, his co-workers pushed him to audition for a recording gig. One of those co-workers was legendary musician Bob Marley.
As a young man, Dekker found inspiration in American music like jazz and R&B. "If I want to relax, I wouldn't really play my music, or reggae music," he told the London Times. "I like to listen to songs that inspired me before I started singing: Nat King Cole, Satchmo [Louis Armstrong], a little jazz. The first time I heard Cole he had me in a kind of trance. When I listened to Stardust I didn't know what day it was, what time it was. That's one of the things that keeps me going."
After unsuccessful auditions at Studio One and Treasure Isle in 1961, Dekker tried his luck with Leslie Kong, the Chinese-Jamaican head of the Beverly recording studio and record label. Fortunately for Dekker, the audition was heard by ska pioneer Derrick Morgan, who instantly saw that the young man had a future in music. Singing talent, however, was only half of the equation: Kong would not let the young artist record until he could prove himself a songwriter as well. After a two-year wait, Kong let Dekker into his studio to cut "Honor Your Father and Mother" in 1963. The debut song soon topped the Jamaican charts. Further hits like "Sinners Come Home" did little to hurt what some might call Dekker's wholesome image early in his career. The release that firmly placed him in the limelight, however, was "King of Ska," a boisterous and high-powered song that became a classic of the genre.
By year's end, Dekker had a backup band. The Aces, formed by four brothers (Barry, Patrick, Clive and Carl Howard), gave Dekker many hit ska singles. Dekker did more than excel at a genre. Working with Kong, he was among the pioneers of a new form of music called rocksteady—a sort of slower-tempo ska that was the precursor to reggae.
In 1967 Dekker made a sharp departure from the more wholesome songs of his early years to embrace a musical repertoire that included the Jamaican "rude boy" subculture of the 1960s. Rising from among the alienated youth of Kingston's poorest neighborhoods, "rude boy" culture was inextricably associated with politically influenced gang violence and a heightened sense of urban chic (stylish suits and porkpie hats), all backed by a musical soundtrack of ska and rocksteady. If high-energy ska reflected the optimism and aspirations of a newly independent Jamaica (the country won independence from the United Kingdom in 1962), rocksteady represented a darker view from the disenfranchised. Songs like "007: (Shanty Town)," "Warlock," and "Rude Boy Train" were among some of Dekker's greatest hits.
During this same period in the 1960s, rude boy culture was accompanying Jamaican emigrants to the United Kingdom, where it had a profound influence on early skinhead culture. Already a superstar at home (his song "Music Like Dirt" won the 1968 Jamaican Festival Song Competition), Dekker found firm footing in the United Kingdom, where British mods embraced him as a brother. In 1968, he released the song "Israelites." After going somewhat unnoticed for many months, the song eventually caught on, jumping to number one on the British charts. It also hit the American charts, making it the first genuinely Jamaican song to break into the heretofore virtually impermeable American market. "Get up in the morning, slaving for bread, sir, so that every mouth can be fed. Poor me, the Israelite. Aah," starts Dekker's signature tune. "Shirt them a-tear up, trousers are gone. I don't want to end up like Bonnie and Clyde. Poor me, the Israelite. Aah."
Around 1970, Dekker settled in the United Kingdom. Success in his adopted homeland, however, had begun to wane. Leslie Kong, the only producer he had ever known, died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1971. Devastated, Dekker had a difficult time finding direction on his own. He eventually began recording again, but was unable to rekindle the success he had known in the U.K. market.
Dekker's career has been marked by many ups and downs, going from the top of the charts to relative obscurity and back again. With the punk explosion and skinhead revival in the United Kingdom of the 1970s, Dekker enjoyed newfound recognition. While one branch of skinheads had embraced punk bands like Sham 69, another sought out its reggae roots. Rising from a milieu of Jamaican immigrants, punks and working class rockers, the 2 Tone (Two Tone) movement fused punk and ska music, and made Desmond Dekker a part of it. From 1980–83, Dekker was signed with the punk label Stiff Records. His official debut album, Black & Dekker, featured re-recordings of his past hits backed up by the British rock group The Rumour. As the 2 Tone phenomenon diminished, so did Dekker's star. Reportedly the result of ineffective management and unpaid royalties, Dekker was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1984.
While Dekker's commercial successes were few and far between after his heyday in the late 1960s, he remained in demand as a touring musician. His musical legacy was such that record companies continued to re-release his older creations to keep his body of work available to the public. After 40 years of recording, he held a matter-of-fact view of his role as a musician. "I just write what I see and hear happen and I present that to the people if they weren't there to let them know what was happening," Dekker stated in 2002.
In 2005 Dekker released You Can Get It If You Really Want, a comprehensive 59-track anthology featuring not only ska, but also calypso, gospel, and soul. Moreover, younger artists continued to cover his old hits. Dekker was reportedly collaborating with crossover artist Apache Indian on a new version of "Israelites." Following a tour of the United Kingdom and the United States in the spring, Dekker and the Aces were scheduled to appear at several more European festivals that year.
For the Record …
Born on July 19, 1942, in Kingston, Jamaica; orphaned early in life; children: two.
Singer, songwriter, 1963–; career began in 1963 with the song "Honor Your Father and Mother," followed by hit singles, including his signature song "King of Ska"; released chart-topper "Israelites" (1968); career saw resurgence with 1980 release of Black & Dekker; has continued to record, perform and re-release songs throughout career.
Awards: Jamaican Festival Song Competition, winner, for "Music Like Dirt," 1968.
Addresses: Record company—Trojan Records, Sanctuary House, 45-53 Sinclair Rd., London W14 0NS, United Kingdom, website: http://www.trojan-records.com/. Website—Desmond Dekker Official Website: http://www.desmonddekker.com.
This Is, Trojan, 1969.
You Can Get It, Trojan, 1970.
Black & Dekker, Stiff, 1980.
King of Ska, Varese, 1991.
You Can Get It If You Really Want, Trojan, 2005.
Birmingham Post, June 14, 2005.
News & Star, September 8, 2005.
Times (London, England), April 8, 2005.
"Desmond Dekker," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 10, 2005).
Desmond Dekker Official Website, http://www.desmonddekker.com (September 10, 2005).
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